Covert operatorsThe intention of this two-part article is to give some tips and suggestions for covert operators and to point out some of the more common, and therefore predictable – and therefore detectable – indicators and mistakes that many operators tend to make. These indicators and mistakes apply to most types of covert operations, from hostile surveillance to surveillance detection, covert security and protective surveillance. This article will therefore cover many of the problems and mistakes you will want to look for in others, while avoiding yourself. Though these insights come from my own operational and instructional experience, I want to make it clear that I am in no way an absolute authority on the subject (mostly because there is no such thing).

Cover and cover story

Let us go over the basics first. A cover is the visual projection of what a covert operator wants people to see, and therefore think of him/her. For example, if you want people to think you are a homeless person, you dress and look the part, so that even from a distance anyone looking your way should conclude – just by sight – that you are a homeless person. A cover story, as its name suggests, is the verbal representation of your cover. In other words, what and how you might have to verbally explain who you are and/or what you are doing. For obvious reasons, the cover story has to fit, and even strengthen, the cover, otherwise it would seem suspicious or curious if the person who looks homeless, for example, talks like a law enforcement officer.

One of the keys to the cover/cover story dynamic is to always start with a good cover, and then work your way towards a good cover story. This order is important because the main idea is to visually embed yourself into the environment in such a bland and boring way that no one ever pays any attention to you, much less tries to question or talk to you. A common mistake I have seen many people make when trying to establish a cover is to invest too much energy in appearing as harmless as they can, while forgetting that a cover that is interesting, fun or attractive is almost always a bad one, since it fails the boring test.

I have also seen many people spin elaborate stories about what their cover story is, and then fail to fit a boring enough cover to go with it. Again, start with a cover – make it boring – and then add a cover story to it. As for the cover story itself, keep it simple, try to keep it within the boundaries of things you actually know from experience (so you can talk about it naturally and even elaborate, if – and only if – you are asked to do so), while staying far enough away from information that can actually lead to who you really are. Do not volunteer too many details, and keep it bland and boring so that the person you are talking to will forget you as soon as he/she walks away.

Posture and movement

There is a celebrated quote by Winston Churchill who, after being asked to what he attributed his success in life, answered, “Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” This little tongue-in-cheek answer does actually make a good point when applied to covert operations. In most cases, movement attracts more attention than non-movement; standing attracts more attention than sitting. Bland and lazy are your best friends here.

In my experience, most people who gravitate towards covert operations tend to have backgrounds in military, law enforcement, security or all of the above. The reason why I mention this is because serious people with these types of backgrounds naturally move and posture themselves in ways that are the opposite of bland and lazy. For the exact same reasons that standing and moving around are good military, law enforcement and security habits (allowing the officer to project more of a deterring presence, while extending visual control), they are bad habits for covert operations. The tendency to maintain a command presence, and to want to visually control your environment, will usually make you stick out; as will any sudden movements, abrupt stops and quick head turns. At the very least, these actions will make you look interesting, suggesting that there is something going on. As a covert operator, you should want the exact opposite – bland, lazy and boring. You should also keep in mind that it will be difficult to look bland and lazy if you do not look comfortable. And since it is hard to look comfortable if you are not, make sure you actually get physically comfortable. A person that is physically uncomfortable probably looks uncomfortable, and looking uncomfortable can attract interest, curiosity and suspicion.

As for looking boring, another useful expression here is, “If you’re bored, you’re boring.” Sit down, calm down, get comfortable and try to get bored. Which leads us to the next point.


The two main advantages that sitting down will give you are a less noticeable appearance, combined with the ability to see and notice more yourself. That sitting will make you less noticeable was already mentioned in the category above, but I cannot tell you how many times I have heard myself repeat this simple instruction during trainings. And though it might seem strange that such a basic idea would be so difficult to follow, this is precisely why field exercises are so crucial – to show you that simple ideas in theory feel very different and are much more difficult in practice. There are relatively few reasons for being in a fixed position without sitting down, and most of those reasons not only fail the boring cover test, but keep you from being as observant as you could otherwise be. Find somewhere to sit down, get comfortable and relax.

No changing fixed positions

So you sat down. Great. Now, stay there! It is often the case that only after you have already assumed a vantage point (hopefully sitting down), you notice an even better vantage point you could have picked. There is nothing ironic about this – you will always be able to see and understand more after you stop moving and sit down (which is one of the main reasons you sit down in the first place). But as tempting as it is to move to that other position, do not do it. There might be many legitimate reasons for normal people to move from one nearby spot to another, but even in the best-case scenario, doing this will make you stick out more than if you just stay at your original spot, and in the worst-case scenario, your movement from one vantage point to a better one will be picked up as a classic surveillance indicator/mistake by someone who knows what to look for. You have made your bed, now lie in it. Next time, try to find the better vantage point to begin with, but for now – stay put.

The bus stop

This one comes up a lot. You get to a new location and quickly look for a good vantage point. As is often the case in urban areas, a bus stop just so happens to be perfectly positioned for this. It even has a number of people standing and sitting there – all the better for you to blend into. Good vantage point, right? Wrong! Or at least almost always wrong (there are some exceptions, as usual).

Bus stops do indeed provide a logical justification for standing (or hopefully sitting) in very central locations, but this justification only makes sense if the bus stop is used for its intended purpose – to get on a bus. Using this vantage point for an extended period of time will not make sense because everyone else in the bus stop will eventually get on a bus, leaving the covert operator looking out of place. You might be able to justify a good 20–30 minutes at a bus stop, but eventually you will have to board one of the buses that stops there.

The same principle applies when conducting mobile surveillance on foot. It is important to keep in mind that mobile surveillance will almost always contain stops, many of which will be short ones (traffic lights and so on). Blending into a small group of people standing at a bus stop for some 30–40 seconds until the target starts moving again might seem very inviting, but, once again, remember, there is only one logical justification for standing at a bus stop – getting on a bus. Either spending a long period of time at a bus stop, or walking away from a bus stop without having boarded a bus, can get you detected by someone who knows what to look for.

Finally, if you absolutely have to use a bus stop (for a relatively short amount of time, until you actually get on a bus), pay attention to where the bus is coming from. The other people at the bus stop will almost always look that way, and you do not want to enact the old surveillance cliché of the single person looking the wrong way.

Working with others

From my experience, when most people consider what a covert operator might look like, they tend to think of a single individual (usually male). When instructing a surveillance detection (SD) course, it usually takes trainees a few days to come up with the idea that it might be beneficial to work in pairs (or even groups in some cases) – and indeed it is. The archetypal covert operator is the lone male, and this should give you all the more reason to try to work together with someone if possible and appropriate. Few things are more innocuous looking than a man and a woman sitting together in a coffee shop or walking down the street. What are the man and the woman doing over there? They are sitting and talking, right? Moreover, a couple can often take this innocuous appearance with them from one location to another, pretty much bringing their own self-generated covers with them.

Yet another obvious advantage that working together can provide is teamwork. Two people can sit facing each other, for example, pretending to have a casual conversation, as one is focusing on the target and describing what he sees and the other (the one who is facing away from the target) is jotting down the information.

Now that we have covered the advantages of working together, let us consider what might get you in trouble. Perhaps the main thing to avoid is any type of meeting or splitting up. If you come alone, you leave alone, and if you come together, you leave together. Watching people meet up or split up is much more interesting/memorable than seeing people arrive together and leave together. The absolute worst thing you could do – a classic mistake – is arrive in the area together and then split up to take different positions.

Coffee shops

You have probably noticed how often coffee shops come up when I discuss covert operations. This is because coffee shops often provide some of the best vantage points. For starters, there are quite a few of them around, and they tend to be even more prevalent in many areas that might be of special interest to potential surveillance entities. Part of what makes coffee shops so ideal for surveillance and SD is that, unlike most other businesses, they will let you spend pretty much all day in them, more or less unharassed. The closest thing to a coffee shop situation might be a restaurant, but those usually have servers who will keep checking on you, and who will eventually expect you to pay for your meal and go on your way.

As an aside, if you must take position in a restaurant (maybe in order to closely surveil a target that is having a meal there), make sure to pay for your meal as soon as it arrives. You will not want to frantically wave over your server for the bill if your target begins to leave unexpectedly. Conversely – from the SD or protective surveillance perspective – look out for restaurant patrons who pay for their meals as soon as they get them.

Part two of this article in the next issue of Security Solutions Magazine will continue the discussion of indicators and mistakes that apply to most types of covert operations.

Ami Toben
Ami Toben is Director of Consulting and Training at HighCom Security Services based in San Francisco, USA. A former Tank Commander in the Israeli Defence Force, Ami also specialises and lectures in the areas of terrorist activity prevention; surveillance detection; 
penetration testing 
and event & facility security management.