WikiLeaked: How to handle a walk-in

If you saw the movie Salt, you already know that one of the most intriguing intelligence conundrums that comes up is how to handle a ‘walk-in’ — a foreign national who literally walks into a U.S. embassy (or other agency) and wants to talk. They can be sources of intelligence (maybe they know about nuclear proliferation) or in ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

If you saw the movie Salt, you already know that one of the most intriguing intelligence conundrums that comes up is how to handle a 'walk-in' -- a foreign national who literally walks into a U.S. embassy (or other agency) and wants to talk. They can be sources of intelligence (maybe they know about nuclear proliferation) or in dire need of protection (perhaps they've been threatened by their home government.) But in all cases they pose a delicate challenge for diplomats: They are either valuable, dangerous, or both.

Brought to you be WikiLeaks: the State Department memo on how to deal with walk-ins. In short, the process goes something like this:

Assess if the walk-in is a security threat, get copies of their documentation asap, get them into an initial interview. Then, figure out what they want -- and if they are legit (as the memo warns, "Walk-ins may in fact be mentally disturbed persons, intelligence vendors, fabricators, provocateurs from hostile intelligence services, or persons gathering information on behalf of terrorist organizations." If they are for real, next steps are to determine of what value that person might be -- for example, intelligence value -- and hand over the process to the proper officials from there. Knowledge about protection requested by the walk-in is to remain confidential: " Only USG personnel with a need-to-know should be made aware of such requests."

If you saw the movie Salt, you already know that one of the most intriguing intelligence conundrums that comes up is how to handle a ‘walk-in’ — a foreign national who literally walks into a U.S. embassy (or other agency) and wants to talk. They can be sources of intelligence (maybe they know about nuclear proliferation) or in dire need of protection (perhaps they’ve been threatened by their home government.) But in all cases they pose a delicate challenge for diplomats: They are either valuable, dangerous, or both.

Brought to you be WikiLeaks: the State Department memo on how to deal with walk-ins. In short, the process goes something like this:

Assess if the walk-in is a security threat, get copies of their documentation asap, get them into an initial interview. Then, figure out what they want — and if they are legit (as the memo warns, "Walk-ins may in fact be mentally disturbed persons, intelligence vendors, fabricators, provocateurs from hostile intelligence services, or persons gathering information on behalf of terrorist organizations." If they are for real, next steps are to determine of what value that person might be — for example, intelligence value — and hand over the process to the proper officials from there. Knowledge about protection requested by the walk-in is to remain confidential: " Only USG personnel with a need-to-know should be made aware of such requests."

This is all relatively straight-forward and intuitive — but there are some nuances that hint toward further detail. For example, the priority languages listed for walk-ins are "Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, Mandarin, and Korean," suggesting the nationalities of walk-ins that would be most useful for the U.S. government. The memo also acknowledges that the increased security in and around embassies has encouraged walk-ins to approach diplomats outside the embassy setting. (However, meetings with walk-ins off the diplomatic premises are discouraged.) 

One can imagine how this information — now public — could be detrimental to the U.S. government’s efforts to handle walk-ins, not least because potential walk-in frauds could get a glimpse at the process up close. This may be one of the many procedures that will need updating in the post-WikiLeaked world.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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