Thursday 29 September 2016

We are vulnerable to terrorist attack, so we must set up necessary agencies

Ireland is relying on an outdated security model to protect us from threats - and it's just not good enough, writes Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

SKILLS: Due to historic reasons, the Army, who have the experience and capability to gather and analyse intelligence, do not have the legal independent authority to do so. Photo credit: Niall Carson/PA Wire
SKILLS: Due to historic reasons, the Army, who have the experience and capability to gather and analyse intelligence, do not have the legal independent authority to do so. Photo credit: Niall Carson/PA Wire

There is no doubt that a credible threat of terrorist attack exists in Ireland at this time. In recent months we have seen violent outrages against communities with which we share broad cultural, religious and political values. Why in Ireland do we feel so immune from this threat?

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Whereas most developed countries have threat levels such as Low, Moderate, Substantial, Severe or Critical, we have one level permanently set at "possible, but unlikely". As a security and intelligence consultant to governments around the world, I know how other states manage the threat of terrorism and I have yet to find the national threat level "possible but unlikely".

The establishment of a "powerful new State agency" reported in the Sunday Independent on July 31, 2016, gives no cause for reassurance that Ireland is aligning its intelligence structures with the rest of Europe. The body being established seems little more than a passenger identification database forced upon us by the US under threat of losing our visa waiver and seems designed to reassure the UK that, post-Brexit, a common travel area between the two islands should be maintained.

Our history has created distaste for security agencies. The political hangover of the civil war causes deep suspicion for any government body tasked with the gathering and analysis of intelligence. No Irish government has ever had the appetite to grasp this nettle and so we have been, and are, poorly protected.

The much referred to National Security Committee (NSC) is an inter-departmental committee of high-ranking civil servants (not security or intelligence professionals) responsible for ensuring that the Government is kept informed of high-level national security and intelligence issues.

The NSC receives intelligence and security assessments from the Chief of Staff (Defence Forces) and the Commissioner (An Garda Siochana) and determines the national threat level (the famous "possible, but unlikely").

The NSC does not have an autonomous functional expertise to validate or interrogate either of these inputs. The NSC is not considered a national intelligence agency by our counterparts and therefore is not allowed partake in European national agency cooperation and intelligence sharing.

There are those who would claim that Ireland's security agencies are correctly structured and resourced to meet the current threat - this is simply not true. After 9/11 most developed countries realising that 'gaps' existed in their security and intelligence structures and developed 'National Intelligence Agencies' supported by 'Information Fusion Centres'.

Nearly all developed countries conform to four agencies (police, military, internal security and external security) carrying out their roles, with a fifth national agency gathering and analysing ALL available intelligence, ensuring there are no gaps and a national perspective - free of individual agency filters, rivalries and bias - is formed. Ireland has remained with the same outdated and ineffective two-agency structure (police and military) since the formation of the State.

Due to the fact that our structures have not evolved, Ireland is desperately out of step with the rest of Europe and the developed world, a club that we are a member of whether we like it or not, and therefore a legitimate target.

In our current structures, An Garda Siochana is the agency with the responsibility and authority to manage security and intelligence.

Again, due to historic reasons, the Army, who have the experience and capability to gather and analyse intelligence, do not have the legal independent authority to do so and effectively find themselves redundant - in competition with, or subordinate to, An Garda Siochana.

So, in reality, a single small, under-resourced unit within the Crime and Security branch of the Gardai is all that defends the nation against the new European threat. It would be unfair to blame An Garda Siochana for the unusual structure that Irish security and intelligence has evolved (or not evolved) into. Whereas most developed countries have five agencies (and a fusion centre) participating in a national security structure, we effectively have one.

One, which the Garda Commissioner herself admits needs modernisation and reform. One, which has come under severe criticism in recent times for not being able to deal with organised crime, the little brother of terrorism, but we somehow are unquestioning about its ability to provide nation security and intelligence at the level required to defend against a rootless, determined and undefined enemy.

With our intelligence structures being so out of step, it means that we are unable to participate fully in international intelligence sharing. Our communications interception technologies are dated and ineffective. Our politicians are being advised on whether our intelligence structures are fit for purpose by the very structure that is obviously not fit for purpose.

As a former leader of Special Forces troops, I understand the value of accurate, timely intelligence. To deal with the modern threat, independent, unbiased intelligence should be at the heart of our national defence.

It is well within the reach of the Irish Government to establish a genuinely first-of-its-kind, bespoke and dedicated National Intelligence Agency. Our politicians should have timely, accurate intelligence so that they can prepare for, and defend against, modern threats to the State.

There are those who would regard Ireland as a target for terror attacks. Any act that exposes our national security weakness is likely to be catastrophic.

Joe Ryan is managing director of Glassmor - an Irish-based communications management and intelligence company working mostly in Africa and Asia with national leaders and governments

Sunday Independent

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