Robbing Peter to pay Paul in national security

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on April 23, 2018

Way back when I was an analyst at CSE I recall a conversation with an workmate about who was more important to the organisation (we were both young and full of piss and vinegar).  He worked on the ‘Soviet problem’: I was assigned along with a very small team to the ‘rest of the world’.  This was the mid-1980s, the tail end of the Cold War, although we didn’t know then that the Soviet Union and their Warsaw Pact allies were a few years from collapse.  My friend would tell me that me and my colleagues were nothing more than a sideline for CSE and that he and his (hundreds of) colleagues were the main game in town.  It was hard to argue with that given the times we lived in then.

And yet within less than a decade everything changed.  The ‘new world order’  had dawned and few people cared about the former Soviet Union as much as they used to, including intelligence agencies.  As a result many longstanding analysts and linguists were (sometimes not so) subtly encouraged to retrain in a new, more useful skill or retire.  I recall one man who, if memory serves me correctly, ended up becoming the guy that opened the door to the ice for the Ottawa Senators after a long career in intelligence.

As with much in life our predictions and expectations were not that accurate.  Yes, the Soviets became a ‘sideline’ for a while only to return with a vengeance under Vladimir Putin.  Allegations of interference in US elections, aggression in Ukraine, the poisoning of dissidents in the UK and Russian support for Syrian butcher Assad have reminded us all too well that we might want to keep an eye on what Moscow is up to.  I have no idea how many Russia experts either CSE or CSIS currently employs but I bet it is not enough.  In hindsight, which is always 20-20 as we know, we should have retained some of those older analysts and been seeking younger ones to replace them.

This reminiscence came to me when I read that the RCMP is woefully short of experts on what is known as ‘white collar crime’.   According to a Chief Superintendent, “an era of cutbacks and shifting priorities diverted the focus away from those investigations and into other areas, such as terrorism and drug crimes,” and the RCMP now has to look for expertise outside the force to bolster its capabilities.

We have been here before.  When you work in national security you constantly monitor multiple threats and move resources around like pieces on a chessboard, hoping that you have the right pieces on the right squares to address the more important issues. Often you do not.  I recall that way back in the late 1970s, at the time of the US-Iran hostage crisis, there were only two Farsi-speaking analysts with the necessary security clearances in the US government (this should not be surprising: up until 1979 Iran had been a close US ally under the Shah and thus posed no threat to the US).  US diplomats were taken in early November of that year and by the end of that month those two had worked their yearly overtime allotment.  It goes without saying that a hiring/clearing binge ensued.

The challenge is similar in Canada.  The bulk of our national security deployments have been in the area of terrorism, more specifically Islamist extremism since that particular threat stream has been by far the largest for the past few decades.  This despite the fact that there are other terrorist threats (far right for example) and non-terrorist threats (foreign espionage and interference).  I am skeptical that our intelligence agencies have been adequately staffed on all these issues.

The easy solution is to provide more resources.  This, of course, is easier said than done and governments are constantly telling their management to do more with less. Gone are the days, in this era of fiscal restraint, where departments are told to just go out and hire more bodies, regardless of expense.  Agencies such as CSE, CSIS and the RCMP will grow a little but not at the rates they once did.

I always felt that my career in intelligence was rewarding, challenging and fun.  I can honestly say that I could not wait to get to the office each day to see what I would be asked to work on.  Sure there was pressure to perform and get things right, but the my morale was high.  As threats multiply and bad guys seem to always be one step ahead of the good guys I can imagine the frustration at not having enough people to do the job required.  Throw in public expectations at perfection – Canadians do not want to hear that their agencies failed to stop a criminal act – and you can imagine the impact on our protectors. My heart goes out to them.  Governments need to figure out a way to manage this resource shortfall.

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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