Intelligence and the next pandemic

Spy agencies can do lots of things, but some tasks are a challenge.

This contribution was published in The Hill Times on June 11, 2020

OTTAWA, CANADA — When you work in intelligence, you take your direction on what to collect or investigate from the government of the day. This applies differently depending on the organisation in question.  CSIS’ marching orders are spelled out in the CSIS Act.  CSE’s tend to shift.  The aforementioned directions take the form of ‘intelligence requirements’ and they do change over time. 

During my initial years at CSE of what would become a three-decade career in the Canadian intelligence apparatus  most of what we focused on was what the Soviet Union and its allies were up to, and mostly military shenanigans at that.  This was still the Cold War after all (remember that era?).

Today of course times are different, as are requirements I would imagine. I used to participate in annual intelligence needs assessments with our primary clients.  As a foreign intelligence service, CSE’s main interlocutors all worked at the Lester Pearson Building for Global Affairs Canada – GAC (or as we called it then External Affairs..or was in Foreign Affairs and International Trade…or was it…?).  There were other interested parties but GAC was definitely at the top of the heap.

Solid, accurate intelligence on future outbreaks can help governments prepare in advance and perhaps lead to responses that were not as fly-by-night as those for the novel coronavirus.

We did our best with what we had

This exercise usually resulted in far too many demands on issues that we were challenged to collect on, and I must confess that we found it frustrating at times.  Nevertheless, we received orders: we did not give them.  And we did our best with what we had (NB I left CSE in 2001 so I am not qualified to comment on how this process functions today).

The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a new requirement: information on this and other viruses that can wreak havoc on our economy and our lives, as we have all witnessed over the past few months.  Solid, accurate intelligence on future outbreaks can help governments prepare in advance and perhaps lead to responses that were not as fly-by-night as those for the novel coronavirus.

It remains an open question, however, of what to collect?  Medical lab research (which is normally public anyway)?  Government obfuscation (such as what China did with COVID-19)?  National positioning on gaining access to necessary equipment (such as PPE)?  And then there is how to collect it. SIGINTHUMINT? Imagery?

Good intelligence requires that the best people be assigned to the job. We must allow our spy agencies to get the resources they need to accomplish the task before the next pandemic hits.

On top of this is the challenge of understanding what is being collected in the first place.  To focus on the first requirement suggested above, what kind of knowledge is necessary to interpret scientific jargon (I can tell you that none of us at CSE would have been able to understand this kind of data in the 1990s)?  You cannot analyse what you cannot fathom.

I do not recall any ‘pandemic requirements’ in my time as a spy. I am quite confident that has changed of late.  Successfully meeting this need for data and insight would necessitate more collaboration than has traditionally taken place in the secretive intelligence world.  Scientists from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) would most probably have to be seconded to CSE to meet these goals.  That is not a bad thing as it would enhance inter-agency cooperation and mutual appreciation.

The Canadian Security Establishment building in Ottawa.

How does collecting on pandemics fits into the CSIS mandate?

Alternatively, perhaps raw intercept could be sent to PHAC for their in-house analysis (for all I know this is already happening: we NEVER used to send raw intelligence to clients for any reason).  This would necessitate secure communications channels as unassessed material can betray sources and methods.

Note that I am referring here primarily to CSE and not CSIS, that ‘other’ agency where I laboured for fifteen years.  I find it difficult to come up with how collecting on pandemics fits into the CSIS mandate.  It does not seem to fall under any of the ‘threats’ as outlined in section 2 of the CSIS Act.  Maybe CSE is the best place to leverage this task.

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into the foreground the need to plan for the next one and the role of intelligence agencies.

Intelligence collectors and analysts do their utmost to fulfill the wishes of their masters.  We may not always succeed but we try our hardest.  Good intelligence requires that the best people be assigned to the job.  We must allow our spy agencies to get the resources they need to accomplish the task.

Before the next pandemic hits.

Phil Gurski
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2 thoughts on “Intelligence and the next pandemic

  1. Phil,

    I am very happy that you addressed this issue and, if I might summarize, the question is really: Who looks after our national interests pertaining to virus and other similar threats to the health and safety of Canadians. I agree with you that the medical and scientific aspects of a viral or biological outbreak are best handled by the scientists and doctors and, in some form, we rely on organizations like the WHO and PHAC to guide us accordingly.

    However, we have information that suggests the danger of this current virus was downplayed by foreign national interests at the source of the outbreak. For discussion, is there a more refined role for CSIS here in assessing for Canadians (via our government decision makers) whether the information by other national governments relating to emerging threats is accurate and verified?

    How does the CSIS mandate in reference to pandemic threats differ from other national intelligence entities, such as CIA, MI-6, etc.?

    Thanks again for raising the issue.

    1. Terry!! So nice to hear from you. The problem lies with the fact that we in Canada have neither a CIA nor an MI6. CSIS has a foreign intelligence mandate that is stupidly limited to Canada. CSE can do foreign intelligence but normally stays away from strategic analysis (or at least it did when I was there).

      Stay well my friend!

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