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Screening and Selection

All groups should engage in some screening of recruits (formally or informally), the underground being especially vigilant. Security concerns apply aboveground as well, but breaches in those groups are unlikely to be catastrophic. So here we give particular emphasis to techniques used by underground groups. There are many different screening methods (some superficial, some more rigorous), only some of which will be used by any given group. In roughly sequential order, these methods include:

Outreach prescreening / prospecting: Before approaching a potential recruit or beginning the larger screening process, the group may look for indicators that the candidate has promise, including the possession of preexisting skills, a history of voicing sentiments against those in power, a history of participating in actions against those in power, or a record of other reasons to dislike those in power (such as deaths of family members).

Physical checks: The group may physically check the candidate and their effects to look for listening devices, police union cards, and the like. Obviously, the candidate cannot be warned about this in advance.

Vouching or references: The resistance movement, or its auxiliaries, may already include people who have known the candidate for years, and can offer an opinion or vouch for the individual. However, vouching alone is not enough. (If it were, an infiltrator could easily bring in many other infiltrators. Further, vouchers may have a biased perspective on close friends or family, and especially romantic interests.)

Background checks: A member of the group may question the candidate about history, past actions, school or employment, residences, etc. The questioner will then check to make sure that the story is internally consistent and that it can be verified, to screen out informers who are fabricating or hiding parts of their history. This typically involves checking records as well as speaking to individual people in the candidate’s background. Although government and online records may be convenient to check, they can be falsified in order to provide a cover for an informer, so they cannot be relied on alone. Checks in newspaper records and the like (as may be available in libraries) are less falsifiable, but high-profile actions in the past may make the candidate unsuitable for participation in an underground group. The background check may also serve to determine whether a candidate’s past history indicates that the person is reliable.

Surveillance or tailing: Some groups have followed or otherwise engaged in surveillance of potential recruits. This surveillance can help verify their story, determine whether they are meeting with police or government agents, and gather more information. (Following a person is also a way of finding out whether someone else is also following them.)

Lifestyle or habit checks / warning signs: Some groups disqualify members on the grounds of drug addiction or other unacceptable habits or actions (such as abuse) that go against the group’s code of conduct or that would put the group at risk.

Interview or political screening: Candidates may be asked questions about their politics, or they may be asked to study and agree with certain materials, points of unity, or conduct. Effective questions for candidates should be open-ended, and leading questions should be avoided, to get the most indicative responses. Interviews should take as much time as needed.

Intuition and trust: Though these methods of screening are essential, they are not infallible. The ultimate test of any candidate is the intuition—the gut feelings—of members of the group. If those in the group do not feel certain that they can trust the candidate, then it does not matter whether the individual is an informer or not—the recruit cannot join the group, because the existing members will not be able to work with that person. The group needs to be totally satisfied that the new group member can handle responsibilities.

Test task: Oftentimes a candidate may be given a test task. This may simply require the person to demonstrate potential and the ability to follow instructions. In other cases, they may be required to carry out a task that an infiltrator would not do. On a related theme, they may be asked to perform an illegal task in front of other members of the group. This inhibits them from potentially testifying against other members since those people could testify against them in court. Of course—this has happened before—infiltrators may be willing to go along with things in order to get closer to the group.

Induction and oath: If the candidate passes the preceding screening measures, the person may be provisionally inducted into the group. This may involve an oath of allegiance to the group or resistance movement, and a promise to maintain secrecy and good conduct. Implicit (or explicit) in this oath is the recruit’s understanding of the consequences for breaking this oath. In armed groups, the consequence for collaboration has almost universally been death.3 Such oaths have been so effective that the English government declared in the late eighteenth century that merely taking the Luddite oath of loyalty was itself punishable by death.4

Evaluation period: There may be a provisional or evaluation period after the recruit has joined the group. In this period, the new member may be required to undertake more missions, and identifying information about members of the group (or other sensitive information) may be withheld until the recruit has completed this period.

Be absolutely certain that a candidate is suitable and trustworthy before inviting the person to join. Underground groups cannot “disinvite” someone who knows who and where they are. Recruiters do not share this information freely. Recruiters may not reveal if they are already part of an underground group. Indeed, some recruitment may be done by auxiliaries with little dangerous information.

Recruits must have the psychological balance required to deal with stressful situations, and the social skills needed to work in a close cell or affinity group. They should be willing to accommodate new group norms, but have enough personal fiber to stand up to difficult situations. They must understand the consequences of capture. Members of an underground resistance should also be willing to go to jail if needed, whether that’s for five years, for ten years, or longer. A person with dependents is often not a good match for underground work. A single parent with young children would be in a terrible bind if threatened with prison. At that point no decision could avoid bad consequences for the person’s children, comrades, or both.

Be alert for warning signs in recruits. Be concerned if a candidate shows a lack of known history, or gaps in history—not just their stated history, but their verifiable history. Evasion or a failure to answer questions directly could indicate a problem. Recruiters should also be on the lookout for psychological or behavioral problems, especially abusive behavior. A history of impulsive or irresponsible behavior would be a danger to the group. Recruiters should be very concerned about a history of drug addiction, because underground groups are based on trust, and someone who is addicted to drugs cannot be trusted if captured. Candidates may also be turned down if they are already too high-profile as militant activists. Police are known to surveil such people looking for clues. Recruiters should also be wary of a history of collaboration or loyalty problems. Relatives with these problems, or relatives in the police, may also cause concern.

Resistance organizations have to decide what to do about “rejected” candidates. If there are too many good candidates to train with available resources, some candidates may be recruited fully at a later date. If the candidate is trustworthy but lacks skills or experience, the individual may be put into the auxiliaries or given further small tasks. If the candidate is a suspected infiltrator or informer, an underground organization may want to either sever communication or attempt to confirm their suspicions and pass on disinformation without letting the person into the group.

During screening candidates may also be assessed to identify how their skills and abilities best fit into the group, and what further training they need. Also, screening does not truly stop after the recruit has been inducted, but continues in a modified form on an ongoing basis. In her volunteer screening handbook, Linda L. Graff writes that “[s]imply put, it is nothing short of dangerous to assume that risks end when a candidate has been screened, even when the screening has been rigorous.”5 She continues by suggesting that organizations use “[m]echanisms such as buddy systems, on-site performance, close supervision, performance reviews, program evaluations …, unannounced spot checks, and discipline and dismissal policies” to ensure that candidates continue to be suitable for the organization.

In the 1980s the underground African National Congress used many of these different screening methods in recruitment. Steven Davis explains: “Propagating the underground has traditionally been considered extremely risky because of the danger of inadvertent recruitment of police informers. To minimize the danger, the Congress adopted rigorous intake screening while prescribing punishment for Blacks thought to be assisting the regime. A typical sequence of recruitment would normally begin with a clandestine meeting of the street cell to compile a list of potential enlistees who live on the block. The names may be those of residents who participated in a recent march or school boycott, thereby demonstrating to ANC observers a measure of political consciousness. Members initiate security checks on each candidate to determine his or her reliability and political opinions. One cell member is assigned the task of meeting secretly with each potential recruit. A test, such as acting as a marshal for a funeral protest rally, may be set for the candidate. If the person passes it, he or she may be provisionally invited to join the cell.

“Once the recruit accepts, an initiation process begins. The ANC places great emphasis on instructing its members in party history, philosophy, and strategy. ‘We don’t want someone who merely knows how to use a gun,’ asserts … Thabo Mbeki, ‘we need a political person, who understands what we stand for.’ ” (Apparently the ANC preferred to militantize radicals, rather than radicalize militants.)

The initiation process proceeds, continues Davis, and “[u]nder the tutelage of his contact, the new cadre is expected to study the Freedom Charter and accept standards of conduct outlined for all members, including the ban on targeting civilians and the need to maintain discipline. Should the recruit pass muster on these points, he or she is normally fully inducted into the ANC underground. The control agent assigns the enlistee a code name and provides training in methods of secret communication with the cell. In addition, the agent gives the new cadre rudimentary instruction in the use of firearms and explosives.”

“The cell leader, perhaps in consultation with colleagues at higher levels, then assigns the enrollee one of a variety of missions.”6 This rigorous recruitment process worked very well for the ANC, and without it they would not have succeeded in abolishing apartheid.