As a former intelligence analyst with more than three decades in national security and someone who has chosen to go public with my knowledge, perspective and experience I have attracted a lot of attention. Some of it is praiseworthy (“Thanks for your service”), some appreciative (“I like what you wrote”) and some not so good (“You are an effing idiot”). I am okay with all of this, even the criticism. Putting myself out there means I have to take the bad with the good.
Then there are the emails like the one I received yesterday.
I will suppress some of the details but in essence a man elected to write me in the aftermath of the heinous attack in Toronto to tell me he knew who was responsible. It was quite a long email and included elements of the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England, Afghanistan, and a secret NATO operation called GLADIO. The author told me he had passed all this on to Toronto police and hoped that, as an ex-spy, I could warn Canadian intelligence. The email also had elaborate diagrams and ‘analysis’.
For the record I did not pass this on. Also for the record I have a friend who once had the job of meeting people at the CSIS HQ front door who came to warn us of impending doom or who told us to stop reading their thoughts. We called these the ‘colander brigade’ in reference to the kitchen utensils they would sometimes wear on their heads to stop electromagnetic intrusions. I am not trying to be cruel since some of these people really needed help but they were not helpful to CSIS or its mandate.
My point here is: where do you get your information from? When you are reading or downloading or streaming which sources do you see as reliable? These are very important questions as in a universe where anyone can post material and anyone can put themselves as an ‘expert’ it is even more crucial to develop a way to separate the real information from the fake (and the US Twit – sorry Twitterer – in Chief is not helping matters by labeling everything he disagrees with as FAKE NEWS).
I have tried to keep up with all the commentary on the Toronto attack – has it really only been less than three days? – but that is proving impossible. Nevertheless, the ‘theories’ behind the suspect’s motivation have run from Islamist extremism (thanks – not – Tarek Fatah ) to the Armenian genocide to autism to misogyny to ‘incel’. In a virtual vacuum of data there are those that have already pronounced the definitive motive. Not only is this unfair but it is reflective of very poor analysis.
I learned over 30+ years at CSIS and CSE that your assessments are only as good as the accuracy of your information/intelligence. You never take a single piece of data at face value – unless it is so catastrophic in its implications that you cannot ignore it – until you have evaluated the source and done as much as you can to corroborate it from a secondary, independent source. Relying on a single untested source can lead to disaster, as we saw in the lead up to the decision by the Bush administration in 2003 to invade Iraq over non-existent weapons of mass destruction (and equally non-existent ties to Al Qaeda).
We know very little about the suspect in Monday’s van rampage. He appears to have been socially awkward, a computer whiz, a failed Canadian Armed Forces recruit and the author of one FaceBook post that praised the incel crowd. All of this is interesting but piecemeal and far from conclusive. True analysis is much harder and exacting than that.
From Monday afternoon until Wednesday evening I gave 47 interviews on Monday’s events to radio, TV and print media. I tried to be circumspect in what I said given the extreme paucity of data and I hoped my caution came out. Others have gone much further in their statements and I cannot support a lot of what they said in light of what we don’t yet know. This is a free world, however, and everyone has a right to say and write what they want.
For those of you that seek to be informed in order to help you make up your own mind and draw conclusions I can only advise you to critically examine the sources of your information. Ask yourself the following questions:
a) who is the source?
b) why does the source know what s/he does?
c) does the source have an ‘agenda’?
d) does the source have any background in the area s/he is commenting on?
e) what else has the source written? Is there a common thread through that?
f) is the source seeking to inform or influence?
If you do this on a regular basis you will be in a better position to judge whether what you are being fed is accurate. In addition, we all have our favourite sources but it is also a good idea to read stuff that is out of your comfort zone. After all, it is only after knowing as much as you can that you can truly make up your mind.
Isn’t it better to be an informed individual? Our democracy depends on it.