The Office of the Director of National Intelligence celebrates Constitution Day in 2015. (ODNI Public Affairs)

PERSPECTIVE: W(h)ither the U.S. Intelligence Community?

For those who have never worked in the intelligence community the whole thing must seem kinda nebulous. True, there are programs like Homeland and MI5 (aka Spooks), some of which I am sure received some input from former spies or even a cautious nod of approval from current ones. Nevertheless, most people must know that these entertainment products cannot replicate what really happens ‘in the shadows’.

I had the privilege of working in those dark areas for more than three decades in Canada. And I must confess that I find myself, much to my wife’s chagrin, yelling at the TV things like “that’s not how it works!” when I watch the aforementioned programs. I really need to remind myself that this is fiction, based to varying degrees of accuracy to reality.

Intelligence has often been called the world’s oldest profession (or is it the second oldest?). It has been around for a very long time and it can contribute to decision-making. Is it always spot on? Of course not, but it is an important part of our efforts to understand what is going on and what we can/should do about it.

It is also important that intelligence remain immune from political meddling. While it is obvious that governments – i.e. politicians – can and must task intelligence agencies with what to collect, the results of that collection and the analysis that accompanies it must not be fiddled with. These agencies provide the best advice they can irrespective of who asks for it. This is what is called ‘speaking truth to power’.

I am beginning to despair of the current situation in the U.S. intelligence community (USIC). As a Canadian and a fellow member of the ‘5 eyes’ network I developed an appreciation for what the USIC was capable of and how it contributed to our collective Western, and by extension international, security and safety.

Is this starting to change? There are signs that the current U.S. administration does not like what it is getting from the USIC and is on occasion outright rejecting its findings. There is perhaps no better example than the dismissal of clear intelligence that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential elections.

A further blow to the USIC is the current president’s decision to name an amateur as the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany, has been put forward as ‘acting director‘: the general consensus is that he is unqualified and anything but an intelligence professional. This is akin to naming a plumber as the surgeon general. How inspired would Americans be by that?

Maybe I am wrong and maybe Mr. Grenell will turn out to be an outstanding DNI, despite the unfortunate fact that nothing in his background is grounds for optimism. If so, I will be the first to issue a mea culpa.

The more likely scenario, in my view, is that this appointment is one more example of political partisanship and one that is not in the interests of the American people or its allies. Look, every party in power gives out partisan posts like candy and I am in no position to determine whether the Trump White House is any more or less egregious in this regard.

To me what is more damaging is the effect on morale within the USIC. I maintain contact with some old friends in that community and I have yet to have heard any positive reflection of their work under this administration. In fact, the reactions I have received (completely unscientific) are worrisome. They have all told me how discouraged they are to see how their work is either being ignored or is being used to further ends it should not.

I repeat: any government has the complete right to use information it has to whatever goals it chooses. If we do not like those goals we can always ‘vote the bums out of office’ – this is how democracy works, after all. But the fact that no one I have spoken to seems to support this particular use of intelligence should tell us something.

The U.S. spends gazillions of dollars on intelligence every year. There are tens of thousands of very professional, patriotic Americans in the USIC who see their work as a vocation, not a job. The hours they spend doing their utmost to keep the U.S. and its allies safe are uncountable. I continue to see the alliance as a very important accomplishment in the post-WWII period and I hope we can maintain it – warts and all.

It would be nice if their contributions were taken seriously. Are they perfect? No. But they are given for a reason and that reason is a good one.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. (www.borealisthreatandrisk.com) and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). He worked as a senior strategic analyst at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) from 2001-2015, specializing in violent Islamist-inspired homegrown terrorism and radicalisation. From 1983 to 2001 he was employed as a senior multilingual analyst at Communications Security Establishment (CSE – Canada’s signals intelligence agency), specialising in the Middle East. He also served as senior special advisor in the National Security Directorate at Public Safety Canada from 2013, focusing on community outreach and training on radicalisation to violence, until his retirement from the civil service in May 2015, and as consultant for the Ontario Provincial Police’s Anti-Terrorism Section (PATS) from May to October 2015. He was the Director of Security and Intelligence at the SecDev Group from June 2018 to July 2019. Mr. Gurski has presented on violent Islamist-inspired and other forms of terrorism and radicalisation across Canada and around the world. He is the author of “The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West” (Rowman and Littlefield 2015) “Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security” (Rowman and Littlefield 2017), The Lesser Jihads: taking the Islamist fight to the world (Rowman and Littlefield 2017), An end to the ‘war on terrorism ’ and When religion kills: how extremist justify violence through faith (Lynne Rienner 2019). He regularly blogs and podcasts (An Intelligent Look at Terrorism – available on his Web site), and tweets (@borealissaves) on terrorism. He is an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT) in the Netherlands, a digital fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies at Concordia University, a member of the board at the National Capital Branch of the CIC (Canadian International Council) and an affiliate of the Canadian network for research on Terrorism Security and Society (TSAS). Mr. Gurski is a regular commentator on terrorism and radicalisation for a wide variety of Canadian and international media. He writes at www.borealisthreatandrisk.com.

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