Did Belgian intelligence drop the ball on the Paris attacks?

OK, I admit I am a little sensitive when it comes to the term “intelligence failure”.  You would be too if the profession you devoted three decades to was constantly criticised in the media for screwing up.  The failure to predict 9/11.  The failure to predict India’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capacity.  The classic and tragic blunder over Saddam Hussein’s supposed WMD arsenal.  All mistakes we have to admit.  And all of which have had catastrophic consequences.  Not that we get a lot of credit for getting it right, mind you.

To this list we now apparently have to add the inability of the Belgian police and security services to stop the attacks in Paris last November.  The Belgians allegedly had not one but THIRTEEN chances to identify and disrupt the terrorist plot.  What a huge cluster you-know-what you are probably saying now. How can a state security apparatus be so incompetent?  What is going on with our spooks and our cops?

Well, here’s an answer for you.  I want to provide some insight into what it is like to work counter terrorism within a large security service, drawing in this case on my time with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.  I am doing so not to make excuses or dodge criticism but merely to show what happens and what challenges are faced by the men and women in whom we put our trust for national security.

There are a few basic things you need to understand.  First and foremost, agencies like CSIS are called upon to prevent, together with their partners, terrorist acts from happening. It is of little solace to Canadians if we carry out comprehensive post mortems when there are deaths.  We are told to stop these events from occurring – period.

And, while we are doing this we are constantly reminded of the limitations placed on how we do it – the CSIS Act, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Criminal Code and, perhaps most importantly, the court of public opinion.  For some people there is nothing more pleasurable than finding (or in many cases believing) CSIS to have committed some egregious violation of any of the above legal tools.  Don’t get me wrong, it is critical for CSIS to work within the law. It is just that it sometimes seems we are held to a higher, and in my view unfair, standard.

The task given to agencies like CSIS is a very difficult one.  Information is collected and received from allies, both domestic and foreign.  It is rarely complete. It certainly never arrives in a wholly usable form.  Determining the veracity and reliability is a big challenge.  Many times different pieces are contradictory.  We always have to question the sourcing and nature of the intelligence and we have to seek clarifications.  Intelligence is not “connecting the dots” as is often claimed.  Anyone who believes so has never worked in intelligence I can assure you.

All of this happens in an environment where time is of the essence.  The pressure to act is tremendous as is the pressure not to act in some cases.  And you have to layer on top the probability that lives are at stake.

Now add in human limitations.  People are capable of doing only so much and technology is not the magic answer some allege it to be.  Agents and analysts work extremely hard and are liable to exhaustion and burnout, both of which can cloud judgment.  Security agencies have finite numbers of resources with which to prevent infinite numbers of plots and actors and yet failure is not an option.

Allow me to cite one small example.  As an analyst looking at domestic Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism, I would routinely, over the course of a single day, have to process 3-400 pieces of intelligence garnered from all sources and somehow fit those in to my understanding of over a hundred ongoing investigations to gain a better grasp of what was going on.  No,  I was not the only person working these files, but I was the only strategic analyst doing so.  Together my colleagues and I did our best and that best was pretty damn good.  Was it perfect? – no of course not.  But it was what we could do given the time and resources.  That is what life on the inside is like.

Returning now to the Belgian security services – did they drop the ball? I have no idea, but I do know that the men and women who work for them did their utmost to stop terrorist plots within the limitations of their budgets and personnel.  And who can ask for more?

I do not think that security intelligence organisations should be beyond reproach.  We need to constantly improve our capabilities and learn from what did not go so well.  Publics should take us to task.  But if you really want to be a critic of what CSIS and its ilk do and how they do it, you might want to learn a lot more of how the job is actually done.  Sniping from the cheap  seats is not just useless, it is ignored.


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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