Posts Tagged NCA

The Past, Present and Future of Intelligence Work

A few weeks ago I attended an event organised by the brilliant Mile End Group to mark the 50th anniversary of the Defence Intelligence Staff. With many long-serving members of the intelligence community in the audience, discussion inevitably turned to the changing nature of intelligence work – from the post-Second World War focus on Communism to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the future challenges of cyber-terrorism. Below I take a look at some of the different aspects of working in intelligence in the past, the present and the future.

GCHQ at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

A satellite communications dish outside the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Photo: GCHQ/Crown Copyright/MOD


Intelligence work by its nature is constantly evolving and so, therefore, is the remit of the various organisations involved in monitoring, analysing and combating threats to the UK’s security. Some services have changed more than others – GCHQ started life deciphering the telegrams of persons on interest and although the technology has changed SIGNIT is still very much its territory. On the other hand, Defence Intelligence, founded to provide data collection and analysis at the highest, strategic, level has found itself increasingly involved in operational work; the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts saw Defence Intelligence staff deployed more frequently than ever before (other times included to the former Yugoslavia and during the Sierra Leone civil war). More recently, there has been a proposal to move UK counter-terrorism responsibility from the Met police to the National Crime Agency (NCA) – an organisation whose focus has thus far largely been on drugs, people trafficking and child exploitation. The UK’s intelligence organisations therefore need to be flexible and adaptable to change with modern times, while also capitalising on their decades’ worth of institutional experience.


It used to be Communism and the Soviet Union, now it’s Islamic extremism and the Middle East/Asia: as threats to the UK shift from one ideology/country/region to another, so too does the focus of intelligence work and so too does the need for specialised knowledge. Russia is a perfect example of the difficulties facing the intelligence services when it comes to the issue of knowledge: during the Cold War there were Russian experts aplenty but with the fall of the Soviet Union attention turned elsewhere, and the agencies were hunting out those who spoke Arabic/Farsi/Pushtu. Now, with Putin’s actions towards Ukraine, it appears that some intelligence experts are worried about the lack of current information on Russia.

The problem of course is how to predict where the next flash points are going to be. Which leads to a catch 22 – you don’t necessarily know that Russia is still a potential threat to the UK if you are not putting the resources into monitoring that country; but you won’t put your resources there if you don’t think there is a reason to. One way to address this is to go for a strategy of broad thinking, trying to make sure you have a little knowledge on a lot rather than vice versa – jack of all trades and master of none. At the moment this appears to be the general trend, certainly in Defence Intelligence anyway. The problem is there will always be a need for more in-depth, specialised knowledge of a particular ideology/country/region. This perennial balancing act between broad versus deep knowledge will not doubt always be an issue for intelligence work. However, future technological advances that enhance our ability to amass and analyse vast amounts of data will no doubt help.


Indeed, the undisputed greatest change that has overcome intelligence work since the latter half of the twentieth century is the massive advances in technology and the sheer magnitude of the data that we are now able to collect on people. The modern intelligence worker is therefore going to have to be au fait with technology in way that goes beyond having good IT skills. These changes pose their own challenges, however. The ability to collect huge reams of information is all well and good, but data is only as useful as how you interpret and use it – and the more data you have, potentially the more man-power it takes to analyse this, the more chance you have of missing something vital. There is also the danger of worshipping too much at the altar of technology and losing focus on what some might call the fundamentals of intelligence work – HUMINT. One argument for the Met retaining jurisdiction over counter-terrorism, for example, is that the police are imbedded in the local communities, allowing them to gather information, track suspects and uncover plots in a way the NCA could not. The Afghan conflict provides a clear demonstration of the need for both the machine and the man: drones may have come into their own when used for reconnaissance of the difficult Afghan terrain, but counterinsurgency relies on HUMINT – men and women on the ground making human contact with those they are trying to influence or gather information from.


Everybody knows the old ‘tap-on-the-shoulder’ routine of intelligence recruitment: young men of a certain class and educational background, usually with the right family connections, would be individually recruited to work in the intelligence services. How much of the intelligence workforce was recruited this way is arguable, but the general point rings true: given that before 1994 nobody could officially acknowledge the existence of the UK intelligence agencies, recruitment was done more surreptitiously (perhaps adding to the allure of intelligence work for some).

Today it is not uncommon to see one or more of the intelligence services with a stand at a careers fair. MI5, MI6 and GCHQ all now advertise their vacancies on their own websites while the NCA and MoD feature on the Civil Service Job Site. In the age of the ‘competency question’ and psychometric tests, recruitment into intelligence work has also become much more standardised, and arguably more democratic: any British national with the right aptitude should (in theory) be able to work as an analyst for MI5.

However, there has been some push-back against current recruitment trends by those who argue that the application process is killing off individuality among applicants. It has been said that many of the UK’s greatest intelligence workers would not be able to pass today’s rigid application questions, difficult psychometric tests and assessment centres. In future then, we might see more of the personal touch brought into recruitment practices, and perhaps an evolution in psychometric tests to make them more nuanced in their assessment of personality. Just as recruitment practices have changed, so too has the training of intelligence workers undergone rapid development since the second half of the twentieth century. The professionalisation of staff, is in fact one of the key changes noted by many at the Defence Intelligence event.

Paul Dukes

Would men such as the infamous Paul Dukes have been able to pass modern day intelligence recruitment processes?

For me it is always this great juxtaposition between the continuity and the change in intelligence work which makes it so fascinating a topic. On the one hand, Britain has a fantastically rich heritage of intelligence work: it was one of the first countries in the world to set up specific schemes to keep informed on the doings of foreign powers, with Walsingham’s network of spies, cryptographers and forgers in the sixteenth century. On the other hand, technology and globalisation are advancing so rapidly that the practice of monitoring and analysing threats to the UK’s security is in many ways unrecognisable from just a couple of decades ago. It is how organisations handle these changes while not losing connection to their institutional pasts that ensures the effectiveness of modern-day intelligence work.


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Ready or Not? The NCA and Counter-Terrorism

A sneak preview of a post soon to be published on the Future Foreign Policy website…

Ever since its inception in 2011 there has been debate about the efficacy of the National Crime Agency (NCA) taking over counter-terrorism operations from the Met police. Now, the Home Affairs Select Committee has recommended that the transfer of these duties begin immediately with a view to the NCA assuming full counter-terrorism responsibility by 2018. The main argument for such a move appears to be a worry about the ability of the Met police to cope with its current responsibilities – the report comes after a series of high-profile scandals including the shooting of Mark Duggan and the escape of terror suspect Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed. Indeed the Committee noted explicitly that the action to shift counter-terrorism duties should be taken ‘in order to allow the Met to focus on the basics of policing London’. However, for all this talk of Met failures, nobody appears to be focusing on the NCA and asking whether it is, in fact, capable of coping any better than the police when it comes to foiling terrorist plots against the UK.

The British FBI

The NCA was created in October 2013 and currently includes four main pillars: Border Policing, Economic Crime, Organised Crime and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP). NCA officers are ‘triple warranted’ – holding the powers and privileges of a constable, a customs officer, and an immigration officer. Although much of this work was already being done by its predecessor, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), the crucial difference is that the NCA’s director-general, Keith Bristow, is able to insist that chief constables do as he asks. Such power over local policing has led to the NCA being dubbed ‘the British FBI’ (a name no doubt encouraged by images of officers in black bomber jackets with ‘NCA’ emblazoned on the back). However, although it has only been in existence for 8 months there have already been questions asked of the agency – not least over the issue of secrecy. Despite Bristow’s apparent desire for the public to understand about the work of his organisation, there have been accusations that it operated as a ‘secret police’ when it refused to confirm it had arrested Patrick Rock, one of David Cameron’s advisers. Such action appears in stark contrast to the growing emphasis in the UK on the need for transparency and public oversight of our intelligence agencies.


Keith Bristow, Director of the NCA, holds great power over police chiefs. Photo courtesy of Chatham House via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2011 the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) appeared sceptical of the motives behind transferring counter-terrorism responsibility from the Met, arguing that:

there seems to be very little in terms of strategic thinking behind the Committee’s recommendation of stripping the Met of its national primacy for terrorism investigations. Indeed, such a conclusion springs from a critical judgement of the Met’s performance in the phone-hacking scandal, rather than from an objective assessment of its CT [counter-terrorism] track record so far.

RUSI also addressed the issue of the NCA being a national organisation versus the locality of the Met. Although the London-based Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) retains a central coordinating and support function, it works closely with regional counter-terrorism hubs – a ‘flexible’ structure, ‘developed as a network rather than as a rigid hierarchical infrastructure’. Thus, although there may be room for improvement, the Met has ‘proven structures and processes’ already in place for combating terrorist activity. Furthermore, while the police and MI5 work well together on counter-terrorism (one retaining the lead for intelligence gathering and analysis, and the other for arrests and prosecutions), there is a fear that these proposals to expand the NCA’s remit might create friction between the two agencies.

An important issue that is not made clear in the Committee report is whether the NCA is to receive further resources to perform this new role of countering terrorist activity. The agency’s creation in 2013 was already in part a money-saving act; the organisations that were subsumed by the NCA had a combined budget of £812m, while the NCA only has £473.9m. The agency currently employs around 4,000 staff; compare this to the Met’s approximate 45,000 officers, police staff and PCSOs and serious questions arise as to the NCA’s physical ability to take on the mammoth task of counter-terrorism.

Losing Focus

One of the biggest fears about transferring counter-terrorism responsibility to the NCA is that it will cause it to lose focus on that which is was actually set up to do – namely fight serious organised crime. As this article points out, when it comes to organised crime a certain amount is tolerated simply because it is almost impossible to stamp out altogether. Public contact with, and understanding of, organised crime is generally limited. Terrorism, however, is a zero sum game. When the consequences of a counter-terrorism failure could be potentially catastrophic, it is inevitable that this will take precedence over drug trafficking, for example. In a situation where the NCA has a limited budget and resources, this could result in a significant decrease in the tackling of serious crime. In 2012 the Joint Committee on Human Rights expressed its concern over what impact it would have on the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) and CEOP should the NCA be given counter-terrorism responsibilities, questioning the UK’s future ability to fulfil its European obligations in this regard.

Indeed, the fact that the NCA hasn’t been in existence for very long makes it hard to judge how the organisation would cope when it comes to balancing its current duties with new responsibilities. The agency has had some press-worthy success of late, including football match fixing and large drug seizures, but it is still too early to scrutinise how it is doing when it comes to its other, less high-profile, areas of activity. Since the justification for removing counter-terrorism from the Met is because it is affecting their ability to focus on their other tasks, surely it needs to be recognised that the NCA could fall foul of the same problem. Moreover, the fact that the agency is still relatively new raises the question of how it is settling into its already enhanced role, what turbulence its staff must have faced in the adjustments to their work, and whether it is right to therefore hoist further responsibility onto its shoulders at this time.

Altogether the report by the Home Affairs Select Committee has in fact raised more questions than it has answered. The Committee’s focus is on how the Met is failing when surely the more important question is whether the NCA is able to succeed. To place the protection of the UK from terrorist attack in the hands of an agency that is not wholly up to the job (be that due to staffing, resources or anything else) would be akin to criminal negligence on the part of MPs. Rather than being so quick to condemn the Met then, it would behove the government to think more carefully about whether the NCA could do any better.

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