Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Unburnable Female Operative

The female covert operative: the very idea evokes smoky, black-and-white images of leggy, Cold-War Soviet spies laying (forgive the pun) the perfect honey trap for unwitting Western journalists, diplomats, and men who wield power, influence, or (most importantly) information.

 Phillip Knightley explodes a few “honey trap” myths in this article for Foreign Policy Magazine, titled: "The History of the Honey Trap." And in this piece for the Times Online, British journalist Jon Swain describes his romance with a beautiful “Mossad Mata Hari” posing as a photojournalist.

Mostly, these anecdotes reveal a simple truth. The honey trap often comes to naught: sex or romance exchanged for useless information, if any at all; failed schemes to ensnare, compromise, and blackmail powerful men (and sometimes women).

And from the point of view of the private investigator, what’s the use of it? Considering how many of our cases have to do with domestic relationships, how would a honey trap work, exactly? The word “entrapment” immediately springs to mind.

Which leads to the point of this article: why waste a female operative’s unique skills by merely exploiting her sexuality? 

“In most of the world, women in law-enforcement or security are considered non-players,” says Agent X, a 20-year veteran of the trade who has worked internationally. “It’s just a mindset. That’s why it’s often so much easier for women to do surveillance.”

Agent X points out that because such a small percentage of law-enforcement and security personnel are female, women can often disappear into the environment in ways men might not be able to. A man walking a dog in a neighborhood at night might arouse suspicion, for example. “But a woman in that situation is perceived as non-threatening,” he says. “It’s not uncommon to see a woman walking a dog or pushing a carriage…and she’s able to get closer to targets that way.”

The same goes for surveillance at a bar or restaurant. “It’s easier for a man-woman surveillance team or a single woman to sit in a bar and watch (without arousing suspicion) than for a man to sit alone,” says Agent X.

“Women just aren’t seen. They're invisible,” he adds, at least, from the point of view of targets keeping an eye out for tails. “Because they’re not ‘classical’ authority figures.”

Agent X admits, this approach plays to the stereotypes about men’s and women’s traditional roles in society. But when it comes to surveillance, playing to stereotypes works. Would you wear a polo shirt and khakis while infiltrating a biker bar? What about a country club?

When it comes to disappearing into the background and quietly gathering information, it’s all about perception, playing to what people expect to see. “If you’re a female with a stroller, a dog, a leash, or a baby seat in your car, there’s nowhere you can’t go,” he says. “Think about it: a guy walks around looking in my yard - suspicious, right?  He’d better have on a gas company vest. But a woman out there with a leash calling a lost dog? Who’s not gonna come out and help her look for it?

“A female just has so many advantages,” says Agent X. Especially as part of a man-woman team. “If somebody’s engaged at the front door with some stupid dog story, somebody else can be in back doing a trash pickup.

“Pack a baby seat, stroller, and leash in your car,” he advises female investigators. “Then have a bag ready with a jacket, shorts, sweat pants, sneakers, pumps, and a couple of different shirts.” In two minutes, he says, a female can easily dress up or down, go into character, walk in anywhere, and fit in, from a gym to a nightclub. “Boom, you’re done,” he says. “You’re unburnable.”

And the purse-cam is rolling.

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