Brussels attacks: Intelligence agencies must end their mistrust of each other

In the wake of the horrific attack at the Brussels airport and a metro station, there were immediate calls for more information sharing and greater co-ordination among the world’s intelligence agencies to detect terrorist plots before they can be executed, writes David Wise

Brussels attacks: Intelligence agencies must end their mistrust of each other

It is an obvious and desirable goal. The only problem is that it runs counter to the deep-rooted culture of the spy agencies. Intelligence agencies exist to steal secrets of other countries and protect their own. Few outsiders can appreciate how deep that instinct for secrecy runs.

Despite the increased information-sharing in the wake of the Paris attacks, in which killers based in Belgium murdered 130 people in November, many intelligence agencies regard the Belgian service as dysfunctional and incompetent.

Intelligence agencies are closed societies and tend to view the information they receive from other countries with varying degrees of suspicion.

Before the US invaded Iraq in 2003, for example, an Iraqi who defected to Germany claimed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had deadly mobile biological factories.

The man, appropriately code-named Curveball, was a fabricator. The Germans warned the CIA he was mentally unstable. Yet, US Secretary of State Colin Powell cited Curveball’s bogus claims in his speech to the United Nations and they became part of the justification the George W Bush administration used to go to war.

Even within countries, there is often rivalry between various intelligence agencies. For years, the CIA and the FBI shared information only reluctantly — in part because they have different missions.

The CIA collects intelligence and the FBI aims to catch criminals. Today, officials say their counterintelligence and counter-terror operations are far more closely co-ordinated.

But instead of working together, the world’s intelligence agencies notoriously continue to spy on each other, gathering intelligence even on allies. Last June, French president François Hollande charged that the US had spied on three successive French presidents.

French officials were enraged over the bugging, which created a furore in Paris but received relatively little attention in the US.

Hollande’s office called the eavesdropping “unacceptable,” and telephoned US president Barack Obama to complain. The bugging was revealed in documents released by WikiLeaks.

German chancellor Angela Merkel was equally outraged when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, now granted asylum in Russia, revealed in 2013 that the agency had bugged her personal mobile phone.

A year later, the Germans expelled the CIA station chief in Berlin for infiltrating the BND, the German Federal Intelligence Service.

Spying on friends is rarely a one-way street. For years, American business executives visiting Paris were warned by US officials not to leave their laptops in their hotel rooms because French counterintelligence operatives were breaking in and downloading any trade secrets they could get their hands on. No doubt the same holds true for Americans travelling in China.

Despite the many examples of rivalry, co-operation among nations to combat terrorism does take place. Even to a limited extent between Russia and the US, despite the current tensions between them.

Russia warned Washington about a terrorist suspect whom the FBI questioned but did not hold for lack of evidence. He was one of the two brothers who later bombed the Boston Marathon.

Historically, the intelligence agencies of the US and Britain have often — but by no means always — had a close relationship. The NSA has long had a major eavesdropping post at Menwith Hill in England, for example.

The only real model of truly close, continuing intelligence co-operation among nations is the so-called Five Eyes club of the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand.

Despite the ingrained opposition among the world’s intelligence agencies to sharing secrets with each other, mass terrorist attacks could bring about change and greater co-operation. But there is no guarantee that will happen.

The mayhem in Paris, in Brussels, in London, in Madrid, in Istanbul and Ankara, in San Bernardino, and in other cities, has created a new environment. The terrorism challenge is different today than in past.

Hundreds of militants have travelled from Western Europe to Syria to join IS. Some have returned to carry out terrorist attacks at home. Migrants pouring into Europe from warzones in the Middle East have compounded the problem.

Open borders in Europe have made it easy for terrorists to move between countries undetected. The perpetrators of the Paris attacks travelled freely between Belgium and France before and after they struck.

Though terrorist attacks are likely to continue, information-sharing among security services could be vastly improved. An international counter-terrorism organisation, for example, with senior representatives from the world’s intelligence arms and staffed by analysts who could sift through multiple sources of information might find and prevent some of the terrorist plots before they could be carried out.

Unless intelligence agencies relax their historic secretiveness and suspicion and begin to co-operate with each other, they will have little chance of detecting terror networks and thwarting the kinds of attacks that caused so much destruction in Paris and Brussels.

David Wise writes about intelligence and espionage. His most recent book is Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China.

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