Intelligence work has changed over the past two decadesImage: AP Graphics
January 7, 2010
Intelligence services have recently come under scrutiny for security lapses. German security experts say mistakes are inevitable, but the fault doesn't always lie where you'd think.
International intelligence agencies have changed almost beyond recognition over the past 20 years, primarily because of changing threats to national security. As global terrorism becomes the primary concern of most western governments, intelligence services have had to look for new ways to deal with a new enemy.
"It's not like the Cold War days, when security services faced a very predictable opponent," Eric Gujer, security expert and journalist at Switzerland's Neue Zuercher Zeitung newspaper told Deutsche Welle.
"Nowadays, intelligence agencies are dealing with an ever-changing landscape. And in that situation it's impossible to react as effectively as during the Cold War. Back then, you could gradually adapt to face your foe. Those days are over."
Gujer should know. Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once joked that reports published in the Zurich paper were usually more valuable to him during his tenure at Germany's helm (1974-1982) than were the briefings he received from the German intelligence agency BND.
Too much red tape?
At a recent conference attended by global security experts at the Hans-Seidel Foundation in Munich, Gujer defended the BND. He said that, due to Germany's Nazi past, the BND underwent close and constant scrutiny.
Gujer also singled out Germany's tendency toward bureaucracy as a problem, saying that understaffed departments can often get lost in a sea of paperwork, rather than focussing their energies on quality analysis of information.
"That problem is compounded by the relatively low financial and human resources available to intelligence agencies," Gujer said. "All this means they are constantly racing from one catastrophe to the next."
Even when an intelligence agency has gathered genuinely interesting and important information, it is rarely their job to act upon their findings. The interaction - or lack thereof - between politicians and their intelligence chiefs can hamper even the finest attempts to protect their country.
"The world of politics isn't adverse to advice," says former BND chief Hans-Georg Wieck. "However, one must address the politicians in a way that makes them more likely to act on your information.
"Most politicians do have their own view of the world order, but they are still interested in what we have to say, because they are keen to avoid mistakes and to promote positive developments."
Wieck suggests that improved communication on all levels is the key to better intelligence services. This means communicating internally between various security services and their offshoots. It also means sharing information at the intermediate level with undersecretaries of state and in discussions with the top politicians.
However, Wieck also says that intelligence chiefs must be as experienced as possible, so that politicians never dismiss their advice.
"There is always that danger," he says. "But if someone has international experience himself, his words will be taken seriously. Whether any action is taken as a result, however, is an entirely different matter."
"When it came to my area of expertise, I always had the access that I needed, and people would listen - even if the relationship wasn't always brilliant."
The security landscape has changed beyond recognition in recent years; however, that cannot be an excuse for shortcomings in international intelligence, Wieck says.
If someone is planning an attack, he says, there will be evidence that intelligence services can recognize, provided they know where to look.