There has been talk for decades of creating an overarching intelligence structure that works to keep the continent secure, but it has taken on new urgency with the recent increase in terror attacks in Europe. However, doing so is easier said than done. In fact, there are legal impediments to creating this kind of apparatus. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with former Assistant Chief and Director of Operations and Intelligence for the British Secret Intelligence Service, Nigel Inkster, about the failings of European intelligence and how the system could be improved.
The Cipher Brief: With the increase in threats to Europe – we just saw the shooting in Paris last week, for example – is there a desire amongst EU member states for better intelligence sharing?
Nigel Inkster: Yes, there is. But it’s not something that has just come about as a result of the most recent terror incident that has taken place. And in any case, the shooting in Paris looks like something that’s pretty much indigenous to France. It’s not obvious to me that there’s any other European dimension to it.
TCB: So when did the desire to enhance intelligence sharing start in earnest?
NI: This is something that has been around forever. Way back in the 1970s, there were dedicated mechanisms for the secure sharing of intelligence on terrorist activities. So in a way, it’s nothing new. Back then it was done through faxes and through telex; now it’s done through modern IT.
But the bulk of intelligence sharing still takes place on a bilateral basis. That is the norm, the standard. There isn’t any kind of European central repository for counterterrorism intelligence. There are efforts to try to build up the European police agency, Europol, in that role, but it’s still very embryonic, and it has limited capacity.
What has developed in Europe over the last 10 years is information and communications technologies, and our mechanisms for sharing large data sets between and amongst states, which are relevant for counterterrorism activities. Here we’re talking about things like travel data, financial information, large data sets that are now necessary in order to monitor and investigate individuals.
TCB: Why is there a preference – or historically has there been a preference – for bilateral intelligence sharing? At a time in which the EU is more fragile than it has been over the past 70 years, with Britain getting ready to leave the EU, is this the right time to be engaging in efforts to change from bilateral intelligence sharing to some kind of federal system?
NI: I don’t think the latter point is particularly valid, but let me take your first point. Intelligence sharing is something that in all intelligence cultures tends to happen on a bilateral basis, because intelligence sharing – the degrees to which intelligence sharing take place – is a function of trust, and it’s easier to develop trust at a bilateral level, rather than a multilateral level. With bilateral exchanges, you have much greater confidence that you can maintain control of your material. Sharing sensitive intelligence with a large number of partners is not something that’s easy to do, and you have to bear in mind that in this context, Europe as an entity has no competence in these matters. This was written into the Lisbon Treaty (essentially, the EU’s constitution) so issues of national security are a preserve of the individual member states. Europe has no authority, no responsibility in this regard. What Europe is able to do is encourage and promote best practice and create arrangements for the ability to exchange large data sets.
To your second point, I don’t think there is actually a serious expectation that Europe will evolve some kind of federal structure in this regard, because as I just pointed out, that is expressly precluded by the terms of the Lisbon Treaty. I think what we’re going to see, what we probably should see, is incremental improvements in sharing and communications, rather than some kind of big-bang federal superstructure, which is both constitutionally not feasible and in practice not workable.
TCB: You mentioned the last time that we spoke a few weeks ago that Britain will want to stay involved in the EU intelligence structures if those structures are perceived to be effective, and naturally the EU will want Britain to be involved. What is the current perception of those structures? Are they effective?
NI: That’s a difficult question to answer. As I said, the European intelligence structures are a function of nation states, and the challenge for Europe is to get all its nation states in a better state in terms of basic competences – the basic toolkit if you will – and the legislative arrangements under which they operate, so that there is some degree of homogeneity there. The other challenge for Europe is to encourage greater intelligence sharing and collaboration, and to encourage people to think about the possible overseas dimension.
For the UK, the big challenge is how they will continue to have access to the large data sets they currently get. There’s clearly going to have to be some new arrangements negotiated for that. I’m not sure at the moment quite how that will work, but what I am fairly clear about is that the will on both sides to make it work is there.
TCB: Turning to NATO, again the last time we spoke, you mentioned that NATO is not the premier institution for intelligence sharing. Why is that? Is there momentum to change that? And what would the benefits of bettering that intelligence structure be?
NI: Let’s remember what NATO’s purpose is: It’s a collective defense arrangement. It’s a military organization first and foremost, and counterterrorism is not a primary function of the military, certainly not in Europe, so that in itself puts NATO somewhat to one side here. The other thing is NATO is a large organization with a large number of members. There is very little inclination by the top tier intelligence powers to share sensitive information in such a promiscuous environment, and so, by and large, they don’t do it.
TCB: Will the recent events in Turkey – with the referendum, with EU accession looking like it might be further from a reality – impact how intelligence sharing might progress in NATO in the future?
NI: No, I don’t think that’s going to make a particular impact there. Obviously, there are challenges with managing Turkey’s continuing involvement in NATO, which I think everybody wants. But the primary issues in this are more political than things like intelligence sharing.
Bear in mind, the Turkish intelligence service has in the past been quite effective in operating against terrorist groups, but it has become quite heavily politicized under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and it’s also suffering from a risk of being overwhelmed by the high concentration of jihadists now in Turkey.
TCB: Can you briefly explain how NATO intelligence works?
NI: There is a central mechanism there where states provide intelligence to NATO. NATO does not have its own separate intelligence collection capabilities. Rather, it’s reliant on member states, and then this material is deposited centrally and shared. A lot of the intelligence that NATO deals with – or has been dealing with over the last decade – is of a tactical, military nature in relation to the deployment in Afghanistan, in particular, but also others. So it is relatively less sensitive intelligence. It is more of a classical military variety and hence easier to share.
The issue with NATO is in the realm of strategic intelligence sharing. There, as I said, the main concern is the reluctance of the big intelligence powers to put sensitive data into the organization.
TCB: Do you think that militaries in the future are going to become more involved in counterterrorism?
NI: Well, that depends on the context and circumstances. There are some states where the military already does take the lead – not in Europe – but if one looks at areas in the Middle East, you can see this. Who is leading the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq? It’s the Iraqi military. You look across North Africa, the Maghreb, Somalia, something similar is happening.
Militaries typically play a role in counterterrorism when the terrorism has reached the level of an insurgency and is simply not within the grasp of a civilian police or intelligence service to deal with. When that happens, the role of the military is to reduce the problem to manageable proportions so that civilian agencies can take over.
That’s certainly been the UK approach and to a degree, France’s approach. So it depends on context. If you’ve got a terrorist organization that’s operating in the kind of terrain that we see in the Sahel, for example, there I think you do need military or paramilitary capabilities to deal with at least part of the problem.
TCB: Any final thoughts?
NI: When it comes to Brexit, the intelligence, counterterrorism dimension is the least of the problems.