CI Techiques of the Clandestine Street Drug Trader

by Captain Gordon J. Knowles, Ph.D., HI ARNG

Editor’s Note: The term “counterintelligence” often connotes a  “spy versus spy” scenario where counterintelligence (CI) agents are actively pursuing foreign intelligence collectors. However, we forget that self-directed measures are sometimes the best counterintelligence methods—denying collection is often more effective than pursuing the collector. In this article, Captain Knowles has identified several “counterintelligence” techniques that street drug traders employ to avoid detection and arrest. It is important to detect and neutralize these CI methods in order to execute Counterdrug operations more effectively.1

CI and the Drug War

The purpose of CI is to detect, identify, assess, counter, neutralize, and exploit hostile elements’ intelligence collection efforts.2 As a means of comparison, it is useful to study the CI methods and techniques used by those in the criminal subculture. Many of the specific strategies of drug traffickers empower them to undermine law enforcement interventions, avoid hostile drug intelligence collection, and evade the entire criminal justice system. Among the strategies employed are countermeasures such as liaisons, code words, foreign words and phrases, screening tactics, safe houses, cache sites, and deception. There is a tangible drug-dealer “tradecraft”—specifically the artistic skill, cunning, and ingenuity of the street drug trafficker.3

Intervention efforts attempt to restrict drug traffickers’ travel patterns, restrain their countermeasure techniques, and determine the location of drug cache sites or safe houses. These enforcement activities are subject to the CI efforts of drug dealers. The intent of this study4 was to extract tactical CI methods and techniques used by a covert community of drug traffickers within a major capital city. This information can promote drug intelligence collection activities, assist in drug interdiction efforts, and recommend possible future law-enforcement strategies in the war on drugs.

Research Setting

Historically, Honolulu’s vice district is in the center of Chinatown, tightly bound by River, Beretania, Nuuanu, Smith, and Hotel streets.5 By the 1990s, there has been considerable gentrification of shops on adjacent streets, but Chinatown after dark remains an area of rough bars, illegal gambling houses, pornographic theaters, prostitutes, and the focus of the present study: drug trafficking.6 The street corners in Honolulu have become the markets of choice for the drug dealers and buyers. Other studies have referred to this phenomenon as “copping areas”—open areas such as street corners where the dealers exchange small amounts of drugs for cash and multiple transactions typically occur in a short time span.7

Runners, Dealer Promoters, and Buyers          

The research for this study involved observing drug traffickers conducting transactions on the street, in vehicles, and in pornographic video theaters. Although some sources reported trafficking in other commodities, such as heroin, marijuana, and sex, they all said they spent the majority of their time dealing and generating revenue from crack-cocaine sales. There is a clearly defined structure within the street-level drug trade in Honolulu’s Chinatown.8 The roles of the participants were the—