You can only fight a bad idea with a better idea while still occupying the moral high ground
By Robert McGarvey: John Forster, chief of CSEC (Communications Security Establishment Canada), was clear; everything the Agency does in the interests of national security is reviewed and approved. When asked to explain the Agency’s cyber spying activities on Brazil’s ministry of energy and mines, Forster deflected, firmly reminding the audience, “we don’t comment on operational matters of national security.”
Apparently, when Forster said that ‘everything is reviewed’ he meant only that CSEC activities were reviewed by senior government bureaucrats and (as we have discovered recently) Canadian mining executives. The sad truth is Canada’s spy agency is engaged in a covert war where ‘security’ concerns trump the law and all common decency.
A similar story is emerging in the United States. General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, maintained last week that the spy agency was misunderstood.
According to the General, the two biggest threats facing the United States today are terrorism and cyber attacks. These threats are so dire and imminent, that there was no alternative to NSA’s mass collection of telephone and other electronic metadata from Americans, he said. The General maintained that, “If only the public knew the whole story”, they’d support its intrusive activities.
We have heard from both the American and British intelligence services that Edward Snowden’s revelation of agency wrongdoing caused “significant and irreversible damage” to national security. Apparently terrorists have only now discovered that their telephone calls are being monitored; they’ll use this new information to change tactics and unleash a firestorm of violence.
But is that really true? Clearly, it depends upon your perspective. The professional world of national ‘security’ has a strong bias towards technology and hard power. The military mindset of the modern security professional belittles the very idea of ‘soft power’ as so much wishful thinking. Regrettably, as useful as hard power may be in an all-out war, it is ineffective or counterproductive in almost all other situations.
Why is hard power counterproductive in defeating terrorism? Well, it has to do with the complexity of the human condition. Philosophers tell us there are three parts to any action, even the actions of terrorists. There are the motivations or intentions that lay behind the action, the means employed and the consequences of the actions. In order to stop bad behaviour you need an intimate knowledge of all three aspects of action. It is the first of these three, our adversaries’ motivations, that are reinforced by aggressive cyber spying and a mindset that defines security solely in balance of power terms.
The motivation to do evil is almost always based on some perceived wrong, some moral outrage that seeks to be revenged.
I remember a conversation I had with an Irishman in London in the ’80s. At the time the IRA was exploding bombs in Kensington, a stylish shopping district in West London. The Irish businessman I was speaking too was not an IRA supporter, and clearly deplored the violence and loss of life caused by IRA terrorism. But he was equally adamant, the ‘Brits’ had violently oppressed Ireland for centuries, and if IRA terrorism helped achieve his dream of a united Ireland he was willing to turn a blind eye.
It was only later, after the IRA outrages had become too violent and indiscriminate that the tide turned in the war on Irish terror.
Like the IRA of old, Al Queda today is tiny – thousands of individuals at best. Nevertheless they are motivated by a powerful sense of moral outrage, which we heavily discount or ignore. Millions of Al-Qaeda sympathizers are in a position to assist the authorities, but don’t because the West is perceived to be the bully and blind to what may be legitimate grievances.
The truth is you can’t fight a bad idea with bullets; you need to fight a bad idea with a better idea while occupying the moral high ground. This is where soft power comes into the equation. The good news is the West has vast soft power reserves. The bad news is the security agencies ignore or blindly stomp upon this soft power in their intrusive spying and drone retaliation strategies.
Security professionals feel “significantly and irreversibly” compromised today, because high technology cyber spying is their only source of intelligence. Obviously they are receiving very little support from insiders or others in a position to know because, like the British security forces decades ago, they don’t represent a better idea, and they’re certainly not occupying the moral high ground.
Robert McGarvey is an economist and co-founder of Genuine Wealth, a Canadian enterprise whose mission is to help businesses, communities and nations mature into flourishing economies and enterprises of wellbeing.