IN the wake of the bombings last Tuesday at Brussels airport and a metro station, there were calls for greater co-ordination among the world’s intelligence agencies and for more information to be shared to detect terrorist plots.
That is an obvious, desirable goal, but it runs counter to the culture of spy agencies, which exist to steal the secrets of other countries and protect their own. Few outsiders can appreciate the depth of that instinct for secrecy.
Despite the increased information-sharing between Belgium and France 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 view with varying degrees of suspicion the information they receive from other countries.
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 that he was mentally unstable. Yet US secretary of state Colin Powell, in his speech to the UN, cited Curveball’s bogus claims and they became part of the justification that 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 of both agencies say their counterintelligence and counter-terror operations are far more closely co-ordinated.
But, instead of working together, the world’s intelligence agencies notoriously spy on each other, gathering intelligence even on allies. Last June, for example, French president Francois Hollande charged that Washington had spied on him and his two predecessors. The US ambassador was summoned to the foreign ministry to explain why the National Security Agency (NSA) had bugged the telephones of Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Hollande. 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.
French media reports said the NSA had a target list of cell-phone numbers of many high French officials, including Hollande’s direct cell phone. 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 cell phone. Relations between Germany and Washington were so strained that, a year later, the Germans expelled the CIA station chief in Berlin for infiltrating the BND, the German federal intelligence service.
History is replete with similar examples of allies spying on each other. Last year, Jonathan Pollard, a former US Navy intelligence analyst, was released from prison after 30 years for spying for Israel.
The NSA’s bugging of the three French presidents was not the first time that US intelligence had targeted France. In 1995, the French government expelled five CIA agents, including a well-respected, veteran station chief, after a botched spying operation. A deep-cover CIA agent had reportedly paid a French official to glean information on Paris’s position in trade talks. She had posed as a representative of a Texas foundation.
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. No doubt the same now holds true for Americans travelling in China.
Despite the many examples of rivalry, co-operation among nations to combat terrorism does take place. This is true, to a limited extent, even with Russia and the US, despite the current tensions between the two countries. 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, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.
Despite intelligence agencies’ ingrained opposition 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, California, and in other cities across the globe, has created a new environment. The terrorism challenge is different today than it was in the past. Hundreds of militants have travelled from Western Europe to Syria to join Islamic State, the radical Islamist organisation. Some have returned to carry out terrorist attacks at home. Migrants pouring into Europe from war zones 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.