Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Intelligence and Counterterrorism

*Story behind the photo

After utterly bombing an essay on this subject, my shame at my own ineptitude as led me to go for ‘Try No. 2’ here, taking a completely different route.

That intelligence plays a supremely important role in driving counterterrorism is commonly taken to be axiomatic amongst practitioners and analysts. To repeat a terrible cliche, without intelligence an entire state counterterrorism apparatus would be like a blind boxer, flailing ineffectually or even self-destructively in the dark. Emergency services wouldn’t know which threats to guard against, police wouldn’t know which places and people to protect or which suspects to arrest, and neither politicians nor security agencies would know the ‘who, what, and how’ of the threats we face. The value of intelligence has often been used to justify controversial acts though, such as the repeated torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad by US interrogators, or for extraordinary detention and surveillance laws which make many in a democratic polity uncomfortable. Indeed, those familiar with the writing of Carlos Marighella might observe that the very goal of terrorists might be to provoke draconian countermeasures and thereby weaken the democratic legitimacy of the state. It may even be proposed, in light of the potential for abuse, that the best counterterrorism is resiliance and passive defence rather than any policy which abrogates civil rights. Yet putting aside this somewhat extreme position for a moment, it is nevertheless valuable to explore the limitations and ethical dilemmas posed by the collection and use of intelligence for counterterrorism, and to frame the debate that should be taking place on just how far we should go to fight terrorists.

A great deal of the information that police and security services gather on terrorists comes from surveillance. These include communication intercepts, CCTV footage, teams of ‘watchers and followers‘, or even trawling jihadi internet forums (e.g.). These methods are very effective, particularly in producing evidence for police action and in identifying ‘home-grown’ terrorists alongside tracking the foreign variety. But there are ways around them, such as using email dead-drops and avoiding mobile communication – returning to the basics of ‘tradecraft‘ as dramaticised in one particularly cheesy Leonardo DiCaprio film – and as such they have their practical limitations. Terrorists might also  transfer finances outside the notice of the most sophisticated systems of analysis simply by using a system like hawala – though no cases of major funds traveling through this medium to terrorists have yet been reported. More pressing are the ethical dilemmas of surveillance though; citizens of a liberal democracy are inclined to great discomfort when their government wants to claim enhanced powers to watch and spy on its constituents. As well they should be, since as any student of history will tell you, surveillance has been the halmark of the ‘security state’ since Robespierre. While police have reasonably held the powers to ‘wire-tap’ suspects if a judge allows it on the basis of sufficient evidence, the secret nature of intelligence and the varying degree of confidence security personnel may have in it suggest that pragmatically speaking, lower levels of evidential rigour are necessary to implement a warrant procedure for extraordinary surveillance on individuals. Thus while few would deny the importance of intelligence collection through these means, many would want to tread carefully lest they see the means abused.

Another significant source of counterterrorism intelligence is information gained through the interrogation of suspected or apprehended terrorists. The value of interrogation cannot be overstated: a single ‘talking’ detainee can reveal entire terrorist cells or networks, inform security services of terrorist targets, plans, and materiel, or even surrender the vital clue in capturing or killing Osama bin Laden himself! Yet in acknowledging the value of interrogation, one hovers one foot in the air above a dangerous ethical slippery-slope. The need to gain intelligence through interrogation has been the justification for severe human rights abuses; excellent examples include extraordinary rendition policies where terrorist suspects are ‘handed-over‘ to countries with appalling histories of torture, or the widespread use of ‘coercive interrogation’ by the Israeli General Security Service – Shabak – during the 1980s. The utilitarian calculus of hypothetical ‘ticking time-bomb scenarios‘ has at times been stretched and twisted into the instruments of state terror, which we in our fear have placed in the hands of our guardians without sufficient understanding of the implications of such an act. The ‘defence of necessity‘ argument will be familiar to most ethicists and students of law, but just what constitutes ‘necessity’ is a complicated question.

It may seem that the ‘cleanest’ way to gather intelligence on terrorists is to infiltrate their ranks with spies. Certainly the use of human intelligence assets – to throw around some jargon – holds enormous potential for reward. Indeed, the IRA was by the late 1980s utterly and thoroughly penetrated by agents of British intelligence organisations (e.g. source). Even the head of the IRA’s counterintelligence unit, Freddie Scappaticci, was a spy in the pay of Her Majesty. Yet this begs the immediate question, ‘just what do we have to allow to keep such men in play?’ Scappaticci is suspected of several murders, and it’s reasonable to think that the IRA showed limited restraint in interrogating and ‘dealing with’ suspected traitors, given their brutal punishments to even the pettiest criminals in Belfast estates. The choice to protect sources in exchange for the intelligence they provide is, like the decision to torture, a grim balance of evils. To complicate matters further, one source may need to be sacrificed to protect another, creating both the practical and ethical mess of fickle loyalty from handler to asset. Much of this discussion is irrelevant anyway, as the ethnic, linguistic, ideological, and organisational particulars of most modern jihadi movements make finding terrorists inside them who are willing to turn traitor almost as difficult as infiltrating them from the outside. The use of spies is as plagued with dilemmas as any other means of intelligence collection.

There are  dilemmas posed by intelligence-driven counterterrorism not specific to any means of collection but general to the relationship between intelligence and action itself.  There is a reflexive relationship between the source of information and the actions that information informs: intelligence comes from somewhere, and to take action based on some piece of intelligence is to reveal that it exists. When agents of a government use intelligence on a given terrorist group, that group (if it survives) is likely to change its security practices in the future to try to avoid further leaks. The most obvious worry to those familiar with intelligence history might be that a government may find itself in a position similar to that of the apocryphal tale where Winston Churchill, needing to protect an intelligence source, allowed allied targets to be fatally attacked rather than risk exposing his source. Calculations similar to this are likely to arise in the struggle against terrorism without even the clarity of knowing that the fate of a war must certainly outweigh the fate of a single target. Intelligence is also often difficult to verify, and may come from more or less credible sources. The consequences of acting on bad intelligence could be severe, both practically and politically. The consequences of failing to act on good intelligence could, of course, be disastrous. One example of the latter might be the failure of the Bush administration to engage with information indicating Osama bin Laden’s apirations to attack inside the US. Another more general example might be the failure of Israeli intelligence to ignore key indications that Sadat was preparing for war. These dilemmas delineate clear limitations on just how difficult intelligence-driven security actions can be.

Despite its limitations though, intelligence is the brain behind much of our government’s counterterrorism apparatus. It gives vital warnings on impending attacks or on the movement of dangerous weapons and people, it illuminates connections between terrorists and foreign sponsors, exposes networks of people that pose threats to the lives of citizens, and gives targets for police or even military operations to eliminate those threats. It can identify radical ideologues who incite violence, and amongst whose followers potential terrorists may emerge. If there is any lesson to be learned from examining the dilemmas of intelligence collection, it is not that intelligence is any less significant than some other means of resisting terrorism.  It might be that the value of intelligence still should be not overstated, and that it should be viewed as a cog in a larger machine. It certainly is that in considering the ethics of any issue pertaining to intelligence, and to counterterrorism in general, one should remember that the goal of a liberal society should always be first and foremost to remain liberal. Let us not allow those who fight monsters to become monsters themselves, because while there may be no victory conditions to the ‘War on Terror’, there is certainly a defeat condition.

As Maher Arar will attest.


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