The role of torture in counter terrorism

Well this is a strange move by the Trudeau government.  It was announced yesterday that Canada’s police, intelligence and border agencies – i.e. the RCMP, CSIS and CBSA respectively – can use “torture-tainted information” in efforts to stop a terrorist act from occurring.  The allowance was not unlimited however, as these organisations cannot “disclose information to — or request it from” any place where it is reasonable to assume that torture will be used, presumably in the pursuit of further information.

The reason I call this directive strange is that it seems so unnecessary and the announcement was so ham handed.  After all, we in Canada underwent such a soul-searching, gut-wrenching number of inquiries into cases where it was claimed that information passed on by CSIS and the RCMP allegedly led to the torture of Canadians abroad (i.e. in Syria and Egypt).  It is odd to say the least why the Liberals would want to open this can of worms again and open themselves to accusations that it does not care about mistreatment.  And, sure enough, the usual cast of characters (the NDP, Amnesty International…) have done exactly that.  Maybe the decision was made to ‘clarify’ what CSIS and the RCMP (and CBSA) are to do when they receive intelligence from a partner where torture is a real possibility.  The whole thing strikes me as a reference to a ‘ticking bomb’ scenario where a terrorist act is imminent and the normal rules of human rights are sacrificed to save lives.  Hollywood aside, these scenarios are few and far between (I never came across one in more than three decades in intelligence).

What is missing in all this is a rational, measured discussion on intelligence and how it is used.  Intelligence is nothing more than information.  It is increasingly the case that spies and cops rely more and more on open source information rather than secret data, although the latter still does, and always will, play an important role.  What is crucial though is the accuracy, reliability and – in a perfect world – corroboration of that information.  Regardless of source, bad information is bad information and using bad information leads to bad decision making at the operational/tactical, strategic and policy levels.  If your information/intelligence is wrong so will your actions be.

Here is how intelligence gathering and analysis works (I will use CSIS as a template as I worked there for 15 years). CSIS collects information itself and receives information from a wide variety of sources: open source, other government agencies, allies, and other nations.  It looks at everything it has amassed and assesses it for accuracy, reliability and tries to corroborate what it has by finding other sources.  After all, if three people tell you – independently – the same thing than it becomes more likely that this piece of intelligence is accurate.  Once CSIS has performed this process it can make decisions on what to do with it – run operations, share with partners or advise government.  All information has the potential of being accurate or inaccurate.

If information comes from a state where there are reasonable grounds to suspect it was obtained under mistreatment or torture then it must be seen through this light.  What a person says while beaten is dubious by definition since it has been widely reported that people will say anything to make the abuse stop.  However  – and this is going to make a lot of people angry – all information obtained through torture is not inherently inaccurate.  If multiple independent sources corroborate what was learned through mistreatment the information becomes by definition more credible.

No, I am not advocating or supporting the use of torture – which I find to be abhorrent – and I do believe that Canada must abide by the various conventions condemning torture to which it is a signatory.  But, our agencies have to be allowed to assess the intelligence they have access to in order to make the best decision possible.  At times, that decision will be linked to the disruption of a terrorist act.  Why would anyone want to handcuff CSIS or the RCMP a priori by saying that neither agency can, under any circumstance, use information derived from party X because there is a chance it was obtained through mistreatment?  We must let those agencies apply the tools and methods they have developed to determine what is true and what is not. Again, CSIS and the RCMP are not stupid and of course will look at all intelligence with a critical eye, especially that received from a source known to engage in torture.

We need to go beyond our well-founded aversion and rejection of the use of torture to put in place practices that work while at the same time maintaining our positions against abuse.  All information is suspect when received and must be evaluated for accuracy.  Let’s allow CSIS,the RCMP and CBSA to do what we mandate them to do.


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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