The twin terror attacks last week on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher kosher grocery store in Paris are, once again, leading to questions about the efficacy of intelligence operations against terrorist groups. This is not just a French problem; it affects the governments of all civilized nations.
In the U.S., I hope our leaders in Congress and in the White House understand this. As Congress considers possible reforms to the National Security Agency and both it and the White House lurch closer to more comprehensive cybersecurity legislation, it becomes more critically important than ever that we understand what happened in France and what the implications for the U.S. are. The fact that the president did not see fit to attend Sunday's million-person march in Paris with other world leaders was a lost opportunity that does not augur well for any efforts to enhance and modernize intelligence cooperation efforts with our oldest ally in a data-driven world.
In examining the specifics of the Paris attacks, we learn that French authorities had monitored at least one of the Kouachi brothers on and off since 2005. In that year, the younger one, Cherif, was arrested as he was trying to leave for Syria. In spite of a trial in 2008, prison time and a 2010 plot to free an imprisoned Algerian Islamist, reports now indicate that during the ensuing years, the French authorities failed to adequately monitor the Kouachi brothers and their fellow travelers. The French intelligence agencies were drowning in a sea of data, thus limiting their ability to discern the threat posed by the Kouachis.
The French do not play "small ball" in the intelligence field. In the pantheon of great intelligence services in the world, they consistently rank near the top, alongside the services of the U.S., U.K., Germany, Israel and Russia. French history is replete with the exploits of its various intelligence services. It's not a coincidence that "espionage" and "intrigue" are words we've borrowed from the French.
That historical experience forms the basis for the professional excellence found in today's French intelligence agencies, like the DGSE (General Directorate for External Security) and DCRI (General Directorate for Internal Security). French Special Operations Forces, like GIGN (National Gendarmerie Intervention Group), GIPN (National Police Intervention Groups), RAID (Research, Assistance, Intervention, Deterrence) and BRI (Research and Intervention Brigades), also acquit themselves well. That competence was on display last week when these agencies expertly mounted two nearly simultaneous terrorist takedowns. But, just like in the U.S. in the run-up to 9/11, there were opportunities to prevent these attacks and they were missed.
One of the first issues the French government will need to address as it searches for lessons learned is the organizational structure of its intelligence and law enforcement communities. The fact that the previous paragraph lists four (!) different agencies responsible for special operations (and that's not all of them) already points to a potential problem of coordination and information sharing. In the U.S., the 9/11 Commission report also pointed out that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies suffered from similar information sharing and coordination problems. While great improvements have been made, there's still a ways to go before these processes become as seamless as they should be.
It's the information sharing aspect that is most troubling to me. As in the U.S., when there are multiple agencies involved, you will find multiple stovepipes or, if you prefer, information silos. These are not "silos of excellence" — a term I saw on a Pentagon document years ago; they are almost always silos of ignorance.
Any reform of the French intelligence community must target these silos of ignorance. But, this is not just an issue of domestic coordination for the French. It is, instead, an issue of governmental reform for all civilized nations. The Cyber Age, which is also the Age of Big Data, requires that all nations work together to combat the scourge of terrorism. To do so effectively they must develop efficient mechanisms that can disseminate both raw and correlated intelligence data in near-real-time. The million or so people who marched in Paris on Sunday, and the countless millions around the world who watched in solidarity with the French people on television, will demand no less. Nous sommes tous Charlie — we are all Charlie — and our political, intelligence and law enforcement leaders cannot afford to forget that fact.
Leighton is a retired career Air Force intelligence officer and is currently chairman of Cedric Leighton International Strategies.