Intelligence in Counterterrorism
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Intelligence in counterterrorism
By Joshua Sinai
September 30, 2010
SECURING THE STATE
By David Omand
Columbia University Press, $29.50, 320 pages
Few books on national security become instant classics in their field. Sir David Omand's brilliantly insightful and authoritative "Securing the State" likely will be one of those. It is one of the most important studies on the role intelligence services play in crafting successful counterterrorism measures by governments, the book's primary, although not sole, focus.
Such a masterful book could only have been written by a seasoned practitioner in national security. Mr. Omand had a distinguished 35-year career in British intelligence and security services, culminated by his appointment in 2002 as the first permanent secretary and security intelligence coordinator in the Cabinet Office, from which he retired in 2005. That position is comparable to serving as director of national intelligence in the United States. Knighted in 2000, he was promoted to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB) in 2004. He is a visiting professor at King's College London.
As explained by Mr. Omand, the book's purpose is to answer the question: How can security in the face of terrorist threats, "the first duty of good government, be maintained at a bearable and sustainable cost?" The answer, he explains, is that security is "an 'end' that public policy has to secure, for which both resilience and intelligence are 'means.' "
The bulk of the book is devoted to explaining how the components of intelligence can contribute to the "adequate management" by governments of "risks to everyday life, whether from man-made threats [i.e., terrorism] or impersonal hazards ... to the extent that there is confidence [i.e., following an incident] that normal life can continue."
According to the author, an effective response to threats requires, above all else, the capacity to protect society from major disruptive events, whether they are natural hazards or terrorist events. This requires the capability of intelligence services to provide "strategic notice of emerging trends relating to threat actors and threat domains" (for example, their likely future geographical locations or choices of weapons, whether conventional or weapons of mass destruction, as well as new types of terrorists and ideologies).
It also requires the capability of government agencies, including law enforcement and the military, to respond to threats through "anticipatory action" that is comprehensive in its scope (such as using a state's resources to arrest a terrorist cell during its pre-incident preparatory phases). Moreover, if and when threats do materialize, governments must be prepared to minimize "the impact of disruptive events on the public ... through better equipping and training of the emergency services."
The book is indispensable as a primer for those interested in understanding the uses of intelligence to "reduce uncertainty" by a government's decision-makers in anticipating potential future threats. Intelligence builds overall "situational awareness" about what may appear initially to be a jigsaw-puzzle-like series of disconnected activities by a terrorist group that, when pieced together by intelligence analysts, can indicate the overall level of threat facing a country either nationally or locally.
Intelligence reports also can provide explanatory theories that help decision-makers better understand the particular behaviors of a state's adversaries, especially those from different foreign cultures.
One of the most valuable, although "most fraught" end products of intelligence activity is the prediction of adversaries' potential hostile actions, such as a terrorist group's likely intended target of attack. Such intelligence triggers the appropriate security response. In this light, the author discusses the various methodologies used in prediction, ranging from point estimates (which are highly speculative) to predictive assessments (judgments made about developing situations as opposed to specific intelligence reporting).
Mr. Omand also goes into great detail in discussing the nature and types of intelligence reporting that decision-makers require - for instance, the specific types of information about a terrorist group's members' identities, locations and patterns of behavior; the differences between covert versus open-source intelligence and the latest advances in applying data-mining and pattern-recognition software to uncover the vast information contained in government and private-sector databases that might yield valuable information about the identities and activities of potential terrorists and their associates.
Mr. Omand's discussion of recent developments in the intelligence sphere, notably the evolution and centralization of Britain's intelligence and security services within the context of that government's counterterrorism strategy, known as CONTEST, is enlightening and instructive; he played a leading coordinating role in the strategy's development.
A distinguishing feature of the book is Mr. Omand's explanation of the tension between the need for security to protect a nation and a democracy's requirement to protect its citizens' liberty and privacy. He writes: "The current focus on use of secret intelligence for public protection puts activities by the secret world under an unwelcome spotlight and increases the importance of retaining public confidence, as well as making it essential that the staff also are comfortable with the ethical framework within which they are operating. The government too needs to have confidence in its own intelligence community and its adherence to agreed standards of behavior and propriety."
In his concluding chapter, Mr. Omand recommends that "a modern approach to national security has to be designed from the outset to respond to major risks as they may affect the citizen, rather than just the institutions of the state." He then advises, "We should be prepared for the surprise of the unexpected as the methods of terrorism develop and are imitated, and as new ideological challenges develop over the years ahead."
All those involved in national security, whether as analysts or practitioners, will greatly benefit from the insights and information provided in this valuable book.
Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at Virginia Tech (National Capital Region), in Alexandria, Va.
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