This year’s CASIS Symposium, to be held January 23, 2015 in Ottawa, will compare western intelligence systems with those of Russia and China.

Intelligence advantage depends on secrecy, yet the subject has stimulated a broad and deep literature. Intelligence is intrinsically fascinating and closely linked with compelling international struggles. Of all the government disciplines it is one of the most difficult to describe to citizens, and the most challenging to justify as providing value for money. Activity is in the shadows, success goes unclaimed, and failures are shoved into the spotlight.

As difficult as it is to describe western national intelligence and security systems with accuracy, it is infinitely more difficult to describe those of intelligence adversaries.

In democracies politicians, academics and journalists pursue intelligence accountability; they ensure that the public will know within general parameters how money is being spent. How can we study intelligence systems that serve countries with no public accountability procedures, no interest in the historical record, and every reason to shield state intelligence systems from close examination? How can we judge the efficacy of our own systems if we are uninformed about their competitors?

There have been good studies of Soviet and Russian intelligence systems, but the breadth, depth and currency does not come close to matching the huge volumes of writing and symposium discussions generated within the Five Eyes community. Writing on Chinese intelligence has been even thinner, although recently there have been very thorough studies of Chinese cyber operations. These studies, which actively probe and trace cyber attacks, are very different from traditional academic studies, combining elements of academic study and counter-espionage.

The intel systems of the USSR/Russia and of China have been extremely successful in generating useful intelligence on the western powers for their governments. Soviet intelligence systems ran numerous operations against western countries, and the SVR is a worthy successor. Chinese intelligence has been very successful in facilitating China’s modernization.

Scholars and journalists have debated extensively the effectiveness of different parts of the intelligence cycle, and how well connected intelligence systems are to their clients. How well do Russian and Chinese intelligence officials meet the expectations of their clients? Do their systems use intelligence well? How do accountable systems differ from unaccountable ones? How are intelligence systems used to advance a country’s geopolitical goals? To what extent do systems reflect the values of their state? What happens to a state if the intelligence and security apparatus becomes a passageway to higher office?

The CASIS symposium will look at the geopolitical ambitions of the protagonists – the west, Russia, China – and then the nature of the intelligence systems that help advance those ambitions.

It is obviously difficult to treat western systems as one block, as they do differ significantly in structure, scope and accountability. However, there are many common assumptions around legal frameworks, values and operational methods. Equally, even if there is no one geopolitical agenda, there are common elements pursued by allied countries in trying to maintain a world order which emphasizes peaceful interaction, fair commercial trading, and the protection of fundamental human rights. While there are many different strategies used in pursuing these goals, the great gulf is not within the western group of countries, but between the western countries and Russia and China.

Both Russia and China have a long history as intelligence powers. Both have advanced their current agendas through intelligence activity.

The cyber debate has raised in more urgent form the issue of the impact of spying on international cooperation. Espionage has at times contributed to international dialogue by supplying international leaders with a true estimate of the intentions of the other side. Is this potential for instilling mutual confidence through covert knowledge still there, or has intelligence become so pervasive that it instills constant suspicion and anger?

We are beginning to see intelligence activities, particularly cyber operations, emerge as a potential subject of international negotiation.

An International Convention on the Acceptable Limits of Espionage may lie in the distant future, but the first step is a greater understanding of all the adversaries.


CASIS is currently developing the 2015 Symposium. Information on the program and registration will be available at:
Greg Fyffe, president of CASIS, was executive director of the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat from 2000 to 2008, and currently teaches intelligence and security and strategic thinking at the University of Ottawa.