Politics

NATO intelligence chiefs admit sharing secrets is a 'challenge' within the alliance

Sharing among friends is a perennial problem, especially in a military alliance. NATO’s intelligence chiefs came face-to-face with that reality during two days of closed-door meetings in Ottawa this week.

'We must become faster,' says senior NATO intelligence executive

Pro-Russian rebels fire rockets on Ukrainian positions February 13, 2015 in Debaltseve, Ukraine. The West's slow response to Russia's meddling in Ukraine has been described as a sweeping intelligence failure. (Getty Images)

Sharing among friends is a perennial problem, especially in a military alliance. NATO's intelligence chiefs came face-to-face with that fact during two days of closed-door meetings in Ottawa this week.

"We are equipped, but must do better in the future," said Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven, the alliance's assistant secretary general for intelligence. "We must become faster."

NATO and the Canadian military opened the door Thursday to CBC News and The Canadian Press to answer questions about the meetings, which saw many military officers swap their uniforms for more discrete civilian clothing.

The crisis in Eastern Europe following the Russian annexation of Crimea prompted leaders of the western allies to set up a permanent intelligence division, which takes finished assessments and analyses from each of the 29 countries to form its own broad picture.

An intelligence failure

The speed with which Moscow infiltrated special forces into the Ukrainian peninsula, and the effectiveness of its propaganda and disinformation campaigns in 2014, startled NATO and left western leaders scrambling not only to catch up but to understand what was happening.

The takeover was deemed an intelligence failure by one of the alliance's former top commanders.

On his way out the door, retired U.S. general Philip Breedlove — who commanded NATO troops in Europe — said in 2016 that western military intelligence wasn't good enough before the Ukraine crisis.

Convincing allies that they must talk among themselves — particularly about their own security weaknesses — has been a struggle.

"It's very important our nations share what they see is going on, including in their own countries. Most of the action takes place in NATO countries," said Fretag von Loringhoven. "It is a challenge for intelligence services to deal with that and to share intelligence on their own countries because you have to speak about potential vulnerabilities in your own countries. This has to be balanced against the benefits for all of us."

One of the main topics of discussion this week has been ways to improve the alliance's early warning and alert system, he added.

There's an extra layer of complexity to NATO's situation, however.

Canada, the U.S. and Britain — three founding members of NATO — are also part of the "Five Eyes" international community, which produces top-tier, ultra-secret intelligence.

How much of that does the new NATO division get to see? It's up to individual countries to decide, said Fretag von Loringhoven.

"We do not get everything that is releasable to the Five Eyes, but we get everything that Canada or the U.S. deem NATO should see."

Latvia as a test case

Rear-Admiral Scott Bishop, who is in charge of the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command, said the ongoing deployment in Latvia has turned out to be an important test case for intelligence-sharing and openness.

The Canadian-led battlegroup, based at Camp Adazi near Riga, brings together troops and equipment from Poland, Italy, Spain, Slovenia, Albanian and Latvia.

Bishop said the experience has shown that when there's an "imperative to share intelligence, nations will step up and do that."

On the question of how much Five Eyes intelligence Canada is comfortable with allowing NATO to see, Bishop was more circumspect: "Canada works very hard to share all of its intelligence that is pertinent to NATO with its NATO alliance members."

Canada is the current chair of the NATO Military Intelligence Committee.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.