If secrecy is the whole point, how do you make intelligence agencies share?
In the wake of the horrific attack on Tuesday at the Brussels airport and a metro station, there were immediate calls for more information sharing and greater coordination among the world’s intelligence agencies to detect terrorist plots before they can be executed.
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 between the two countries 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 United States 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, 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 of both agencies say that their counterintelligence and counter-terror operations are far more closely coordinated.
But instead of working together, the world’s intelligence agencies notoriously continue to spy on each other, gathering intelligence even on allies. Last June, for example, French President Francois Hollande charged that Washington had spied on three successive French presidents.
The U.S. ambassador was summoned to the foreign ministry to explain why the National Security Agency had bugged the telephones of Presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and Hollande. French officials were enraged over the bugging, which created a furor in Paris but received relatively little attention in the United States. Hollande’s office called the eavesdropping “unacceptable,” and telephoned 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 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 U.S. 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 try 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 U.S. 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 traveling in China.
Despite the many examples of rivalry, cooperation among nations to combat terrorism does take place. Even to a limited extent between Russia and the United States, 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 United States 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 cooperation among nations is the so called Five Eyes club of the United States, Canada, Britain, 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 cooperation. 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 in past. Hundreds of militants have traveled from Western Europe to Syria to join Islamic State, the radical Islamist organization. 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 traveled 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 organization, 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 cooperate 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.