A man lights a candle on August 21, 2017, at an impromptu memorial where a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Photo: Reuters/Susana Vera
A man lights a candle on August 21, 2017, at an impromptu memorial where a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Photo: Reuters/Susana Vera

After the recent terror attack in Barcelona’s historic Las Ramblas district that killed 15 people, Carles Puigdemont, president of the Generalitat of Catalonia, came up with the idea of establishing direct ties with US intelligence services, bypassing Spanish federal authorities.

“I’m sure the Spanish secret services are in contact with the services of other countries. What’s clear is that the Mossos would love to have this direct relationship with the CIA, but it hasn’t happened,” Puigdemont said in an interview on August 20.

The issue arose amid the controversy surrounding the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan security service, over media reports saying that two months ago the US Central Intelligence Agency warned its counterterrorism colleagues in Catalonia that Las Ramblas was a potential target of a jihadist terror attack. The Catalan security service is said to have ignored the warning, something that casts a shadow on the Mossos’ reputation.

On closer examination, it looks rather like one more sign of increasing tensions between Catalonia and Spanish federal authorities over separatist tendencies in the former. However, leaving aside that issue, I wish to focus on another equally important one that tends to be swept under the carpet in public debates.

Is CIA a reliable partner?

Puigdemont claims that the Catalan security service did not receive any warning from the CIA regarding the looming terror threat. To my mind, that is not that important. My guess is that the Mossos d’Esquadra were aware of the jihadist threat in Catalonia in general and were working hard to establish which individuals were engaged in extremist activities.

According to reports, Spanish operatives have been monitoring more than a thousand individuals suspected of extremism or terrorism in the country, with about 700 people already imprisoned. Therefore, it would be unfair to say that by failing to uncover the Barcelona terrorist plot, Catalan security agents failed as professionals. Actually, counterterrorism is somewhat a matter of luck and there is always the possibility of failure.

So questioning CIA reliability has nothing to do with sporadic intelligence transfers, but rather concerns about much broader and consistent cooperation. Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the US intelligence agencies seem to be at risk of losing ground, specifically in their strongholds where previously they used to feel free.

The first shot was fired by America’s closest ally, Canada, where officials announced that the country could no longer fully rely on Washington in national security the way it used to. In June, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland urged the Canadian government to act more independently on the global stage and distance itself from the US.

Here is an excerpt from her speech in the House of Commons:

Some think, some even say, we should therefore free ride on US military power. Why invest billions to maintain a capable, professional, well-funded and well-equipped Canadian military? The answer is obvious: To rely solely on the US security umbrella would make us a client state. And although we have an incredibly good relationship with our American friends and neighbors, such a dependence would not be in Canada’s interest.

Alex Wilner, assistant professor at the Norman Patterson International Affairs School at Carleton University in Ottawa, highlights a kind of “Canada First” approach in Freeland’s speech, which requires, among other things, better intelligence performance.

Moreover, Wilner points out a much larger phenomenon:

Canadian officials seem to be signaling that the status quo assumption that the United States, our closest and neighboring ally, has our backs in all contingencies is potentially at risk. And this is a larger global debate that we see unfolding in Germany, in France and elsewhere as it relates not only to the US but also to the UK priorities.

Actually, Canada experienced a similar situation not long ago, but with a happy outcome. A terror attack planned last year by jihadi Aaron Driver was averted thanks to the involvement of US intelligence agencies. Remarkably, Driver, although being under a peace bond for backing ISIS and monitored by Canadian police, managed to publish a  martyrdom video, which went unnoticed by Canadian security services but was detected by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

So here comes the question: Is it reasonable to make a country’s national security heavily dependent on the good job of foreign spies? Is it good that the operations of foreign intelligence services in your country are better than your own? Who benefits strategically from such an unequal partnership? Is it a fair exchange to sacrifice sovereignty to get others to do your job?

In the case of the US intelligence services, it will always be them who play a leading part as a big brother, and never vice versa.

Tatiana Kanunnikova

Russian journalist Tatiana Kanunnikova is a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs.