Back to the future for the CIA and counter terrorism

If there is one agency that has not done too well, at least not publicly, since 9/11 it is the US’ CIA.  From failing to have the right people and resources in place to prevent those terrorist acts from happening to the news over the use of torture and ‘black sites’, the Agency – as it is known informally – has taken a few hits.  Of course many if not all of its successes – and I am sure it has had them – are generally kept under wraps and maybe it does not care about what the American people think about it anyway, but I cannot help but assume that those in the rank and file have had a tough time of it.  This has made worse of late by the comments of the US boy president that undermine confidence in US intelligence in general.

Things may be shifting at the agency however and these changes may have a significant impact on its mandate and focus.  According to news reports, the CIA “is rededicating itself to the kinds of missions that defined the agency for most of its seven-decade existence, focusing on foreign nations that challenge or threaten the United States.”  The new director, Gina Haspel, added that it was her plan to return the agency to the work that was at the heart of its espionage mission before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which transformed the CIA into a paramilitary organization that conducted lethal operations against terrorists around the word.  In other words, US spies will try to shake their all consuming focus on counter terrorism.

And not a moment too soon.

I am clearly biased on this issue and always felt that another US intelligence/law enforcement agency should have been the lead on counter terrorism.  I am speaking of course about the FBI, an organisation closest to the one I worked for – CSIS.  The two are best placed to carry out counter terrorism investigations and the Bureau has the added advantage that it can lay criminal charges (CSIS cannot: it leaves that to the RCMP).  Furthermore, both agencies can go anywhere in the world to collect intelligence/evidence on terrorist threats.  So there are no obstacles there that necessitate the intervention of the CIA.

The CIA also wants to place more of its assets abroad to eliminate so-called “intelligence gaps” and take on the growing threat from major powers like Russia and China.   In addition, it wants to renew counter-narcotics efforts overseas to stem the flow of drugs into the United States.  These are all good ideas.

One of the consequences of 9/11 was the tremendous reallocation of resources away from a host of problems – equally important ones I might add – to counter terrorism.  This was of course not hard to fathom.  9/11 was a terrorist attack on a monumental scale and to find and bring to justice the perpetrators was a natural reaction.  Hence the over-emphasis on counter terrorism rather than counter espionage during the past two decades and the increased involvement of the CIA.  There were other reasons why the balance was skewed.

Counter espionage is not sexy and it rarely dominates the headlines.  Uncovered spies are usually asked to leave, quietly: no fuss no muss.  Compare that with foiled terrorist plots (let alone successful ones).  These ALWAYS feature prominently.  There is also, sorry to say it, an aspect of ‘it bleeds it leads’ to terrorism that we don’t see with espionage.

In many ways then the new path outlined by the CIA Director is actually a return to the past. The CIA was always more involved in the cloak and dagger world: the past 17 years have been a sort of anomaly, and not necessarily a good one.  Let’s hope that the men and women in the Agency find this new mission exciting and personally rewarding.  After all, the ‘re-rise’ of Russia under Putin and the increasingly aggressive Chinese activities worldwide (the Belt and Road program and all that) mean that yesteryear’s foes are today’s foes (and tomorrow’s too).   But let’s also hope that the CIA does NOT go back to assassinations and government coups.  Those tactics never worked and caused more problems than they solved.  A return to those days would be a bad idea (are you listening boy-president?).


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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