If there is one thing I learned over three decades in the intelligence business it is that decisions on how to do intelligence are best left to intelligence professionals.
Agencies responsible for intelligence are of course subject to the democratic governments we elect and they cannot (and should not) ‘go rogue’, engaging in activity that is illegal or beyond their remit. In addition, each government has the right to set priorities – what we call ‘requirements’ – but it is still the purview of the intelligence services how to meet those requirements since they are the only ones that know what resources are available and what combination of intelligence tools (SIGINT, HUMINT, etc.) are necessary.
Having elected officials and/or civil servants with no experience in the intel business dictate how to do their jobs is a surefire recipe for disaster and a tremendous waste of finite personnel and money.
With this in mind, a recently-leaked Department of Homeland Security (DHS) draft report strikes me as exactly the kind of useless interference into the workings of US agencies such as the FBI and Customs and Border Patrol referred to above. This report allegedly calls on US authorities to continuously vet Sunni Muslim immigrants deemed to have “at-risk” demographic profiles and that this monitoring continue on a “long-term basis”.
There is absolutely no way to sugar coat this report: it is worthless
For the record, the “at risk profile” includes the following: those who are young, male and who “originate” in the Middle East, South Asia or Africa (it is not clear whether the subjects must have been born in those areas or just have that heritage, i.e. they could be longstanding US citizens). DHS has said that the report in question was a first draft and “is undergoing revision”. Draft or no draft, it should never have been written.
There is absolutely no way to sugar coat this report: it is worthless. Stating that a whole population of people who share nothing more than a faith – Sunni Islam – must be kept under indefinite surveillance is not just daft, it is unworkable, unnecessary and will do much more harm than good. The “profile” offered is amateurish and quite simply wrong.
Look, there is no question that Sunni Islamist extremism poses a real threat to the US (and to Canada) and that our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies must carry out investigations to determine which individuals pose that threat so they can be interdicted. The problem, however, is that the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of Sunni Muslims who call North America home pose absolutely no threat and are as loyal as you and me. Painting them all with the same brush not only alienates them from our society (alienation can contribute to violent radicalisation although it is neither necessary nor sufficient to do so) but makes Sunni Muslims much less willing to act as the eyes and ears of our spies and cops, hence leading to fewer tips and information and fewer human sources/agents. The policy as proposed will weaken national security and public safety, not strengthen it.
Painting them all with the same brush only alienates them from our society
More importantly, from a purely selfish intelligence perspective, who is going to follow all these people? Where are the resources going to come from? Furthermore, can any organisation afford to watch hundreds of thousands of people knowing in advance that very few will ever present a problem? Are there not civil liberty/Charter issues at stake here regarding expectations of privacy and protection from undue state interference? Implementing indefinite surveillance would be a catastrophically stupid and counterproductive move.
This is insane but is not, alas, inconsistent with the policies of the Trump Administration. These are not helpful and I hope that in the end the adults in the room will prevail and ideas such as this one by DHS will be consigned to the dustbin (or burn bag) where it belongs.
Can any organisation afford to watch hundreds of thousands of people knowing in advance that very few will ever present a problem?
President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. Phil worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. firstname.lastname@example.org