Masters of a new domain
“The structure of modern terrorist organizations in many ways is compatible with the structure of the internet…the means of communication have become internalized and controlled by the terrorists themselves.”
– Gabriel Weimann, Terror on the Internet
If the truism of warfare is to learn from your enemy, perhaps it is no surprise that a Cold War system designed by the US military to protect nuclear weapons through a decentralized web of computer networks has today been adopted as the theatre of operations for global jihad.
The threat of cyberterrorism is more imagined than real – to date there have been no confirmed cyber attacks – but computers recovered in Afghanistan and elsewhere clearly indicate a sophisticated knowledge and use of the technology.
“The theatre of operations in the future will be the internet,” John Adams, Chief of the Communications Security Establishment, recently told a conference in Ottawa. “We have to master it or we will pay the price.”
Rather than hacking western corporate and government computer systems, terrorist organizations have made full use of Web’s reach and anonymity to recruit and train, and share and distribute information. Much like corporations, highly professional websites publicize activities and achievements, distribute tradecraft manuals and tout the successes of campaigns (and martyrs). Online journals and newsletters share best practices while email and chat rooms provide networking and easy communication. And no tool can match the research capability – of weapons systems and physical targets – of the Web. It has, some claim, replaced the camps of Afghanistan as a training and networking center.
In a 2004 article in The New York Times, Gabriel Weinmann and Daniel Benjamin argued that to understand the jihadist movement’s mind set, more is uncovered from the internet than covert phone communications. “Islamist websites and chat rooms are filled with evaluations of current events, discussions of strategy, and elaborations of jihadist ideology.”
SINCE 9/11, Adams says, there has been a “phenomenal transformation” of Canada’s signals intelligence organization. The agency has a three-pronged mandate – to gather foreign intelligence, protect information systems and assist federal agencies such as the Canadian Forces, CSIS and the RCMP – but it has seen increasing emphasis on security issues, especially threats to critical information infrastructure. CSE has grown from 900 to over 1600 employees, speaking over 40 languages. Reflecting the shift in focus to terrorism and the cyber world, many of those new recruits are engineers and many more are computer scientists and mathematicians.
While the transformation may put CSE ahead of the general public service curve when it comes to the pending retirement wave – Adams now boasts a relatively young staff – the agency faces many of the problems associated with knowledge transfer and the loss of expertise. But with the demand for real-time information in rapidly changing and dangerous environments such as Afghanistan, that new staff faces enormous pressure.
”This is a difficult set of circumstances: you want people to be imaginative, to be bold, and to be right, because others will act on that intelligence in real time,” Adams, a 30-year veteran of the military and the Coast Guard, said in a recent interview. “Yet you have to understand that there are chances they won’t be. Analysts and linguists can’t always be right. They’re working with bits and pieces of information to try to make a whole. If you turn a map on its side, what looks like one country could be another; with information, if you put it together incorrectly, you might draw the wrong conclusions.
“That’s the challenge we’ve got. And, unfortunately, if we make a mistake, the consequences can be disastrous.”
Building bold thinking into any organization is a challenge, but in the intelligence community it comes with an obvious paradox, best illustrated by the findings of the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Select Committee on prewar intelligence: the first declared a need for bold and imaginative thinking while the second noted a need for more careful review of evidence.
How an agency overcomes that, especially at a time when the intelligence community as a whole is facing greater scrutiny, depends on its ability to communicate – to government, the public and even to its own employees.
Adams admits that is one barrier standing in CSE’s way. “We’re not huge by any stretch of the imagination but communication continues to be the challenge. We’re just not doing enough of that. When you’re in a transformation mode, it is that much more important. But it’s difficult when operations and demands continue to escalate at the same time.”
The intelligence community must be careful not to create what he calls ’panicable silence’ – lengthy periods during which not much is revealed of its activities. And that applies across the typical government silos as well as within CSE and it own internal silos. “These are things that seem obvious, and in an organization our size, you wouldn’t have thought they’d be there – but they were. We’ve coined the expression ‘managing as one’. That doesn’t mean that you’re rolling everybody up into the same business line. It means you’ve got them thinking corporately. The key to that is communications, communications, communications.“
Nothing is accomplished without partnerships, Adams says. In addition to the relationships with other departments and agencies, Canada coordinates and shares equally within the ‘Five Eyes’ – the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand. But Adams would like to see more interaction with other countries willing to assist in the pursuit of terrorists.
“What we’re finding more and more is that we’re having to look outside the ‘Five Eyes’ because, clearly, terrorists are everywhere. Other partnerships are becoming more and more important. We need more help and it’s a real challenge.”
One partnership that has grown with the transformation of CSE is the new relationship with the Canadian Forces. While the two have always been allied, the deployment in Afghanistan and the increased emphasis on security issues have required greater cooperation. “What is new is the closeness of that relationship,” Adams acknowledged. “Traditionally, we did strategic signals intelligence and the uniforms did tactical signals intelligence. What we’re finding is that that interface has become blurred. In fact, we have a directive from the Minister of National Defense to become more closely aligned with the uniforms.
“Before, we could toil away in the shadows and nobody knew what we were doing – we were accountable to National Defense but we were a line item in Defense’s very large budget. The transformation is demanding a level of management that our people aren’t used to. We really do have to work hard on that.”
While CSE may continue to work at its communication strategies, Adams has no concerns about the ability of his people to overcome any obstacles as the agency takes on new challenges – “they are extremely proud and they will not back off.” All that he asks from government is the support, physically and financially, to allow them to succeed. “I am very proud of getting to where we are from where we were in 2001. And I can’t imagine a more relevant, more fascinating organization than ours.”