The implications of a new intelligence environment

The focus of the 2014-15 CASIS conference was a comparison of the geopolitical ambitions, and intelligence systems, of Russia and China, with a reflection on the evolution of western intelligence systems.

Jennifer Sims, a Senior Fellow for Intelligence with the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs and the keynote speaker, is writing a book on intelligence from the Spanish Armada to the present day. She noted that the 21st century is “conflict-ridden and unstable” due to transnational terrorism and insurgencies, cyber war, the rise of non-state actors, Russia’s advance into the Ukraine, and the threats from a changing climate. At the same time confidence in government and intelligence organizations has declined.

To meet these challenges the business of intelligence has to be re-thought to ensure that it generates a decision advantage for leaders. She emphasized the need for a capacity for “net assessment,” which means a deeper understanding of what we need to understand about intelligence targets. Finally, decision-makers must own the process.

Sims’ presentation provided important insights and set the stage for a vibrant discussion about China and Russia.

Christopher Johnson of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, spoke about changes in Chinese foreign policy and geopolitical outlook. Prior to 2008 China had pursued a policy of a quiet and peaceful rise in international influence. After the market crash of 2008 it became more assertive, feeling that the Chinese model was proving to be superior to dominant western economic and political ideas. Militarily China professionalized the PLA, and declared itself to be a maritime power, something it had not done in 150 years.

China’s new assertiveness has created tensions with its neighbours, and China is trying to re-build positive relationships, while not returning to its previous cautious stance. It continues to be aggressive in the South China Sea, and plans to project naval power far out into the Pacific.

While sophisticated in its strategies, China has no skill at “soft power” which has complicated the task of maintaining good relations with its neighbours. President Xi Jinping has continued to pursue the change in foreign policy emphasis, making it more multidimensional and lessening slightly the focus on relations with the United States.

Peter Matti of the Jamestown Foundation and expert on Chinese intelligence systems, described a dynamic and agile system, with multiple targets, ranging from Taiwan to dissidents abroad, and support to military operations.

The Chinese civilian intelligence services have moved from being party to state agencies, and have decisively moved into the cyber realm – their “Dreadnought moment,” when technical change allowed them to move closer to the effective capacity of their rivals. We are likely to see China move to more third-party operations overseas, lessening their historic dependence on ethnic Chinese intelligence operatives and agents.

Masashi Nishihata of the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre described the relentless cyber attack on dissidents and NGOs outside China. The attempt to entice email recipients to download malware through attachments is so frequent – with several attacks a day – that many organizations have adopted a “no downloads” rule.

Joan DeBardeleben of Carleton University looked at Russian geopolitical attitudes from the Russian perspective (but not endorsing it). Russia feels deeply the loss of its former influence, and resents what it sees as inroads up to its current borders from NATO and the EU. Under President Putin post-Soviet Russia has moved to a more ideological and proactive stance, less oriented to Europe, with more emphasis on military power. This shift presents many challenges to the West: the apparent success, at home and in parts of Europe, for its public relations lines; the West’s need for Russian assistance in certain crisis areas, such as Iran and Syria; and, the difficulties of reversing the direction in which the confrontation is moving. She posed the question (particularly relevant with the experience in Syria): What happens in Russia if Putin does fall? Who, or what, would replace him?

Describing Russian intelligence services, Mark Galeotti of New York University emphasized continuity, with services being renamed after the end of the USSR, but largely paralleling their Soviet era counterparts in function and operations. This is particularly true of the basic culture of the organizations – an emphasis on active operations, with overlapping responsibilities, endemic corruption, and a strong tendency to reinforce Putin’s views, rather than provide alternate perspectives. In particular, they share his sense that Russia is “under active attack.”

On the closing panel, John Adams emphasized the need for the Canadian system to build public trust through a more open accountability system, Rob McRae emphasized the need for a futures prospective capacity, and Claude Laverdure reinforced Jennifer Sims’ thesis that intelligence systems have to see themselves as client-centric organizations.

After a very insightful day, one basic contrast emerged for me. While China’s rise will be challenging for western countries, it can be seen as the natural consequence of China’s economic power. China is a rational actor and its geopolitical stance is coherent. Asserting its interests need not take the form of armed conflict.

Russia, however, while also drawing on a historical sense of its place in global affairs, is already conducting an aggressive war against a neighbour. It is difficult to construct a scenario in which this really benefits anyone, and easy to construct one in which conflict in Europe spreads.

The geopolitical agendas of both countries are supported by a strong investment in intelligence services. We can hope that China’s agencies prove to be more discerning in their judgments than Russia’s, and do not follow the tactic of reinforcing the leader’s most provocatively hostile judgments.

The new intelligence environment which is emerging, as described by Sims, is one we will all have to consider as our own intelligence agencies confront changing international dynamics.


Greg Fyffe is president of CASIS and teaches intelligence and strategic thinking at the University of Ottawa. He was executive director of the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat from 2000 to 2008.

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