Sharing intelligence has always been driven by common interests, mutual trust and cooperative partnerships with like-minded agencies. In today’s question and answer session, the CSS’ Prem Mahadevan discusses the practical and strategic obstacles to this form of information sharing in the post 9/11 era.
By Prem Mahadevan
Although Western governments monitored the activities of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, they failed to acquire ‘actionable’ information about terrorist plots. What are the main lessons that governments and the intelligence community have drawn from these terrorist attacks?
The lessons of 9/11 have been differently understood by governments and intelligence agencies. For governments, it was a moment of political awakening, in a triple sense. First, 9/11 showed that domestically stable and well-policed Western societies could still be vulnerable to foreign-based terrorism. Second, it showed that some terrorist groups could not care less about widespread condemnation of their actions. Rather than win respectability among neutral audiences, they preferred to boost their credibility amongst committed followers by carrying out highly provocative attacks. Third, it showed that terrorist groups did not need to have a state sponsor in order to inflict heavy casualties; they just needed a safe haven within which to train and plan operations. All of these realizations led to a fundamental reassessment of the nature and scale of the threat that terrorism could pose to economically advanced and democratic states.
For intelligence agencies, the picture was more nuanced. As is usually the case within heavily compartmentalized bureaucratic structures, awareness levels of the terrorist threat varied. Those analysts directly involved in tracking Al Qaeda saved the collective reputations of their employers by issuing warnings of a rapidly escalating threat. However, these warnings were confined to the realm of terrorist intentions, and did not reach the degree of specificity required to help in degrading terrorist capabilities. Moreover, based on fragmentary anecdotal evidence, it is also unclear just how seriously the warnings were taken by some intelligence managers. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was generally believed that the attacks had not been prevented due to a combination of two factors: an over-emphasis on technical surveillance and a resulting neglect of human intelligence, and insufficient information sharing due to bureaucratic rivalry as well as concerns over civil liberties. It is debatable whether either of these factors were as important as they were initially thought to be, but following the attacks they were given a great deal of importance.
Sharing data between allies on the international level, particularly during ad hoc periods of cooperation, remains problematic. What are the main obstacles?
There is an adage, which says that even though there are friendly states in the international system, there is no such thing as a friendly intelligence service. And a political alliance does not necessarily translate into an intelligence alliance. Following the end of the Cold War, there was a period when member-states of the Trans-Atlantic Alliance were quite actively spying on each other, for economic purposes. What was notable about this period is that such activity was highlighted by counterintelligence agencies, who felt that the constraints of being in a political alliance no longer stopped them from accusing friendly governments of betrayal. In other words, spying on allies is an integral part of statecraft; just something not normally discussed.
Today, terrorism is supposedly a unifying factor that brings together almost every country that opposes such activities. Yet, concerns that terrorists may be able to penetrate a partner’s intelligence services often compromise information sharing activities. In addition, there is the real possibility that an intelligence agency might also seek to penetrate its partner organization. Although this latter problem can be partly addressed by rigorous counterintelligence practices, such an approach would pose a strain on the relationship by emphasizing that it is based on fleeting common interests rather than a shared strategic purpose and ideologically-bound commitment. Finally, although states might have a short-term interest in cooperating to prevent a specific terrorist attack, their long-term counterterrorist strategies could be very different. Often, counterterrorist liaison at the international level coexists alongside unilateral accommodation of diaspora radicals at the domestic level, in order to maximize leverage in both directions. This tends to happen when terrorist groups succeed in compartmentalizing their operations across national boundaries, as the largest and best organized ones do, such that they create front organizations to provide political legitimacy to paramilitary actions. An intelligence service can easily claim that it has no grounds for acting against a charity organization, even if that charity propagates literature that justifies attacks abroad.
How much information should you share with others? What factors have to be taken into account?
To share sensitive information at the international level you need trust, and trust is built upon two preconditions: a record of productive cooperation on some issues and an absence of conflicted interests on others. When intelligence liaison takes the form of strategic barter – cooperation here in exchange for concessions there – the partnership is an entirely transactional one. It can nevertheless be sustained provided there is a basic equitability in the partnership i.e., both sides benefit equally. However, few partnerships are like that. Most involve one side gradually gaining leverage over the other by establishing a relationship of informational dependence and using this to shape policy decisions to its own benefit. Knowledge asymmetry is an in-built feature of intelligence partnerships, since a perfect overlap of capacities for collecting information would make the partnership unnecessary. With regard to how much information needs to be shared, the answer would vary depending on the context. Even with the intelligence services of friendly states however, a basic rule applies that you never share information which compromises your sources.
What about domestic intelligence sharing? Are there limits in terms of what agencies should share with each other? To what extent does bureaucracy get in the way of communication?
With domestic intelligence sharing, there are slightly different dynamics. Bureaucratic rivalries have an innocuous way of asserting themselves, in that nobody deliberately withholds important information. Rather, they just do not want to be the first to volunteer it. Partly this is to prevent poaching of valuable human sources. An intelligence agency would typically spend considerable time and effort cultivating an informer within a terrorist group. The handling officer and his/her supervisors would be justifiably upset if control of that asset is obtained by another agency, on some vague jurisdictional pretext. Part of the reluctance to share information also has to do with the fact that, on issues like terrorism, collection mandates inherently overlap. Terrorism blurs the distinction between foreign and domestic threats to national security, thus creating considerable scope for agencies to duplicate each other’s efforts. Even with regard to technical surveillance, which is less fragile than human intelligence, this would mean that highly sensitive intercepts, if shared by one agency, might be exploited by another agency without due sensitivity to the source. Although protocols exist with regard to how information should be treated, human error and the basically competitive dynamic of intelligence processes, like academia, means that established norms can be broken if the payoff is large enough. A third problem is that intelligence agencies in democratic states often lack arrest powers, or even if these are available, prefer to outsource the task of making arrests to police forces. While their organizational sub-culture shies away from the publicity that comes with executive action, they also like to ensure that credit for breaking up a terrorist network is not completely stolen from them. Thus, information is not fully shared until an inter-departmental understanding is reached as to where the intelligence task stops and the police task begins.
What impact have organizations like WikiLeaks had on intelligence sharing?
As an initial response, the official reaction to Wikileaks was to call for tighter restrictions on information sharing. What is interesting however is that much of the information coming out was not really ‘intelligence’, in that it was not obtained through clandestine sources handled by professional intelligence agencies. Rather, it referenced high-level private conversations, or personal assessments, whose disclosure was deeply embarrassing in some cases, but whose contents were not altogether surprising to informed observers. The real issue is whether information that would have informed national policymaking should have been so easily accessible to low-ranking military intelligence analysts, like Bradley Manning. There was also legitimate concern over the risk of information overload. One must not forget that the most sensational Wikileaks disclosures happened after the attempted bombing of a US airliner in December 2009. This event seemed to suggest that despite an extensive architecture having been built to facilitate information sharing, counterterrorist failures could still occur. Some members of the US intelligence community, reflecting the mood of the times, thereupon argued that the ‘need to share’ culture had been taken to an extreme and a partial return to compartmentalization was required.
You’ve written that military power is being gradually replaced by intelligence power as the currency of Machtpolitik. Why do you think this shift is happening? What are the consequences in terms of information sharing?
The shift is due to a number of reasons. One is cost: military power is expensive, while intelligence power is relatively cheap. In a nuclearized context, military power has limited value except for deterring massive territorial aggression. Intelligence on the other hand, can help a government take control of events by identifying the key drivers of an unfavorable situation and providing covert instruments whereby these can be controlled or neutralized. So, intelligence power is more cost-effective than military power, and this is especially important given the global economic situation.
Another reason is the decline of ideology as a feature of international relations. Policymakers are becoming more susceptible to covert foreign pressure, since their actions can secretly run contrary to their own public statements. During the Cold War, the gap between rhetoric and reality was perhaps narrower. Furthermore, the sense of being threatened by a powerful and monolithic opponent served to mute criticism of one’s own government. Today, however, with no ideological narrative to enforce consistency in policymaking, heads of government have ended up sometimes taking stances which, if they were widely known, might not be popularly received. This gives leverage to foreign intelligence agencies, since they can catalogue the extent to which a government claims to follow one policy while actually implementing another. While issuing a military threat can galvanize resistance from an entire nation, issuing a blackmail threat can pulverize resistance from a key policymaker, and that is all that is really required to get your way in Machtpolitik.
In terms of intelligence sharing, there is still a need to pool data that might be of relevance to tracking an enemy’s attack plans. It is no coincidence that the call for better sharing is inextricably linked to cases of warning failure – when intelligence agencies do not provide specific and timely notice that something is about to happen. While surprise attacks – the worst form of warning failure – remain uncommon, they are still possible, irrespective of whether they are carried out by states or non-state actors. For this reason, information sharing shall remain an issue.
Dr Prem Mahadevan is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich. He holds a bachelors degree, a masters degree and a doctorate from King’s College in London.
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