Although aware of the subsequent correction from Clinton's spokesperson, defending the original claim of Clinton that Gabbard is a Russian asset, former double-agent Naveed Jamali writes in Newsweek:

On Tuesday, The New York Times changed its reporting to reflect the fact that Hillary Clinton never suggested Tulsi Gabbard is being groomed to be a Russian agent. Rather, in an interview with former Barack Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, Clinton said Gabbard is being groomed by Republicans as a third-party candidate and used by the Russians as an asset.

This fundamentally changes what Clinton was saying from a head scratcher to a head nodder. Clinton is right: Russia is set to interfere in the 2020 elections, and just as we saw with their blind defense of Donald Trump, Republicans are happy to let it happen.

Agents are groomed and directed, while assets are used—often unwittingly. This slight distinction might seem like simple wordplay. However, in the world of espionage, these terms are significantly different. An agent, such as the Russians believed I was for them, is a person who is specifically recruited and then directed to carry out activities ordered by an intelligence service. An asset is a person or thing that an intelligence service can use to its advantage. For example, a candidate who criticizes the impeachment proceedings, supports U.S. withdrawal from Syria, warns of a nuclear arms race and happens to be a presidential candidate would undoubtedly be seen as an asset in Russia's efforts to cause chaos in our 2020 elections. In sum, what about Gabbard wouldn't appeal to Russia? [...]

Is Jamali indisputably correct about his use of the word "asset"? Is there a widely accepted definition of that term in US national security parlance, as documented in some authoritative document, e.g. in some CIA/NSA/FBI manual?

For example, a CIA page, while not defining the term, seems use it only for people who are controlled by the agency's officers or at least in contact with agency's officers for the purpose of providing information:

To be successful, NCS [National Clandestine Service] officers must understand one of the most complex aspects of running assets — human nature.

They do point out that not all assets may be reliable though

NCS officers must understand and assess the intentions and motivations of their assets, as well as the authenticity of the intelligence they provide.

They also mention that there's a class of officers (informally, I presume) called Targeters whose job is to "identifying future assets".

But the CIA generally no longer has a explicit mission subverting foreign governments etc., so the way they define (HUMINT) assets many be too narrow. Interestingly, this page does not use the word "agent" at all; basically in this CIA categorization, there are officers and there are assets.

  • I just saw something just like this. But was related to Milsud.
    – user9790
    Oct 28, 2019 at 10:59
  • An asset is simply something of value, the opposite of a liability; does that really need a contextual/operational definition? It would be a manipulation of fact to suggest HRC conveyed active participation by any candidate.
    – dandavis
    Oct 28, 2019 at 16:26
  • @dandavis: in economics an asset is something of value you own or at least control. Something that brings you benefits but you have no ownership or control over is deemed a positive externality. You can't quite own people though (anymore), only approximate that through payments, blackmail, etc. So it's not a foregone conclusion that someone who does something you like is going to be called an asset. Hence my question asking for authoritative sources in the field of intelligence/security on how they use/define this term more precisely. Oct 29, 2019 at 19:18
  • @Fizz Asset is often used figuratively quite apart from economics and accounting, but I also note that an agent is someone who acts. To be an agent of a government, legally speaking, you have to be acting on behalf of that government with its authorization and probably direction. So the basic distinction is valid regardless of the definition of "asset." It's also entirely possible that someone viewed by a hostile intelligence service as an asset would nonetheless be considered by the US to be a foreign agent under 18 USC 951.
    – phoog
    Oct 29, 2019 at 20:19
  • I don't know about documents, but in normal parlance when you say someone is an asset normally means that the person is doing it on purpose. Note 'useful idiot' or 'pawn' for people being used unawares. (Posted as comment as clearly not an answer to q. as stands)
    – user19831
    Oct 29, 2019 at 20:33

1 Answer 1


Is there a widely accepted definition of that term in US national security parlance, as documented in some authoritative document, e.g. in some CIA/NSA/FBI manual?

Apparently, the Defense Intelligence Agency decided to produce such a document.



Asset. [In intelligence usage,] any resource--person, group, relationship, instrument, installation, or supply--at the disposition of an intelligence organization for use in an operational or support role. Often used with a qualifying term such as agent asset or propaganda asset. (JP 1-02 and JP 2-0) Also see agent; foreign intelligence agent; source.

-- Also, [in human source operations] a recruited source. (Defense HUMINT Enterprise Manual 3301.002, Vol II Collection Operations, 23 Nov 2010)

-- Also, [in defense infrastructure usage] a distinguishable entity that provides a service or capability. Assets are people, physical entities, or information located either within or outside the United States and employed, owned or operated by domestic, foreign, public, or private sector organization. (DoDD 3020.40, Critical Infrastructure, 14 Jan 2010)

  • 1
    So it seems there's some variation from the narrower "a recruited source" to the broader "person at the disposition of an intelligence organization for use". I guess "useful idiot" more clearly qualifies for the latter than for the former. Oct 29, 2019 at 22:35
  • 1
    @fizz yes, some undoubtedly are unwitting assets or oblivious assets
    – user9790
    Oct 29, 2019 at 22:57

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