State security: why we’re at risk
Our intelligence structures are ill equipped to deal with modern security threats: cyber attacks, industrial espionage or an attack on the UK from this state
Intelligence failure: wreckage from the IRA bombing of Lord Mountbatten’s boat, killing him and three others, in Co Sligo in 1979. Photograph: Pat Langan
Islamic State has called on radicalised jihadis to attack western interests wherever possible. Reports this autumn that up to 30 Irish residents are fighting with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq are a cause for concern: radicalised fighters returning with bombmaking and other terrorist knowledge could seriously threaten our security. If the UK was attacked from the Republic it would be catastrophic for our relationship. Faced with such threats we must ensure our national-security and intelligence structures are fit for purpose.
During the cold war, European states enhanced their civilian intelligence services. The Republic, protected from foreign encroachments by larger neighbours, did not worry much about national security from an external perspective: the internal threat took priority.
Intelligence is integral to these operations, but it is not much discussed. The issue has emerged, however, after the resignation of the Garda commissioner and his possible replacement by an external candidate. This could be a problem, as it would mean putting a portion of our national security in the hands of someone from outside the Garda Síochána.
Such a difficulty would not arise in most western democracies, as national-intelligence responsibilities are allocated to civilian agencies separated from policing functions.
It is also disconcerting to read that the Garda has diverted scarce resources to respond to the jihadist threat: it is doubtful the Garda could provide enough human, language and technical expertise to professionally conduct the required operations if this and other security threats are to be taken seriously.
The media has reported that the Garda works closely with international intelligence agencies. Sharing intelligence with other agencies is normal, but no state should depend on another for intelligence. Intelligence from foreign agencies can create the illusion that the home system is working.
The State has already had many intelligence failures: the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the Omagh bombings, the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, the Warrenpoint ambush and the murders of Chief Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan.
More importantly, numerous very large shipments of arms and explosives were smuggled into the State during the Troubles – enough to sustain a terrorist organisation for many years whose aim was the overthrow of the democratic institutions of this state by all means possible.
No security chief was ever fully held to account for these failures, and no substantial revision of intelligence structures took place.
Although the Defence Forces support the Garda, they must maintain their own intelligence capability and not rely on Garda intelligence for their security. The Defence Forces have operated in some of the most hostile environments overseas, where intelligence is imperative to protect soldiers’ lives. But Irish soldiers have been sent on United Nations missions with inadequate intelligence. This was highlighted by Frank Callanan SC, who investigated the deaths of three soldiers in Lebanon in 1989.
The Defence Forces should have learned from that tragic episode. They have improved training and have learned much through operating as part of Nato and EU forces. However, in my experience, the Defence Forces still have much to learn about the importance of intelligence.
Cyberattacks are now considered to be the main strategic threat that states face. These threats pose serious risks to civilian enterprises, as they do to State organs, as they could cripple infrastructure and destroy international confidence in State security.
Even though our economic wellbeing is at risk, it’s hard to discern any urgency in addressing these threats, and it’s far from clear who is ultimately responsible for defending us against major cyberattacks.
The State encourages Irish research and development, and many multinationals have bases here. Western Europe has had many cases of industrial espionage, on behalf of both friendly and hostile foreign states. Nobody has been arrested in the Republic for such crimes.
During the Troubles few spies or infiltrators were captured operating within our security forces. Is our counterespionage security perfect, or are we blind to the threat? A recent controversy in which private detectives acquired personal data from State organs demonstrated how easy it is to obtain information.
The National Security Committee (NSC), formed in 1974, is tasked with advising the Taoiseach on high-level security issues but not operational security matters. It is composed of representatives from the departments of An Taoiseach, Justice, Defence and Foreign Affairs, the Garda and the Defence Forces. Revenue and departments with responsibility for transport, communications and energy, which also have intelligence roles, are not full members.
The NSC lacks staff, working groups or the capacity for independent analysis, and it cannot co-ordinate intelligence before an event.
Inquiries after security disasters invariably discover a lack of intelligence co-ordination, as well as structures unfit for purpose. Many states have responded with “fusion centres”, to co-ordinate intelligence locally and nationally. There is no evidence they exist here; neither is there a statutory director of national intelligence.
According to an intelligence adage, if nobody knows what you’re doing, then nobody knows what you’re doing wrong. And “wrong” can mean either illegally or ineffectively.
Most western powers realise that they need intelligence agencies, and that those agencies need to work in secret, but they also realise the need for supervision. So they appoint a parliamentary committee to ensure the legislature supervises the agencies’ legal and ethical standards and questions their successes and failures. The Oireachtas committee on justice, defence and equality is unfit for this purpose.
The Government should look into establishing a specialised, vetted intelligence-oversight committee. This would ensure democratic accountability of our intelligence services and build trust and confidence between the intelligence services and citizens.
The threats we face have changed. Complacency is no longer an option. For decades terrorist organisations have been able to mobilise, arm, train and flourish in the State. The intelligence and security mechanisms that failed to adequately respond to the domestic terrorist threat in the past are unlikely to be fit for purpose today. It would be unwise to wait until after an attack to discover the truth of this.
Under threat Security risks and how to respond
- An attack here by radical Islamists responding to the Isis call to attack the West.
- An attack on Britain or another international target by jihadis here.
- An attack on foreigners passing through the State, especially at an airport.
- An attack on a multinational company or on key private interests, such as the banking system.
- A physical attack or cyberattack on State communications or other infrastructure.
- Commercial espionage by foreign agencies stealing R&D secrets.
HOW WE SHOULD COMBAT THESE RISKS
- Separate the Garda from its national-intelligence role and give this to a civilian intelligence agency.
- Appoint a director for national intelligence to lead the new agency and to be responsible for the co-ordination of all intelligence from all parts of the Government.
- Make the director primarily responsible for advising the Government on threats to State security.
- Create national and local centres to co-ordinate intelligence.
- Review the necessity for the National Security Committee.
- Create a security-vetted Dáil intelligence-oversight committee.
Michael Murphy is a former Defence Forces senior intelligence officer