On existential threats

It is rare for the head of an intelligence agency to give a public talk. Spy services, as we all know, work in the shadows and do things that are sometimes not generally nice (like assassinating terrorists). We’ve all seen the Jason Bourne films, right?

So when the leader of one of these organisations does speak openly it is best to listen up. True, these speeches are frustrating for what they don’t say but I think most people understand that many things have to remain secret, otherwise we would not have ‘secret’ intelligence services like the UK’s MI6. But even the tiniest hints can give us great insight.

Through such addresses we can learn what keeps our spies and officials up at night no matter how infrequent they are made. The director of ASIO, Australia’s domestic intelligence agency, made one such offering recently. Here is some of what he had to say:

  •  terrorism poses “a terrible risk” and should be seen as “a very serious matter (but) terrorism has never been an existential threat to established states”
  • the risk from the current wave of Salafi-Jihadist terrorism has “plateaued” and should not be expected to increase drastically
  • the threat of foreign espionage “is ultimately an existential threat to the state, or it can be an existential threat to the state”
  • espionage and foreign-influence activities as “typically quiet, insidious and with a long tail…unlike the immediacy of terrorism incidents”, the harmful effects of espionage may not appear for many years or even decades after the initial activity has been carried out.

There is a lot here to mull over but I want to focus solely on what Mr. Duncan Lewis meant by ‘existential threats’. An ‘existential’ threat is one that poses a serious challenge to a state or a society and may cause its destruction. Nuclear weapons pose such a threat (I have seen a lot of films the day after a nuclear exchange and it ain’t good). Pandemics are similar in nature (ever see the remake of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?). An asteroid hitting the Earth would not leave us in a happy state. But espionage?

I am not so sure I agree with Mr. Duncan.

Full disclosure: I am not an espionage specialist even if I worked as a spy for three decades. I never worked that side of the business although I do present myself as a terrorism kinda guy (note that I did NOT say I am a terrorist!) since I do have experience in that regard. In light of my very sparse CI (counter intelligence) exposure I need to tread lightly but I am nevertheless having a hard time imagining a scenario in which espionage can put us in a position whereby all is lost. Foreign nefarious actors can steal secrets and try to influence elections through fake news and such but is any of this really capable of bringing down a country? After all, that is what ‘existential’ means to me. You may have a different view.

Coincidentally I was glad to see that the chief Aussie spy stated quite clearly that terrorism is not an existential problem. Because it isn’t. Unless you are an Afghan citizen: whatever you think of US negotiations with the Taliban the latter is not going to drop terrorist tactics any time soon and those extremists could indeed overthrow the elected government I’d wager. But for the rest of us terrorism is an irritant. A serious irritant that we must try to stop but nowhere near a set of actors that can replace what we have built as societies.

Perhaps what the ASIO head honcho may have been trying to say is that the espionage threat needs more resources. It is very obvious that ever since 9/11 intelligence agencies took people off CI and other investigative programmes and put them on CT. Perhaps it is time to restore the original balance and division of effort. Sure, we had to focus on terrorism in the wake of those horrendous attacks but that does not mean that other threat actors stopped being a menace.

In the end it might be a good idea to limit the use of the term ‘existential’ to those dangers that are really enormous. Using it in a sloppy way leads to bad analysis and bad decision making. Trust me, we have had enough of both in the ill-named ‘war on terrorism’: we do not need more. I so hope that no one will start referring to the ‘war on espionage’.

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.

Leave a Reply