Seated in a small, softly lit conference room on the outer edge of a warren of cubicles and offices at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, John MacLaughlan acknowledges the difficulties of his mandate. Detecting a terrorist plot is akin to assembling a puzzle, assuming your puzzle has just a few of the pieces and you can only speculate about the completed picture.

In Canada, the task of assembling and making sense of those pieces falls to the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre (ITAC), established in July 2004 with a mandate to ensure “all threat-related information is brought together, assessed and reaches all who need it in a timely and effective manner.”

“This is a tall order,” admits MacLaughlan, a veteran of the RCMP and the centre’s director. ”It speaks not only to the need to integrate all available sources with respect to threats, but also requires quick and wide-reaching dissemination. Broadly interpreted, this is a catalyst for intelligence-led decision-making at all levels.”

In the wake of 9/11 and multiple investigations into ‘intelligence failures’, governments promptly recognized that the traditional ‘stovepipe’ or compartmental approach to intelligence flow was inadequate. “The capacity for horizontal integration clearly had to be improved and re-engineered, if not re-invented, all over the world,” he says.

In the US, federal agencies poured more resources into the National Counterterrorism Centre; the UK introduced the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre; and Australia created the National Threat Assessment Centre. Most recently, New Zealand set up the Combined Threat Assessment Group.

Canada responded with ITAC, a measure announced in the government’s National Security Policy (NSP) of April 2004. The NSP describes eight threats to Canada and Canadian interests, ranging from failed and failing states to WMD, pandemics, organized crime, critical infrastructure, natural disasters, foreign espionage and terrorism. ITAC was handed responsibility for the last – terrorism. “If there are linkages with any of the other seven threats, we’ll look at it,” MacLaughlan says.

That means examining everything from home grown terrorist cells to threats to mass transit and transport systems, embassies and missions aboard and the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

The legal framework for ITAC rests in the CSIS Act. MacLaughlan reports directly to CSIS director Jim Judd, but also has a reporting relationship with the National Security Advisor, supporting the NSA in briefings to the Prime Minister. “ITAC is a functional component of CSIS but the bifurcated reporting relationship and our governance framework clearly set us apart from any other part of the service in that ITAC is very much considered a community-wide resource,” he says. “While the security and intelligence community contributes to the overall direction and priorities of ITAC, the centre is not ‘owned’ by any single department or agency.”

Nine departments are represented in ITAC: the Privy Council Office, Foreign Affairs Canada, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada, National Defence, Canada Border Services Agency, Transport Canada, Communications Security Establishment, CSIS and the RCMP. Employees are assigned to the centre, typically for two years, but retain access to their department databases. The home department covers one position; all others are reimbursed by ITAC.

“Relevant information identified by analysts is disclosed to ITAC only with the explicit approval of the home department,” MacLaughlan notes. “This is a very important issue legally – we are not creating a ‘fusion centre’ by building new, Big Brother-type databases. ITAC files contain only information that has been disclosed to ITAC.”

To connect with first responders in the two provinces where the RCMP is not under provincial contract, the Ontario Provincial Police has been included and arrangements are underway to integrate a senior member from the Sûreté du Québec.

MacLaughlan also intends to bring onboard Correctional Services Canada. “They hold a considerable amount of information, in the context of terrorist networks and radicalization in prison – a very threatening phenomenon on our radar screen,” he said. “The participation of CSC will add a great deal of value to our knowledge base.”

The centre draws from the expertise of ‘virtual’ partners such as Agriculture, Environment, Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the National Research Council as part of a science and technology intelligence group. It reaches other agencies and the private sector through PSEPC.

In addition, ITAC is the sole receiver and provider of assessments from sister agencies in the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.

“Such wide and deep access to information represents a vast amount of data at our fingertips,” MacLaughlan observes. “Looking for the needle in the haystack will always be a challenge but the corollary is that without such integration close to the front end of the intelligence cycle, how can you establish the intelligence gaps? It is too easy to assume that information not readily available to us in our home organization simply doesn’t exist. If others have it, we’ll go get it.”

As more and more employees rotate through the centre, MacLaughlan believes each will “become a disciple of the integrated approach. They realize the potential for cross-pollination and as they return at the end of the assignment to their home departments, they will continue to foster the spirit of integration. Down the road, the trust will be there.”

“You could think of ITAC as a mixing bowl that provides the environment for integration. Integration, in this context, has three dimensions: integration of access to information; integration of departmental or agency analytical cultures; and integration of the assessments themselves.”

Since October 2004, ITAC has disseminated over 500 integrated assessments, 25% of which have been produced internally. And although there are in excess of 1,500 recipients of ITAC reports, there has not been one unauthorized disclosure. Each week, the centre circulates an ‘intelligence digest’, a summary of all reports disseminated. There is also a priority list that recipients can contribute to, an opportunity, MacLaughlan says, to request an assessment on “what’s keeping you awake at night.”

And to enhance threat reporting to the community, ITAC is developing a threat map, a web-based program that will provide the latest intelligence on each region.

“The interplay of various disciplines is a truly miraculous process,” he says, “and it has been much smoother than one might imagine. There is an inherent challenge in this model because ours is a very dynamic environment, where the interdisciplinary nature of the team has built-in safeguards against ‘group-think’. We have published on a variety of topics, ranging from the potential weaponization of avian flu by terrorists to potential terrorist threats to the electrical grid. Integration of the vast amount of information available to us is challenging in that we have to distil it, separating the reporting from the interpretation, reconcile potentially conflicting interpretations, get clearance for disclosure or downgrading and finally, provide the value added ITAC assessment.”

While ITAC may hold much promise to the eternal and elusive quest for timely, relevant, accurate and integrated intelligence, it is still “only a promise,” he adds. “Some critical success factors need to be met before we can completely fulfill the promise. These are community-wide challenges and they can only be overcome through our collective leadership. George Bernard Shaw once said: ‘Reasonable people adapt themselves to the circumstances; unreasonable people adapt the circumstances to themselves. Progress (leadership) depends on unreasonable people.’”

Factors for success
To meet the growing demand for ITAC assessments, the centre must build capacity and increase proactive information sharing by the key partner agencies. “This goes beyond the reporting of historical data in databases or the reporting of substantiated, fully confirmed threats. We are in a dynamic, target-rich environment where every wisp of smoke can potentially turn into a forest fire. Risk management is a dangerous choice in national security.

“The task requires a healthy dose of critical thinking – we need to staff ITAC with critical thinkers so that we can continuously raise the bar on the quality of our products. I don’t believe ‘critical thinking’ has ever been defined for the world of the analyst. We need people who are curious and creative – people who challenge their own assumptions on a constant basis but are equally welcoming of external challenges. A critical thinker will recognize patterns, peel away ‘noise’ from meaningful signals, not be dependent on one interpretation and understand that missing data may be more important than the data at hand.”

To deliver that information, MacLaughan is adamant that Canada develop an interoperable information highway to disseminate products in ‘real time’ to all levels of classification. That, in turn, may foster an international information highway. “The technology is available,” he notes.

Joint Inquiry staff director Eleanor Hill observed in an October 2002 statement that prior to 9/11 “US intelligence and law enforcement communities were fighting a war against terrorism largely without the benefit of what some would call their most potent weapon: an alert and committed American public.”

It’s a sentiment with which MacLaughlan agrees. While he draws the distinction between fear mongering and complacency, he wants public sector officials and the Canadian public to be alert to possible security threats. “Not alarmed, but alert,” he says.

John MacLaughlan is director of the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre and assistant commissioner with the RCMP. He joined the force in 1974 and has held positions with the National Security Investigations Directorate, the Criminal Organizations Branch and the Security and Intelligence Secretariat of the Privy Council Office. He is a Member of the Order of Merit of Police Forces and a recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and Long Service Medal and Silver Clasp.