Mar 09, 2018

Governments need to be a little more open on intelligence

Is it any surprise that citizens distrust governments in the West?  Whether it is the assumption that those in power are only after their own interests or that regimes are really bad at what they do with taxpayers’ money, it is hard to find examples where a country’s population is satisfied with the level of service it gets from those that control the public purse.  Another area which comes in for much criticism is the State’s parsimonious attitude towards  information sharing.  To put it bluntly: it sucks.

Governments tend to scrimp on sharing stuff that they should really be more open about.  After all, those who create this information are in effect the employees of John Q Public and one would think that he who pays the bills has a legitimate right to see what he is paying for.  It stands to reason, doesn’t it?

Intelligence, however, is a different problem.  Yes, governments may over classify some things but it is nevertheless true that some things have to remain secret (or even more highly classified) for very good reasons.  These reasons tend to lie in two separate but related fields: sources and methods.  If the State has learned something very important that could only have come from one source and that information is rendered public, the source becomes vulnerable, or in the worst case scenario dead.  Similarly, if the State learns something by exploiting a method that the originator of the information believed to be secure (i.e. encryption) and that piece is disclosed you can kiss that method goodbye.

I am sure that those who make decisions to make things public go through a calculus that measures the import of the information (for the nation) vs. the sensitivity of the source.  As a great illustration of this there is a scene in the movie The Imitation Game where the brainy Brits working on the Nazi Enigma cipher system chose not to alert a ship in the north Atlantic of an upcoming torpedo attack for fear that the Germans would know that their system was no longer secure, moving them to change it with dire consequences for the war effort.  The addition of a team member who had a family member on that ship who would probably die was particularly poignant (even if it was Hollywood licence at play).

What then should we make of the decision today by the Public Safety Minister, Ralph Goodale, to finally announce that the wannabe suicide bomber Aaron Driver had sought to carry out his attack back in August 2016 at Toronto’s Union Station?  It is March 2018 now.  I do not know what the statute of limitations is but it cannot have anything to do with protecting Mr.Driver’s data can it?  He is dead after all.

I have been racking my brain trying to figure this out (ok, racking my brain may be a little strong since I just read this).  What possible sensitivity was there surrounding this information?  I do recall at the time speculating that Mr. Driver may have been intending to take a cab/bus/train to Toronto to carry out his attack only because the nearest large city – London – is not exactly on the top of the terrorist target list (NB no slight intended towards London: I was born and raised there so I am entitled to comment).  So it appears that my theory was bang on (no pun intended) all along.

Why the delay then?  Is this a matter of sources or methods, both of which I wholeheartedly agree must be protected at all costs?  It is really hard to tell with this one.  In a similar vein it is far from clear why the Canadian government withheld a 15-second (or was it 18-second) portion of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s cellphone video before his attack on the National Cenotaph and Parliament in Ottawa in October 2014.  When the excised part was finally released it struck me as strange why it was excised in the first place.

I cannot call out the Canadian government entirely on this as I have no idea where the investigations are going. Maybe it is really critical that some information remain outside the public eye.  What I do know is that for a population already skeptical about what its security intelligence and law enforcement agencies do it might be a good idea to release more rather than less.  In the end, Mr. Minister, we pay your salary and we are entitled to results.