How to Case Like a Spy aka Don’t Be Weird

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To case a site is to carefully inspect a location to determine its operational use. That’s how a spy would define it anyway, and it’s one of the foundations for all intelligence work. As GORUCK has evolved, we’ve gotten a lot of requests for our Cadre to teach more of what we’ve learned in training and practiced in hostile environments around the world. So we are. We’ve added a few Cadre with intelligence backgrounds, and we’re patterning some teaching scenarios after actual spy games. Like thousands of video games but in real life. This came about because of several factors, the main one being that our Good Livin’ events – like the Challenge – are all physical events. While we would love for everyone to do them, we can effectively teach teamwork, leadership, and communication (TLC) in a completely non-physical environment, accessible to all. Solutions events are based on this model and Trek is 3 days of this kind of stuff within a live scenario. As I’ll explain, the lessons taught do not exist in a vacuum. Applications to your daily life, both personal and professional, are significant.

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While we were in Atlanta for Scavenger, we chose the Varsity as a case site and we gave the world’s greatest testers aka GRT’s (GORUCK Tough family) a so-called Trek teaser. Sometimes at the Challenge or other Good Livin’ events it’s gear testing. In this case, it was teaching and learning testing. We taught each group a class and then told them to assess the Varsity as a place to have a meeting. General factors to focus on are the infil/exfil routes and security concerns. And as a disclaimer, we are not teaching classified information nor are we training spies. The point is to teach people how to be more aware of their surroundings in everything they do, to complete projects both alone and as part of a team.  And we teach you some of the basics that will help you be more confident in anything you ever submit with your name on it. It’s a direct parallel to Dan‘s idea that in the Challenge we’re building better Americans. In anything you do in life, start with a plan. In this instance, there is a ton of intel you can gather from Google maps, then you supplement this intel with the reality on the ground. The street view thing is a little 1984 to me, but it’s out there and also really cool. In this instance, it’s a good place to start. If you really like this kind of stuff, additional sources where you can find absolutely everything here and then some are Inside Delta ForceBlowing My Cover, and the Spy Museum website.

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The infil/exfil thing is as simple as how you come in and how you get out. Don’t make the simple complex and don’t over think it. There are a lot of factors at play at the Varsity because it’s so large with so many different entrances and exits. This is part good, part bad but most importantly, you just want to document it in detail. Your casing starts out as a napkin sketch and when you have more time, you create a more polished sketch. There is a system and a process to do this and communicate it effectively. And if you’re a spy, it’s common sense and you’re an expert at it because it’s a matter of life or death. But it’s only common sense after you’ve been taught and done it over and over. So our goal is to teach common sense.

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The intent of your meeting matters. If you’re not supposed to be seen with someone (see the comic above), make sure not to call attention to yourself. And if you smell like onions when it’s all said and done, you might get caught. Best not to smell like onions.

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The Varsity is a well known place, visited by a lot of celebrities. Do your homework on any place before you simply show up. If it’s 100 degrees and sunny, bring sunblock kind of deal. At the Varsity, you may find out that a camera crew is coming or a celebrity (President Obama recently stopped in) might be there. That would be a bad time to have a meeting because security will be heightened..

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In this case, the camera crew was there because of a football game and before you knew it they found Kling to talk about something besides Selection. So, Mr. Kling, how do you like bobblehead dolls?

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Back to security considerations. Cameras, guards, locks, dogs, casuals, and mirrors are all aspects of security to consider. The phrase ‘smoke and mirrors’ doesn’t exist for nothing. Mirrors matter, so use them to your advantage. Or at a minimum make sure no one else is using them against you. Yes, I’m talking about mirrors. They can change your whole vantage point. And when you’re Perseus and you have to chop Medusa’s head off to kill the Kraken to save the beautiful Andromeda, use your shield as a mirror and wait before you strike. It pays to be a winner, and mirrors can help.

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If you go to a restaurant, you’re expected to order something and to eat it. It would be weird if you sat down and didn’t order anything. Don’t be weird. This holds true for a date or really anytime. If you show up at a burger joint, don’t order a salad and don’t ask your waiter what kind of sprouts they have. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is: don’t be weird. Your job is to be normal and blend in with normal patterns of life. It seems like common sense, but as all my instructors used to say, common sense is not so common. And yet they taught common sense, and a bunch of what we’re doing is teaching a course on Advanced Common Sense. ACS anyone?

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Consider all the angles. There’s a reason why a good cowboy sits in the corner of a room – it’s because his 6 (aka whatever is behind him) is a threat because he can’t watch it. So watch your 6 or have a wall there so nobody can sneak up on you. Sometimes life’s little tricks are just that easy. Back to the Varsity, where I recommend not wearing your Peacemaker on your hip because you’ll probably I mean definitely stick out big time – Google maps isn’t going to tell you that where you see the GORUCK Truck parked (above) is where the Varsity has a drive-in service. Google maps and Internet research and Facebook stalking won’t tell you this stuff and by the way the Internet will only get you so far in life. You gotta get out there for yourself and see what’s up. Google also won’t tell you that this vantage point is a good one. Surveillance is better when you have a better spot, and make sure to note this spot in your napkin sketch.

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Rules matter, especially if you’re gonna break them. So find out what the rules are and make sure it’s worth it to make up your own if you think you have to. Usually, you don’t.

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And no matter your plan, no matter how thorough you’ve been, no matter how perfectly you’ve cased a place, don’t get married to a plan just because it’s yours. It doesn’t matter how long it took you to develop. The ground truth is what matters. If you’re sitting down and someone across from you is acting suspicious or you get a bad feeling or Obama shows up, go somewhere else. Walk away and trust your gut like Robert de Niro should have done in Heat. The implications in life are similar. You can have a perfect plan, but as the great philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

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We assess what you’ve learned and how you communicate it based on your sketches. The most effective spies are also able to communicate clearly what they are learning on the ground. It’s really not that different than how any company runs. Whatever your job, there is always a bigger plan at work and you are a piece of that. But your boss’s job is to assimilate all the information from the whole landscape, including your work, and prioritize new taskings. It’s a relationship that goes both ways. The more clearly you communicate from the field, the easier you make your boss’s life. And your boss, assuming he or she ‘gets it’, will reward this type of clarity in communication with more responsibility.

We expect your sketches to be good and thorough, something in line with what’s above…

Just kidding, more like the sketch below. Your job is to take what we teach and create a stand alone piece of intel aka your napkin sketch. It happens fast and you have to distill too much information into the most relevant pieces and then communicate them clearly. Aka welcome to pretty much everything you’ll ever do in life.

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You present sketch after sketch and we review them — with you — again and again until quality work becomes second nature. In this process your eyes open a little wider to all the angles and your attention to detail grows. You’re also certain to hear us talk about the three rules. To sum it up, ‘Always Look Cool’ is not just about having cool shades on, though cool shades never hurt. It means that if and when hell descends, stay cool like the Wolf in Pulp Fiction if you want to solve The Bonnie Situation. Or any situation for that matter.

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They don’t make movies out of the silent successes.  And the work to get there is not especially sexy, but it’s necessary and honorable and it’s done by some of the best folks I’ve ever met. And they’re highly trained and good at what they do and there are a lot of them doing it for us in every corner of the world. Right. Now. And at home always, and especially in the wake of Boston. I was just as enraged as you were, and the word on the street is that home is where the new fight is, and where it will remain. Insert more rage. But Yanks and Sox one team one fight is our job, and to trust that the people who know what they’re doing to protect us are working as hard as possible to do just that. And they are. It’s a job that’s easy for all of us to take for granted (where do my taxes go kind of deal) until Boston. We have several people with this kind of a background working for and with GORUCK. For reasons of circumstance most are not serving in our government anymore. Like me, they wish they still were but life takes other routes sometimes – for better for worse. However, service is addictive, especially when you know you’ve made a difference. Trek and Solutions are their opportunity to give back by teaching what they’ve lived and learned. And they’ve done plenty of serious work but like all the people you really want to hang out with they don’t let that get in the way of a good time.

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So this kind of stuff is what we know and it’s only the beginning. We love it and we love to teach aka entertain while you learn something that you take back to your daily life. I’m using the word ‘we’ to talk about our Cadre who have intel backgrounds. I’m supporting them and so are the rest of our Cadre. Our ulterior motive, same with all of GORUCK, is to bridge the gap between a grateful nation and the people who serve it. If you’re considering service in our government, do it. The experience is life-changing. This goes for the military, the CIA, the FBI and the rest of the alphabet soup agencies that afford you the privilege and honor of working for America. And America is full of Americans who are the most rewarding boss and she has a lot of great folks doing all sorts of stuff in her name. Some of them started with how to case a site and a year later found themselves serving in some of the least desirable places in the world. And if GORUCK wouldn’t have happened I would be lucky to work in this field and in the garden spots of the world on our behalf for as many lifetimes as possible. I’m fortunate to still call a bunch of them friends. And the more cool stuff they teach me, the faster I become Java staring up from a basket of chicken tenders in hopes of more.


  1. Brandon says:

    Thanks Jason. Another great article. Thanks also for the references to additional reading material.

  2. IRISHHHHH!!!!! says:

    If no ones asked yet when are those awsome keep calm and Goruck on t’s going to be available?

  3. Teddie says:

    Good food for thought, especially after Boston.
    I’m looking forward to learning more from your group. I don’t have the body to do any of your physical challenges but my mind is sharp and I tend to notice small details :)…sometimes critically.
    I love my Echo, BTW.

  4. nukwaste says:

    What was the most valuable take-away that day?

    The secret recipe for Frosted Orange I hope.

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