What should we expect from security intelligence services?

Earlier this morning the suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack that killed 12 and wounded dozens more was shot to death by Italian police in Milan.  An international manhunt ended successfully with the killing of Anis Amri, a Tunisian refugee who had spent time in Italy before moving on to Germany. He was known to Italian authorities for his violent behaviour while imprisoned for vandalism.  German authorities had sought to deport him to Tunisia but were hampered by questions over his nationality.  He had also been on German intelligence radar for months. Islamic State has issued a video of Amri pledging allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

As is usual in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, questions are being asked about why the attack had not been foiled.  German agencies in particular have been criticised and their capabilities are under scrutiny.  The same happened in the wake of the Brussels attacks as well as here in Canada after the October 22, 2014 rush on Parliament Hill by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau.  Inquiring minds want to know: just what the hell are our intelligence and law enforcement agencies doing with the billions we give them?

I find all this hand wringing and armchair quarterbacking interesting – and hypocritical.  Yes, I have a clear bias as someone who worked in security intelligence for three decades but if I try to see this as an interested outsider (which, truth be told, I am now that I have retired from CSIS), I still can’t support the criticism levied on my former colleagues, both here and abroad.

We have this odd relationship with intelligence organisations.  On the one hand we love fictional characters like James Bond and Jason Bourne and series such as Homeland and 24 are hugely popular.  We celebrate major successes such as the killing of former Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden.  But on the other we treat traitors such as Edward Snowden, who has done more damage than anyone else in undermining our abilities to keep ourselves safe, as heroes and we revel in screaming “intelligence failure!” whenever something allegedly goes wrong.

You cannot have it both ways people.  You either support the men and women tasked with identifying and neutralising bad guys or you don’t. Yes, we must ensure that these agencies adhere to our laws and that their practices are consistent with the freedoms we have entrenched in documents such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  But no, you do not have a right to know everything these bodies do and no you do not have a veto over them.  Nor must you feel that you have a duty to hammer them over what you perceive to be “mistakes”.

Furthermore you must educate yourselves on what these services do and how they do it in order to understand the challenge they face.  Agencies such as CSIS and the RCMP (and their German counterparts) juggle an ever growing workload of cases every single day and must triage, prioritise and re-prioritise constantly, and all this with finite resources.  Threat streams are numerous and investigations take time.  It is a very rare occasion on which our protectors have all the required information to locate someone, determine his or her intentions and still have time to neutralise the threat.  And all this happens in real time.  Yes, some terrorists get through the detection net – but these are the exception and not the rule.

No our spies and cops are not perfect but they do a damn good job for us.  At least one German source is bucking the trend to recognise that Germany’s services have been, counterintuitively to some, very successful in thwarting plots.  Our equivalents have been equally vigilant on our behalf.

So before you weigh in on the debate of whether we are getting our money’s worth on national security, either talk to someone who’s been there or imagine yourself in their shoes.  They deserve at least that effort on your part.



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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