Terrorism and information sharing

Canadians are funny people.  I don’t mean funny ha-ha although we do have a pretty good track record of comedians (Jim Carey, Mike Myers, Samantha Bee, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara – I am sure I am missing other great comics).  I mean we want our security and intelligence agencies to stop terrorism but we don’t want them to share intelligence and information.  This appears to be one of the main concerns over Bill C-51 for many Canadians.

There really is no other way to say this: information sharing is the lifeblood of counter-terrorism.  If Canadian agencies are prohibited from passing what they know to other Canadian partners, our collective efforts suffer.  Whether it is CSIS or the RCMP or CBSA or whoever, our government players are too small to do the job of identifying and neutralising terrorism on their own.  They have to work together. In my experience, the exchange is pretty good, although it could be better.  CSIS in particular can probably be more open with its partners who have the required clearances and secure storage facilities.  To my mind, unless intelligence is super sensitive (i.e. the info can come from only one person or collection platform), the books should be open, short of disclosing sources and methods of course.  We also need to get much better at bringing in municipal and provincial law enforcement since those guys act as force multipliers for gathering intelligence on bad guys.

This also goes for sharing with foreign partners.  We need to leverage their capabilities and knowledge since they have expertise and coverage in areas of the world we don’t.  Terrorism became transnational a  long time ago and as good as our agents are they can’t be everywhere.  Sharing is paramount to success.

I know what the main protest will be here.  What about Maher Arar?  What about others allegedly tortured on the basis of Canadian information?  Doesn’t sharing with dubious countries raise the likelihood of mistreatment?

Yes, but…

In my time at CSIS we shared intelligence with a number of countries.  That information was accompanied by strong caveats on how it could be used and there were many occasions on which the Service elected to stop sharing with a particular country when it was judged that country would not respect our conditions.

But aren’t we being naive?  How can we expect dictatorships to respect human rights, let alone caveats? Quite simply we can’t.  Sharing is a risk.  Not sharing is a bigger one.  What option do Canadians want?  Take no risks, share nothing, reduce the possibility of mistreatment to zero but mean we will not have the intelligence on future actors and plots?  Share in a careful and judicious manner, reduce misuse to the maximum possible and stop terrorism?  I know where I stand.

The bottom line is that information is only as good as the people who have it.  Yes, we need to ensure that it is shared only with those that have a strict need to know and we need to dictate conditions to our foreign partners.  We have to put workable mechanisms in place to achieve this, recognising that there will be shortcomings and mistakes, which we have to minimise (i.e. reduce the number of mistakes, not minimise the damage from them).  On the other hand, not sharing information is not an option.  Unless we want bad guys to succeed.

It’s our choice.

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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