Assessing the information tsunami
Canada’s intelligence community has traditionally maintained a low profile in the government decision-making process. And, as professor Wesley Wark has argued, that profile had a price. The Integrated Threat Assessment Centre was created in 2004 in part to help improve government responses to terrorist threats by accessing expertise and sharing information housed across numerous departments.
From nine original members, the centre has expanded over the past three years to 11 federal agencies and two provincial police forces, Ontario and Quebec, and continues to explore relationships with others at home and abroad. Though legal and legislative rules still restrict some of what can be shared within ITAC, classified and unclassified assessments now reach an ever-expanding list of clients.
Just days after terrorists struck Mumbai, prompting a flurry of assessments for decision-makers, Daniel Giasson, a 24-year veteran of the public service who was appointed director of ITAC in January 2007, spoke with associate editor Chris Thatcher about the organization, its products and its partnerships.
ITAC was established in part to provide timely, relevant, accurate and integrated intelligence. Your predecessor, John MacLaughlin, suggested that delivering on this “promise” hinged on several “critical success factors” that would take time to overcome. What progress have you made?
We have, I believe, met one of the significant objectives: integrated threat assessments. We have access to all of the intelligence from member organizations and from a number of databases, and we have a pretty good view of how a threat is evolving. Integration is also evident in the way our analysts work, the way they build a plan to look at a particular threat. It is always done in a team environment. Hence, from the very inception of a threat, they already have the benefit of an integrated model because they actually talk to each other all the time.
Timely? We have integrated a small unit that was part of CSIS called the Threat Assessment Unit, which has only one mandate – to come up with threat warnings that will benefit our readership. It may produce a product in a matter of hours that provides the nature of the threat and how to characterize it – low, medium or high threat. We’ll also provide a certain amount of analysis to contextualize the threat, recognizing of course that incidents usually evolve at a rapid pace. I believe that unit is playing a significant role in putting forth information that readers can base decisions on. It also demonstrates the level of commitment that we received from CSIS, the partner that is hosting ITAC.
Can we do better? Yes. However, the speed by which unclassified information is available today is such that it is extremely difficult to even try and follow in real time; it is not our mandate to follow information in real time, but to provide added-value intelligence to that information as it is evolving.
In terms of relevance, I’m still developing metrics, but ITAC now has at least half of its reporting plan driven by its clients. We will always follow the intelligence – that’s our mandate – but we’re working much more in partnership with our clients to try to determine their needs. This is particularly evident, I believe, in critical infrastructure protection. Sometimes a critical infrastructure operator wants to know if there is a direct threat to their infrastructure. It is not necessarily a product that we can produce. But trends, patterns, history, and education about terrorism as it relates to a particular part of the critical infrastructure are relevant. By engaging in discussions with our partners we are able to shape what kind of product adds value to their decision-making process.
However, we are working now to establish a tool to measure how integrated, how timely, how relevant our product is.
Is ITAC still defining its clients and their needs? Or are clients still defining what they need from ITAC?
That is a fair observation. We have a significant client base – it is in the thousands in terms of individuals and organizations – but some may still be finding their feet about what ITAC does, what we can provide of value to them. Feedback suggests that our readers are less interested in ITAC as an organization, but rather what kind of product we provide and what value it adds to them. So there is progress but it still needs to be better. In the first years, we were talking about who we were. There are less and less of those presentations, and now we are sought to make presentations on the threats; we’re now talking about our products. That is a sign that people are getting to know us much better and are interested in what we have to add.
You’ve mentioned previously that being able to work holistically is still a challenge. How so?
My point was that our analysts are still accessing their own databases. I think there is a tsunami of open source information and knowledge creation being done with various technologies. Are we doing a good job of accessing new sources of information, new sources of knowledge, and how does this affect the intelligence analysis trade? Is there a different model of information infrastructure that we could look at so that we could do better mining of our various sources of information? Could we work more holistically among ourselves in terms of organizations?
One challenge ITAC faced in its first years was staffing – finding critical thinkers. Have you been able to get the people you need as opposed to simply the people departments send?
It is no longer a case of who comes to the door. We have developed a profile of what we are looking for, what kind of skill sets we require for someone to be on the ground running when they come to ITAC. We would be happy to have terrorist threat assessors, but it is a relatively shallow pool in the government. So we want people to have a background in analysis – we believe we can shape that to looking at terrorist threats – and superb communication skills. That may seem a bit unrelated, but because they come from various departments they have to be able to communicate here and then be able to promote their products to clients.
Also, we are now interviewing candidates; previously partners submitted names. Departments still provide us with candidates but we go through a more rigorous selection process, and if someone does not have the necessary skill set we let the department know. And we’ve established a more robust training schedule to help hone their skills.
Has the two-year rotation model developed the type of trust initially envisioned?
In some cases, people have lengthened their stay in ITAC and some have shortened it. I don’t think we have that mix perfectly right. We plan to establish a more permanent analytical base to ITAC – some positions would remain in ITAC, and would be complemented by staff from the various other agencies. I think that would ensure continuity, corporate knowledge, and help refine skill sets in certain areas. And then we would also benefit from having people come in on two-year rotations (or a bit more, if they can) with a fresh look, with their departmental perspective.
Have you been losing corporate knowledge?
In a way, although ITAC is so specific. We have one business line: production of threat assessments, whether classified or unclassified. It’s not to suggest that you don’t need the benefit of people who can carry forward the analysis, but we have a growing library of assessments. So I think we can recoup a certain amount of corporate knowledge even if we have people on rotation.
There was some concern initially that departmental culture might be a challenge. Have you been able to get past that?
I think we have, and it was not something I necessarily expected. ITAC has established a branding to its name. Because it’s a brand, people joining from other departments don’t abandon their culture but identify readily and quickly with ITAC, its mandate, its mission and what we’re doing. I can’t say that I see within the analyst community in ITAC significant issues or problems about the mingling of various organizational cultures.
You’ve expanded to 11 federal organizations. Are there plans to grow beyond that?
The most recent addition this year is PWGSC [Public Works and Government Services Canada]. They are proving to be extremely useful to have in our mix because they are the owner of significant critical infrastructure in Canada. There are no plans currently to expand beyond the federal government and the two police forces; expansion would require additional resources. But that is not to suggest that we would not benefit from representatives from other organizations within the federal government such as CRA [Canada Revenue Agency], INAC [Indian and Northern Affairs] or the Coast Guard.
Does the private sector receive ITAC assessments?
Absolutely. There are even classified briefings offered on certain areas of critical infrastructure. But we need to expand further to bring them into the planning process. Ideally, if we do a threat assessment on oil and gas, for example, we’d like industry to assess our product: how relevant was it? How timely? Did we hit the mark? Did it address their vulnerabilities? Was the information actionable? That would help us be a bit more precise and provide more focus. We’re still working on that.
How has Canada’s involvement in a theatre like Afghanistan affected domestic intelligence assessments?
ITAC has been minimally involved in threat assessments for Afghanistan. That may change but I’m not in a position to comment further. Given our access to assessments from other partners, we are in a better position to determine if the situation in this part of the world may have a nexus (or impact) here in Canada, at which time we would definitely assess the threat.
The other members of the Five Eyes – Australia, New Zealand, U.K and the U.S. – are clearly important partners for Canada. Given how tight resources are, do you coordinate in a way that reduces duplication of effort or do you have to pursue intelligence for national interests?
Every centre will establish their products based on the intelligence and priorities they have. So we develop our product for our national interest. However, I don’t see that as a problem. If we do look at the same issues, we will have a richness of different insights from the various partners, and some times quite different perspectives. I believe that enriches the analytical process. In some instances we exchange information on what we are planning, and that helps create awareness of where we’re going with analysis. What I see changing, which is interesting, is the relationship among the allies getting much closer than it was. We are comfortable with each other, we know each other, we know their analysts. It’s a very productive relationship and more dynamic than existed before.
Was there a trust factor at the beginning?
Yes, I think there was a trust factor that had to be overcome.
Have formal partnerships expanded beyond the Five Eyes?
We have not begun to incorporate any into the structure in the way we do with our four allies. But fusion centres as a model are emerging in other countries. More effective exchange of information is definitely a preoccupation at the national level. ITAC is identifying countries that have fusion centres and is trying to establish a more permanent relationship with some of these organizations. But we are choosing them extremely carefully. Because we are small, we can’t be everywhere and with everyone. But we do see the benefit of having a more robust relationship with certain fusion centres around the world – some have an expertise in radicalization or, because of geography, experience with terrorism from the Maghreb. Some are looking at Canada as a model and potential for best practices.
Was there any change in mandate with your appointment? Or are there specific areas that you’ve made a priority?
In addition to expanding our reach beyond the Five Eyes, there are two specific projects on my plate. One, I want to see if we can develop a 24-7 analytical capacity. It’s fraught with challenges and resource implications, but I believe it’s required. Other centres have it. And two, ITAC has developed a niche for covering special events, so a priority is going to be the Olympics. We have an opportunity to test at a much broader level how we cover such events.
For more on ITAC, see www.itac-ciem.gc.ca/index-eng.asp
For Vanguard’s interview with former director John MacLaughlin see www.vanguardcanada.com/IntegratingIntelligenceThatcher
An interview with Daniel Giasson