National security forces are damned if we do damned if we don’t when if comes to terrorism

Here we go again. It must be that time of the week to take a swipe at the RCMP, or CSIS, or CSE or (fill in the blank ___) police services. A high-profile arrest is made or an action taken and everyone is a critic over what was done, what wasn’t done, etc. Everyone suddenly becomes an armchair expert. You’d think that governments would want to welcome all these professionals into the fold, wouldn’t you? I mean, with all that advice out there, why WOULDN’T we want to benefit from it?

I am speaking of course of last week’s dramatic arrests in Kingston, Ontario, in what is being called a terrorism investigation. To remind you of the salient facts, two men, one under the age of 18, were picked up following a short investigation that the RCMP began in December last year after receiving a tip from the FBI. Aircraft surveillance was apparently used to keep tabs on what apparently involved the manufacture of explosives, although no target or date was ever identified. The RCMP held a news conference on Friday that satisfied no one. Now that charges against the youth have been filed (the older man was released without charge – yet), expect a black hole of information forthcoming.

Cue the outrage! The Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno called the whole affair
a sledgehammer wielded against a slight danger” and bemoans the lack of real detail on who, what, where and why. In fairness, she does have a point and notes that the Americans do a better job of ‘letting in the public on active investigations’. We deserve more as Canadians. Hell, I worked for CSIS for 15 years and am often called on to provide comments on these matters and I too am frustrated at the lack of detail. Sure, I can fill in some of the missing info based on the fact that I worked on hundreds of analogous cases in my time but without access to classified investigative material I too am grasping at straws. Yes, we cannot contaminate an ongoing probe or jeopardise a court case but…

What bugs me though is the criticism over the whole affair, which is being presented as an over-eager response by the Mounties to what was never a real threat. How do the ‘instant experts’ know that the threat was never serious? They are complaining of a lack of data which would have provided more context after all. So a lack of data proves the case was bogus? Huh?

I have often engaged in ‘alternative scenarios’. For example, what if CSIS, the RCMP and their partners had dismissed the amateurish Toronto 18 as a bunch of doofuses that couldn’t organise a piss-up in a bar? What if we had decided that there was no real ‘threat’ there? Would we now be chastising our protectors for not preventing what happened after the luckless terrorists somehow did manage to build three one-tonne fertiliser bombs leading to craters where the TSX and other institutions lie? Would we see this as bad intelligence/policing work much as the ‘blown’ investigation over Aaron Driver back in 2016 was, when we ‘dodged a bullet’ (better: dodged a bomb)?

eLook, I am all for dialogue and constructive criticism. None of us, and that includes CSIS and the RCMP, are perfect and we need to hold them to the highest standard in light of the extraordinary powers they have. These bodies also have to carry out, on a regular basis, detailed internal reviews to ensure that what they did, and what they didn’t do, was the right course of action given what they knew and what they didn’t know at the time.

In addition, those agencies really have to become more transparent, keeping in mind the need to protect sources and methods as well as the integrity of ongoing investigations and future court cases. The ‘no comment’ line has worn painfully thin and is making our national security organisations look as either hiding something or incompetent: I am not sure which is worse.

At the same time, however, we as Canadians have to refrain from jumping to conclusions and making bad assumptions based on far from complete information. The RCMP had good reason, I think, for acting when they did. No agency has the luxury of seeing a threat where there is none. If it turned out that the whole thing was overblown (again perhaps a poor choice of words when dealing with explosives), let’s deal with that when we learn more.

We cannot and must not allow our understandable frustration at not knowing to make baseless allegations on threats to national security and public safety. Under-exaggerating the menace is as dangerous and counter-productive as over-exaggerating it. I for one want to leave these matters to true experts. Don’t you?

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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