What should the public be told about terrorist threats?

The public has a complicated relationship with intelligence agencies.  On the one hand we love to watch James Bond and Jason Bourne films, despite the fact that the ways these spies work has very little if anything to do with how things really happen.  On the other we get frustrated because these agencies tell us so little of what they do.  This is of course understandable, if you are on the inside: spies cannot divulge everything they know for the simple reason that if they do so they will not be in business much longer.  Things like sources and methods must remain secret.  That may rankle people but that is just the way it is.

On occasion our spymasters and police chiefs do make public statements about threats – think of all those “all points bulletins” about killers at large.  Sometimes the heads of intelligence will provide a tiny glimpse into what their organisations know.  In Canada this usually happens when they address a parliamentary or senate committee.  And of course what they tell us is very general in nature, as it must be for fear of hampering ongoing investigations.

Many will ask, however, whether the public needs to know more about what is going on and whether there is a concrete threat to their safety.  These questions have arisen over the last few days in conjunction with the terrorist takedown of Aaron Driver in Strathroy.  Specifically, two issues have surfaced: should the residents of that small southwestern Ontario town been advised that Mr. Driver was living among them and should the cabdriver who showed up at Mr. Driver’s house been warned by the police that his customer was in fact a terrorist (the cabbie is considering legal action and has retained renowned lawyer Lawrence Greenspon). Let’s take a look at both of these matters.

First, it is unclear whether the police or anyone else has the authority to publicly identify someone on a peace bond, as Mr. Driver was.  Recall that those on a peace bond have not been charged with any offence.   There are undoubtedly privacy issues here and I do not pretend to understand all the legal ramifications.  Suffice to say that the police may not have been in a position to tell Mr. Driver’s neighbours that he was known as a radical extremist.  Besides, what would the community have done with this information?  Hounded him out of town?  Lynched him?  I understand that people would love to know these things but there are other considerations.

Secondly, the cabdriver’s claim that the police put his life in danger has little merit (he was in fact very lightly wounded in the event).  I do not pretend to be an expert in police action but I do know that in every situation you go in with incomplete information.  The RCMP has strong suspicions that the man in the video was Aaron Driver and they swiftly arrived to put him under surveillance.  Beyond that there were still a lot of unknowns.  Was he armed?  Did he have an accomplice?  What was he planning to attack?  When?  How was he going to get from Strathroy to his target?  The list goes on and on.

So, when Terry Duffield (the cabbie) suddenly – and unexpectedly – shows up this introduces more questions.  Is he possibly an accomplice?  Does he know anything about Mr. Driver’s intentions?  In fact, the RCMP and its partners acted very quickly once Mr. Driver left the house.  As I have noted, this is actually a successful operation, notwithstanding the questions surrounding how Mr. Driver had Internet access and was able to build a bomb, issues that do need to be resolved.

In the end, the RCMP went with what it knew at the time and neutralised a potentially serious threat.  There was much that was uncertain when they set up their surveillance perimeter.  And for those who say the whole operation was a gross exaggeration – Mr. Driver’s “explosives” seemed little more than firecrackers – we have now learned that he was in possession of a much more powerful bomb that did not go off.

The tug of war between secrecy and the public’s right to know will go on forever.  I do think that our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies should provide more frequent threat overviews to Canadians.  Yet, much has to remain secret to protect the ways our protectors operate.   That may be frustrating but it is necessary.


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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