Espionage or sabotage, foreign influence… Why do we have security intelligence services like the CSIS? What do they do for us?
Why do we have security intelligence services? What do they do for us? For the purposes of this piece I am going to assume that you all know that these agencies are not reflections of 007 or Jason Bourne. If you maintain that spy fiction is a mirror into spy reality you might want to cast your gaze elsewhere.
Let me answer my own question. Security intelligence agencies exist to carry out investigations that have something to do with national security and public safety. They gather information/intelligence, process it, analyse it and advise the government to which they report on what it all means, They do this so that states can make decisions or change policies.
It really is as simple as that.
The challenge comes when they have to decide what investigations to carry out. This is determined primarily in two ways. First, these agencies have legislation or frameworks that give them their marching orders. For example, my former organisation, CSIS, has an act that outlines what constitutes threats to the security of Canada. It lists four: espionage or sabotage, foreign influenced activities detrimental to the interests of Canada, serious violence for the purpose of achieving a political, religious or ideological objective, and activities directed toward the overthrow by violence of the constitutionally established system of government in Canada. These are both comprehensive and wide enough to allow for interpretation.
So what if a government tells a security intelligence agency NOT to follow a specific threat?
Secondly, governments can task these agencies to collect information/intelligence on a specific threat. This tasking changes over time as events change. In essence, security intelligence agencies are asked to be flexible and adaptive to what is happening in the country and the wider world as it affects their nation and to shift resources appropriately. This is actually harder than it sounds as different priorities are always seeking more attention and it is far from obvious what level of resources are required. Usually it is a case of everything is a top priority.
So what if a government tells a security intelligence agency NOT to follow a specific threat? You may think this kind of interference only happens in tinpot dictatorships where the president appoints his brother in charge of the security service to do his bidding, right?
What if I told you that this happened in the US?
This is exactly what transpired in 2009 when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a report which warned that economic dislocation and the election of a black president could fuel right-wing extremism and identified newly discharged service members as potential recruits. To say that the political backlash was fierce would be an understatement. Congress and others went ballistic, accusing DHS of trampling on First Amendment free speech guarantees, and the report was withdrawn. The author, DHS analyst Daryl Johnson, left the department soon after.
The issue of far right extremism did not go away, however, and the DHS report was prescient. Mr. Johnson told the New York Times that an earlier recognition of the white supremacist threat could have led to training for local police departments to scout indicators of potential threats and undercover operations focused on the white nationalist movement. Instead “the backlash to my report created a chilling effect across government at all levels. Everyone was kind of afraid or hesitant or didn’t even want to look at this issue.”
“In our modern age, the continuation of racially based violent extremism, particularly violent white supremacy, is an abhorrent affront to the nation.”DHS analyst Daryl Johnson
There is a silver lining to this debacle. In a little-noticed strategy document published last month to guide law enforcement on emerging threats the acting secretary of homeland security stated that the department is trying to project a new vigilance about violent white nationalism. The acting secretary added that “in our modern age, the continuation of racially based violent extremism, particularly violent white supremacy, is an abhorrent affront to the nation.”
Well, better late than never as they say.
But there is an important lesson here. Governments have every right to task security services with what to focus on, based on the criteria I outlined above. They must NEVER, however, tell them to NOT look at something. These agencies must be allowed to go where the intelligence leads them, provided it is in keeping with their mandates. If an agency sees a rise in the threat level from cat owners, than investigating cat owners it is.
I am saddened by this blatant political interference in the actions of those in whose hands we place our national security. Of course we must always subject these agencies to oversight to ensure that they do not break the law or go in directions not consistent with their mandates. But to tell them not to look at something because it is politically sensitive is unacceptable. We are better than this.
In light of the far right menace to the US I hope its protectors are now permitted to do what they should have been doing all along.