When intelligence agencies get it wrong cut them some slack please

For those who do not know this I am a hockey goaltender.  I am not a very good one, mind you, but I love playing ‘net’.  This is of course an absurd attitude as a goalie in hockey has to do everything in his or her power to get the body between a hard, vulcanised rubber puck and the goal to prevent it from going in.  Most sane people do not willingly and voluntarily do this.  Hence, my sanity is justifiably under question.

My favourite line when it comes to professional NHL goaltenders was that of the great Jacques Plante (who thank God invented the first mask we all now use!) who when asked to describe what it was like to be a goalie at the highest level in the world said: “How would you like a job where when you made a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo?”

Welcome to the world of security intelligence.

Those of us who toiled for our respective spy agencies (I worked for both CSIS and CSE in Canada) do so in the shadows.  And for good reason as the methods and sources we use to collect intelligence on a variety of threats and issues must remain hidden: if they become public they tend to disappear, forcing to go back to the drawing board to find more.  I know that the average Canadian probably finds this frustrating, but this is the way the business has always worked and will continue to work.

When you work in this industry your successes are rarely made known openly.  Government officials will (sometimes) acknowledge the contribution that intelligence made to a decision and we have to be satisfied with that.

Our failures, on the other hand, are usually front page news.  This is precisely what is unfolding in the UK today as MI5 (the British Security Service) has been faulted by the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee for moving “too slowly” to establish how dangerous last year’s Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi really was (22 people died in the terrorist attack).  Abedi had returned to the UK from Libya where he had apparently learned his bomb-making skills and MI5 was blamed for not fully learning lessons from attacks dating back 13 years.  The committee also said that the spy agency had to figure out how to “join the dots” in its investigations on suspects.

I’ll get back to “join the dots” in a second but first allow me to rise to the defence of my British friends.  MI5 has identified 23,000 people of interest when it comes to terrorism.  23,000!!!  No, they do not all pose the same level of threat but if anyone tells you they have a full proof system to determine the ONE guy who should be watched above all that person is lying to you (and probably has a product to sell: this morning I saw one such claim by an Israeli company that says it can pick otherwise unknown terrorists out of a crowd using technology that can determine ‘terrorist personality’ based solely on facial image – as if!).  The simple truth is that no security service – and MI5 is a very good one – can prioritise 23,000 potential terrorists.  My heart goes out to my UK cousins.

Secondly, while I agree that civilian or government oversight of security services is a must in a democracy, I do take issue with non-professionals weighing in on what these services should or should not do when it comes to their operations.  I am OK with mandates and rule of law, but no one with no on the ground experience has any business telling spies how to do their jobs.  The fact that the UK committee brought out the old line about ‘connecting the dots’ just shows how woefully ignorant the members are.  I have made this argument before and do not wish to bore my readers with it again, suffice to say that intelligence is not akin to kindergarten drawings.

I am not trying to say that an intelligence agency cannot get better at what it does.  We all learn from experience and from our ‘mistakes’.  But to erroneously frame what went wrong does not help.  Like a goalie, having a red light go on whenever one gets past you and have 22,000 (or 22,000,000) people call you losers and incompetent does not lead to better practices.

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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