We Need to Fix the Way We Talk about National Intelligence

CIA memorial wall. Image: Wikimedia

This article was originally published by The Conversation on 10 October 2014.

In the last few years, the list of sensitive government information made public as a result of unauthorised disclosures has increased exponentially. But who really benefits from these leaks?

While they are media catnip and provide useful information to hostile individuals and organisations, they only occasionally contribute to the public debate on intelligence and truly advance the cause of democracy.

A scoop on the secret world of espionage is a guaranteed journalistic coup. And with good reason; at the simplest level, news exposures of intelligence service activities inform the public and contribute to a self-evidently important public debate on the role of intelligence in modern democracies. » More

Emerging Technologies: Security and Regulatory Concerns

Image: jurvetson/Wikimedia

Scientific research is no stranger to the battlefield. Technological breakthroughs have often started off in military research labs or prompted by military funding. The trend caught momentum during the Cold War when the superpowers on both sides of the Iron Curtain delegated researchers and huge budgets to the development of technologies of war, space and ocean exploration. » More

Is Terrorism an Effective Tool for Obtaining Territorial Concessions?

Image: Menendj/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by SIPRI on 7 July 2014. This blog post is published as part of a collaborative partnership between SIPRI and Economists for Peace and Security (EPS).

Terrorism is an important but complex issue that affects many countries. While we have a good understanding of the determinants behind terror campaigns, very little attention has been paid to the question of whether terrorism is an effective strategy for coercing the targeted country to grant political and territorial concessions. The lack of research is surprising, given that the answer to this question is critical to understanding why terror exists at all, and why it appears to be increasing in many parts of the world. » More

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Addressing the Foreign-Fighter Risk: a Role for Financial Intelligence?

Free Syrian Army fighters in Idlib, courtesy of Freedom House/flickr

The participation of foreign fighters in the Syrian conflict is a growing concern, particularly among Western governments that are not only struggling to track the movement of their citizens, but are also fearful that those travelling to the conflict may become radicalised and return home with their extremist ideology. Recently, a UK Parliament Home Affairs Committee enquiry into counterterrorism heard from a range of experts how returning fighters pose a statistically significant risk to the security of their home countries. Research published by Thomas Hegghammer also suggests that perhaps one-in-nine foreign fighters from the West might perpetrate attacks on their home countries once they return.

In addition, several studies have been undertaken that seek to estimate the number and nationality of these foreign fighters. Consensus suggests that there are over 10,000 such fighters in Syria, with as many as 2000 (and rising) coming from Western Europe. A number of these have already died in battle or, as in the case of Briton Abdul Waheed Majeed, acted as suicide bombers. Yet, while there is certainly no suggestion that all those returning from the conflict will be radicalised, the West’s limited knowledge as to who travels and returns from Syria is alarming. » More

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Oversight and Intelligence Services: the Case of Switzerland

Antennas in Loèche, part of Switzerland's Onyx data gathering system

Antennas in Loèche, part of Switzerland’s Onyx data gathering system. Photo: Rama/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1989, a Swiss parliamentary committee revealed that the country’s Federal Police and Federal Prosecutor’s Office had spent decades recording the activities of 10% of the Swiss population. It seems that during the Cold War, being a member of a left-wing organization, or even contacting it, raised the eyebrows of these agencies. But they weren’t alone. In time, the Swiss postal service and even private individuals began to perform this type of surveillance.

When they were finally informed about these activities, the Swiss public was predictably shocked by the scope and scale of the “Secret Files Scandal”.  What concerned them then is what concerns everyone now – i.e., the often absent legal justifications for such activities and the inadequate democratic oversight exercised over those who perform them.

The “Insurmountable Tension”

The Swiss case, along with the recent revelations about the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) activities, points to what many analysts and practitioners have long argued is an indissoluble problem. Yes, secrecy is necessary to prevent ‘legitimate’ surveillance targets from knowing they are under scrutiny, and thereby changing their modus operandi.  At the same time, this necessary feature of intelligence work inevitably breeds a lack of transparency and needed oversight. » More

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