***** Securing the State. By Sir David Omand; published by Columbia University Press, cup.columbia.edu; 345 pages; $29.50.
Sir David Omand, former head of the Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the National Security Agency, poses one of the central public policy questions of our time in his engaging new book, Securing the State: Can Western democracies develop a mature consensus on what is reasonable, prudent, and sustainable regarding our intelligence institutions?
Omand, Tony Blair’s intelligence coordinator from 2002 to 2005, presents both a sensible analysis of this problem and the sound basis for some practical solutions. His thoughtful analysis makes this a book of interest not only to security and intelligence professionals but also to anyone concerned about national security policy development.
He admits that much stands in the way of a consensus. For one thing, the public’s capacity for thinking unemotionally about probability and risk management is limited. This is evidenced by the fact that the most essential of national security paradigms—that terrorists need to succeed just once while we must succeed every time—is also the hardest for the public to grasp in a mature fashion.
Moreover, he notes, the public seems all too ready to believe the worst of its intelligence institutions. The fallout from the run up to the Iraq war continues, he believes, fostering a persistent cynicism about the competence of intelligence services and their relationship with their “customers.”
What is needed, Omand argues, is a social contract based on the understanding that “security is a prime role of government, that the risks are real, and that the public needs to know what those risks amount to, but that there can be no firm promises.”
Part of the solution lies in sensitizing the public—and intelligence services’ political masters—to the realities and limitations of intelligence work. Equally important in building public trust, he argues, is to put in place sufficient safeguards against abuse of powers granted to intelligence agencies. “There is a real risk that any government will abuse its power, particularly in the immediate wake of an attack or a natural disaster,” Omand acknowledges. “It takes a lot of courage to say to the public that a knee-jerk reaction is not perhaps the right thing.”
Abuses, he sagely remarks, are more likely to occur when intelligence capabilities and resources are lacking. “The early years of the troubles in Northern Ireland are instructive,” Omand notes. “It was the woeful lack of decent intelligence that we had for many years that resulted in a reduction in civil liberties, not the other way around. House to house searches; stop and search; detention without trial; coercive interrogation; all of that took place because we had too little intelligence, not too much, and this is an argument that the public needs to understand.”
This book is recommended for anyone who wants a thought-provoking look at intelligence community challenges.
Reviewer: Mario A. Possamai, CPP, CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner), CAMS (Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist), is a member of ASIS International’s Global Terrorism, Political Instability, and International Crime Council.