Canada and Terrorism: quick reflections on information, speculation, and intelligence

By Jeremy Littlewood

We learnt quite a bit yesterday (October 23) about the attack in Ottawa on Wednesday. Noting as I did yesterday some positive aspects, the Press Conference mid-afternoon with the Chief of Ottawa Police and the Commissioner of the RCMP was quite enlightening: like others I’ll give a nod of appreciation to Commissioner Paulson for his remarks and information provided. That level of transparency – number of people now under investigation by RCMP as high risk travellers, dynamic nature of that ‘list’, the fact that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was not on that list, etc. – as well as the walk through, with video, of the arrival of Zehaf-Bibeau on Parliament Hill was a very welcome clarification of what is actually known at this time. Hopefully it will dampen the speculation that inevitably fills any vacuum. He, of course, left some details unclear and quite a few things unsaid, but I am not going to complain about that now.

Expanding on my tweet on Wednesday that the limits of the 24 hour news cycle was revealed as the day’s events unfolded the distinction between known, unknown, and speculation is worth reflecting on and thinking about. Commentators and others (myself among them) filled airtime, provided quotes, and both speculated and provided barely filtered thoughts in the media (traditional, social, and everything in between).

In short, there is a difference between information and intelligence that we should be more aware of: that difference is summarised nicely in a piece by Matt Hartley entitled Cyber Threats: Information vs. Intelligence from which the table below is taken:

Table 1: Info v Intel

Raw, unfiltered data Processed, sorted, and distilled information
Unevaluated when delivered Evaluated and interpreted by trained expert analysts
Aggregated from virtually every source Aggregated from reliable sources and cross correlated for accuracy
May be true, false, misleading, incomplete, relevant, or irrelevant Accurate, timely, complete (as possible), assessed for relevancy

As a scholar who works on the subject of terrorism and international security, I am unable and do not provide intelligence. I am, and should be, in a position to reflect on information and provide a point of view or perspective that is not simply unfiltered and raw, and be able to draw attention to data and reliable sources. Over the last 72 hours, I am, however, aware that in responding to many media enquiries, I provided commentary that if assessed in hindsight and evaluated objectively could be categorized as sometimes true and accurate, occasionally incorrect and therefore false and/or misleading, certainly incomplete and at different times relevant and irrelevant. (I should note that inaccuracies were not deliberate.)

So, what’s my point? That as a scholar I should reflect on some issues with a view to improving my public service contribution to the media and others in preparation for the hectic news cycle that will begin following the next attack.

Reflecting only personally I was active in the media – but not super-active – over the course of this week. Since the attack in Quebec I have fielded calls, emails and other enquiries, and responded to media requests in Canada and elsewhere including the following: CBC, Global National, CTV, BBC, Al-Jazeera (America), a Catalan regional media, CFRA, Globe and Mail, Hill Times, i-Politics, and Bloomberg and declined many more other requests. Between Wednesday morning, when I was on CBC Radio 1 (Ottawa Morning) just after 7.00 AM to discuss the first incident in Quebec, and Wednesday evening when I spoke live to the BBC at 11.00 PM via Skype for their early morning news broadcast (4.00 AM in UK) and then had a pre-interview conversation with staff from CBC’s The Fifth Estate until around 11.45 PM, I think I was cited and used in about 15 articles or pieces overall and was more active on Twitter than I have ever been in the short time since I signed up for the latter. Overall, not too many interviews and conversations, but enough to completely distract me from my real job, as my neglected students are aware.

By yesterday afternoon, having been downtown to record for The Fifth Estate – at the time of writing I do not know if any of that will be used – and then immediately to conduct interviews with two journalists at Global National before returning to my office on campus to talk to the BBC World Service at 1.00 PM, and saying “no” to five requests to go back downtown for more TV, I was frazzled and getting tired of the same questions and being asked to speculate on the unknowable, e.g. what is going to be in the legislation related to new powers for CSIS? I know some of my colleagues in TSAS were feeling the same, and I had even more sympathy (and respect) for Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud of the RCMP who was frank in his response at Wednesday afternoon’s press conference to a query about being caught by surprise.

So here, in no particular order, reflections on what I learnt over the last few days as a scholar in a policy-relevant school and a member of a research network dedicated to the study of terrorism, security, and society.

  1. I have to say “no” to requests as many, if not more, times that I say “yes”
  2. Being in Canada, and being in Ottawa, reputable Canadian media should have my priority and that includes TV, print, radio, and newer forms of media
  3. Media inquiries from organizations, entities, or people I have never heard of – and I read a lot of news from a wide variety of sources – deserve to be ignored
  4. Multiple requests from the same news organization becomes very, very frustrating
  5. Asking me to block out an hour or more of my time to be “available” is not going to happen
  6. Five-to-six minute TV appearances in studio take up to 90 minutes away from my day in terms of preparation and thought on the likely questions, travel to, waiting time, the interview, and travel back from the studio. It is neither efficient nor effective.
  7. Radio and print is preferable to TV.
  8. Inquiries from the state-run and other media of non-democratic states get rejected immediately. (I learnt my lesson two years ago and am not in the business of inadvertently assisting propaganda efforts of non-democratic states.)
  9. Speculation is unhelpful, but in fluid real time situations inevitable: as Wednesday unfolded the question “Is this an act of terrorism?” was fielded many times. The honest answer at that time was “we do not know” so neither a categorical “yes” or “no” could have been provided, but as I think I said on more than one occasion developments and events pointed to it being terrorism at the time.
  10. I need to be better prepared with data, examples, legal facts, knowledge of procedural mechanisms, and have at hand more general lines for common questions, as well as being firmer in saying “we do not know” rather than being drawn into speculation.
  11. People who ask for me for more “spice”, “bite”, or to be a “bit more aggressive” vis-à-vis on-going events and assigning blame and fault while the situation is unfolding should be ignored.
  12. In hindsight I would have sent out a call for assistance to my own students immediately to help me manage the flow of information so they could put eyes on numerous sources and news feeds on my behalf and develop a quick fact sheet of confirmed and unconfirmed information on events as it unfolded.

Finally, while all this is fresh in our minds it may be worth thinking about bringing scholars, journalists, producers and editors, and practitioners into the same room for half a day to reflect on events, share observations and prepare ourselves next time for an event where we all play a role, but have very different responsibilities.

I remain, in general terms, impressed with the overall quality of reporting by the media in Canada on a very fluid situation and in the last month officials in the intelligence and national security community have been more open on the issue of terrorism than I have experienced beforehand.

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