The challenges of gathering intelligence during a pandemic

Intelligence agencies play an important role during a pandemic to see how widespread the disease is as well as to determine who is hiding the truth.

Intelligence work is complicated at the best of times: how much harder is it during a pandemic?

OTTAWA, CANADA — Intelligence is either the world’s oldest or second oldest profession, according to the timeworn adage (if you have to ask, the competitor is the sex trade/prostitution). Yes, people have been spying on one another since Grog wanted to know what Thag was up to in the neighbouring cave.

The profession has changed a lot over the centuries. Before the advent of mass communication methods, and the technology to collect and process them, intelligence was by definition based on humans talking to, or listening in on, other humans, and passing it on to decision makers. We term this HUMINT – human intelligence. A great example comes from Canadian history in the guise of Laura Secord (no, she did not make chocolates!).

On June 21, 1813 Mrs. Secord, whose husband had been wounded in the Battle of Queenston Heights (part of the War of 1812), overheard the conversation of some American officers dining at her house, that the Americans intended to surprise the British outpost at Beaver Dams and capture the officer in charge. She famously walked 12 miles (this was before Canada went metric) through forests and swamps to warn the British, who subsequently ambushed the invading Americans.


Once we invented the ability to communicate over long distances (telephone, radio, Internet, social media…) we concomitantly invented the ability to intercept these messages. In the old days the image was a pair of ‘alligator clips’ attached to wires: now it is much more sophisticated (NB I was the head of collection at CSE, Canada’s signals intelligence agency, in the late 1990s and it was complex back then: I have no idea how complex it is now).

This method of spying is shortened to SIGINT – signals intelligence. Any good investigation will have both SIGINT and HUMINT. You see, when you work in the intelligence world you do everything possible to corroborate what you have learned from multiple sources (since some people lie, or so I have heard). Having both HUMINT and SIGINT is thus an ideal approach.

So what happens when a situation develops in which it is hard to collect intelligence? I am referring of course to the current COVID-19 pandemic. We are all advised to keep a 2 metre physical distance which is going to make HUMINT harder. In addition, many human source ‘debriefs’ take place in hotels and such: how many of these are still accepting guests?

So what happens when a situation develops in which it is hard to collect intelligence? I am referring of course to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

I suppose one could talk to a human source over the phone (or Skype, or Zoom, or FaceTime or whatever) but there are issues with this. Is it secure? Do the handler and source have a place to go to talk where no one will overhear? Can you really judge someone’s facial/body responses on Skype? People who lie give off clues that may be harder to detect at a distance.

So, what about subjecting human sources to more regular polygraphs? Not that I am saying these are infallible, but they are useful tools. But how to do a polygraph when physical distancing is de rigueur?

Which leaves us with SIGINT (I am not going to weigh in on physical surveillance as I never took part in it suffice to suggest that with fewer cars on the road it might be more obvious to the target). That particular form of intelligence is not affected greatly by COVID-19. Quite the contrary: with everyone cocooning and working from home the airwaves and networks are there for the picking.

I am going to assume that the successes over the past few months in warning us about the novel coronavirus were all due to SIGINT. Here are a few examples:

I could be wrong, but most if not all of this intelligence strikes me as SIGINT- and not HUMINT-derived (NB I worked SIGINT from 1983 to 2001 and HUMINT from 2001-2015 so I have some sense of how this works). So kudos to the intelligence people giving us this vital information! As an aside, I find it fascinating that there is a ‘pandemic’ collection programme: there was no such thing in my days. If we caught wind of something in general collection platforms we would pass it on, but I do not recall it being an intelligence priority, let alone even a requirement.

All this intelligence is only as good as the client who receives it. In Canada the track record is mixed, at least as far as my experiences tell me. In the US it is usually quite good as the US has always made better use of what its spies told their masters. Until Donald Trump that is. He has regularly undermined his own agencies in childish, petulant ways as he is singularly incapable of admitting to an error. He has now turned from disparaging the men and women who serve to ignoring them: even as experts in his own government were increasingly alarmed about a pandemic threat this January, Trump apparently remained unconcerned, with no scheduled intelligence briefings before Jan. 6 and only nine the entire month.

You can lead a horse to water but… you know the rest. The professionals who work in security intelligence and law enforcement deserve our support at all times, not just now. The work they are doing for us will complement what our scientists and medical practitioners are doing. They are a critical part of our collective response to this significant threat. It is imperative that decision makers meet with them frequently to see what they have learned about where this virus is prevalent, who is doing what and where to deal with it and, perhaps most importantly, who is trying to cover up the real scale of the disease in order to make gains, be they political, economic, or otherwise.

When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

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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