Adequate imagination? Anticipating future threats
In the past decade or so, and certainly since 9/11, most western intelligence services have shifted their attentions and resources to the threat of terrorism, specifically the threat posed by the ‘ideology of al-Qaeda’ – espoused by the original organization, its affiliates and, increasingly, individuals and groups inspired by it.
Most defence, security and intelligence institutions spent the 1990s retrenching as governments around the world extracted a peace dividend to mark the end of the Cold War – and what some saw as the inauguration of a so called ‘new world order’.
But even with the infusion of new resources in the last five years, it is evident that security threats other than terrorism remain, raising the question of whether they are receiving the attention they warrant.
North Korea recently reminded the world of the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction only months after an abortive test of a new long-range missile (and in the midst of on-again, off-again multilateral negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program).
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency has warned that as many as thirty countries could have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in the next several decades absent successful non-proliferation measures. And in August, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq reiterated the call for the organization to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Foreign espionage is, if anything, growing and becoming more sophisticated than ever through the application of new technologies. Foreign interference in domestic affairs, especially in multicultural societies with large immigrant communities, is more prevalent than ever before.
Attacks on computer networks and other critical information technology systems used to be seen as largely the work of energetic, strange young men sitting at their computers. Some of these people have graduated to the payroll of governments, bringing espionage into the highest levels of new technologies.
Recently, the editor of Foreign Policy authored a book on contemporary international organized crime, noting that some estimated that this activity was now generating revenues equal to 10% of global GDP. He highlighted the corrosive effect that the corruption associated with this phenomenon was having on public institutions to the point of criminalizing whole governments in some countries.
These are all rather traditional security threats. Looking ahead, one might ask whether we are replicating the mistake often attributed to military establishments of organizing themselves to fight the last war. As the 9/11 Commission asked: do we have the adequate level of imagination to anticipate future threats?
There are a number of technology-related issues that pose significant dilemmas for the national security business.
First, the pace of change in technology, particularly in telecommunications, is challenging the capacity of both intelligence and law enforcement agencies to maintain effective – and court warranted – interception capacities. We increasingly risk going “deaf and blind” in an environment where telecommunications providers regularly change their systems in the interest of improving service but in the process can literally leave us out of the loop on intercepts.
Second, the use of the internet has assumed enormous importance for contemporary terrorists. It has in some respects been transformed into a terrorist university, obviating the past need for travel to a conflict zone for ‘on the job training’. Successful attack techniques in the Iraqi conflict can be videotaped and transmitted instantly to others around the world. Or alternatively, credit can be taken for propaganda reasons for successes they never achieved.
Recipes and instructions for explosives using commercial components are now almost as common as restaurant reviews. Operational techniques – usually good ones – to counter surveillance are equally available. And one whole chapter of the al-Qaeda manual provides detailed guidance on how to mange arrest and detention.
The use of readily available encryption and steganography, password protected websites and chat rooms, the equivalent of internet dead letter drops, and other techniques are making already difficult communication interceptions even more problematic. It is also a medium of radicalization for many who are inspired by a variety of propaganda tools flowing across it.
All of these challenges will be further exacerbated as we move into wireless internet access and develop technologies like VOIP.
Third, we are seeing a substantial growth in the availability of very high quality false identity documents – whether stolen, forged or provided by other governments. It is not uncommon now to find individuals utilizing not just one but multiple identities to traverse the world without raising suspicion. It remains an open question as to whether new advances in biometric technology will help control this phenomenon.
Like any other contemporary enterprise, the intelligence and national security domain is not and cannot be static. CSIS has been an innovative organization in the past but we recognize the continuing need to adjust to new realities and demands. However, there are five areas where we must either adapt or accelerate changes already launched.
First, we have to strengthen our capacity to operate effectively outside of Canada in support of our core national security mandate. National borders are only peripherally relevant to the vast majority of threats we deal with now or to the risks to Canadians, at home or outside Canada. This has been recognized for some years now in our information sharing with foreign partners, which has been and will continue to be critical to our capacity to deliver on our responsibilities.
While we have had personnel operating abroad for some time, it is obvious that we need to further build our capacity to function outside Canada more effectively. Supporting the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan or assisting in the efforts to recover Canadian hostages in Iraq or to evacuate Canadian citizens from Lebanon all represent a new departure from past operations. And it is clear that we need to strengthen our future investments in people, and in the infrastructure to support them outside of Canada.
Second, we have a series of substantial human resource issues with which to contend over the coming years. Like most other employers we need to mange the impact of the generational change as the baby boomers – with their wealth of knowledge and experience – leave the workforce. We need to invest more in the training and development of our younger staff to ensure that they are as well equipped as possible to take on larger responsibilities with less time in the organization than did their predecessors.
As well, it will entail developing innovative approaches to knowledge transfer so as to avoid losing the decades of experience and expertise with an accelerated rate of retirements.
We have very professional and dedicated employees now, but we also recognize the need to build on those strengths by attracting new types of expertise and talent.
Among others, we will need a broader range and more depth in our analytical capacity – be it better understanding of the evolving realities of our own society or the histories, culture, politics and dynamics of those outside Canada.
We will also need more and different talent in the realm of information management to respond to a growing problem in managing the storage, retrieval, cross-referencing and analysis of the sheer volume of information. And we must strengthen our ability to take on new approaches to ‘meta data’ analysis, searching for the underlying patterns and trends linked to activities.
Third, we need to improve our ability to communicate differently and with a range of stakeholders.
In the realm of traditional public communications it is increasingly important for us to be able to explain both what we do and what we do not do. While there will always be limits on what we can discuss publicly, there is a clear imperative for a better understanding of our organization given the misconceptions that often surround our work.
As important, we will need to further efforts to reach out to diverse communities in Canada who feel most affected by contemporary security issues or threats. We cannot afford to have such communities feel alienated from us or from law enforcement agencies, and, in the process, not meet their civic responsibilities.
Finally, we need to do a better job of both engaging expertise outside the organization on our issues and, in the age of Wikipedia, recognizing the value and utility of open source information. Different perspectives from outside the organization – whether in academia or elsewhere – can help avoid groupthink and simultaneously assist us in strengthening our analytic capacity.
One final challenge we need to address is partnerships, whether collaboration with other federal agencies or provincial and municipal authorities. We must also ensure we have effective relations with international partners.
We certainly have no monopoly on national security issues – either domestically or internationally – and must ensure that we have the necessary collaborative mechanisms in place to leverage resources from the broader national security community.
Jim Judd is director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. This article is adapted from the John Tait Memorial Lecture delivered at the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies conference in Ottawa.