No, COVID-19 is not an ‘intelligence failure’

Intelligence agencies propose: governments dispose.

Intelligence organisations do a lousy job of explaining what they do to the public. They also do a lousy job of sharing how they do it, but that is understandable. After all, what real spy outfit tells the world how they collect secrets?

But getting back to the ‘what’, intelligence agencies really should have more of a dialogue with those who support them financially, i.e. the taxpayers/citizens. This exchange would clearly be constrained but it could be done. Spies can tell the public what keeps them up at night, without saying “by the way, it’s John Doe of 123 Main Street, Ottawa, whom we think is a Lower Slobovian agent”.

I have long advocated for more openness, even when I was at CSIS. To be fair, my old stomping grounds is getting better at all this and it does issue an annual threat report. That is more than some analogues do in other countries.

Intelligence agencies really should have more of a dialogue with those who support them financially, i.e. the taxpayers/citizens.

Having this conversation entails the need to be sensitive to criticism. Intelligence agencies are very good at what they do but they are not perfect. No one is. Mistakes are made and, in this world, those mistakes can be fatal.

Which brings me to a curious accusation leveled by a US academic on the intelligence apparatus of the US in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Micah Zenko penned a piece in Foreign Policy entitled “The Coronavirus Is the Worst Intelligence Failure in U.S. History” and goes on to state that “it’s more glaring than Pearl Harbor and 9/11—and it’s all the fault of Donald Trump’s leadership.”

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair is a member of the government’s cabinet committee on coronavirus.
Resounding intelligence success

Mr. Zenko goes on to show that the Trump Administration ignored multiple warnings given by US intelligence agencies for years, warnings that were repeated in January and February of 2020. He outlines how the President’s character flaws prevented him from taking any advice from anyone – spies, scientists, medical practitioners – on the threat from COVID-19.

Am I the only one having a hard time understanding how this all represents an ‘intelligence failure’?

In fact, it is exactly the opposite: it is a resounding intelligence success. US agencies tasked with collecting, processing, analysing, reporting, disseminating information and advising on threats to American national security did EXACTLY what they are supposed to do. Their job ends when the advice is given. At that point it is up to decision-makers, policy wonks and, yes, the President, to take action. On at least the latter’s part this was a catastrophic failure.

I wish I could say that we do things better here in Canada. Our intelligence agencies (CSIS and CSE) regularly brief senior officials on what they know, adding in what level of confidence they have in their intelligence. The response they get varies, if my three decades of experience are anything to go by.

In this time of COVID-19, we have enough to worry about without freaking out about terrorism!

Even ISIS is afraid of COVID-19, suggesting we may not see an uptick in attacks seeking to take advantage of a possible skeleton crew in security and intelligence agencies.

The COVID-19 situation is rapidly evolving and governments are having a hard time keeping up with strategies to respond and react effectively to keep their citizenry safe. Read more about the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and its ties with terrorism.

Some mandarins were enthusiastic consumers of intelligence. Others were not. The reasons I believe the latter were not fans include:
  • A conviction that intelligence is ‘dirty’ and unethical (akin to US Secretary of State Henry Stimson’s line in 1929 “Gentlemen do not read each others’ mail.”);
  • A dismissal of what intelligence is saying, especially if it goes against collected wisdom;
  • The fact that intelligence is usually incomplete and sometimes contradictory; and
  • Frustration at limits on how it can be used (this one is partly our fault in the intel business).

As a result I am not so certain that the Canadian government, and by extension all Canadians, get the best value for what we spend on intelligence (which is a lot). I am not saying that we spooks have all the answers, but we do have some unique information that can help get those answers.

In the end it is up to governments to act, or not, based in part on what they get from their intelligence agencies. The failures (and successes) are reflections of multiple actors and should not be laid at the feet of any one.

Of course I am biased in all this. I happen to still hold to the conviction that intelligence matters, even in a world overrun with information. Our spies do play an important role in keeping Canada safe, albeit from the shadows. Perhaps it is time to shed a glimmer of light into those dark recesses.

Phil Gurski is the President of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and a former intelligence analyst at both CSIS and CSE.

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3 thoughts on “No, COVID-19 is not an ‘intelligence failure’

  1. Thanks Phil for this insight on accountability – the issue is the same in many parts of the public service I think. Truth to power is problematic in an era that legitimizes top down processes with reduced focus on empirical evidence. Would like to see you review book by Mcdermott and Bar-Joseph on this subject.

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