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Peacekeeping intelligence: Emerging Concepts for the Future

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PEACEKEEPING INTELLIGENCE: Emerging Concepts for the Future

Chapter 19—A. Walter Dorn, ‘The Cloak and the Blue Beret’, IJIC (Winter ’99)

The Cloak and the Blue Beret:

Limitations on Intelligence in

UN Peacekeeping

  1. Walter Dorn

In 1960 it was suggested that the word ‘intelligence’ should be banned from the lexicon of the United Nations.1 Indeed, the UN continues to shy away from official use of the term because of its association with illegal or undercover activities, such as spying, theft, and distortion, with which the UN would not (and should not) be involved. Nevertheless, intelligence, in its pure sense of processed information, both open and secret, relating to security, is an essential part of UN peacekeeping, and is recognised as such by UN staff, both civilian and military.2 Peacekeeping operations (PKO’s) have sometimes included ‘information units’ or ‘Military Information Branches’ (MIB’s) in their structures. Thus, the UN has officially side-stepped the term ‘intelligence,’ though some staff members of these units unofficially called themselves intelligence officers, and many have been drawn from the ranks of various professional military and police intelligence organisations.3

Many failures in the history of UN field operations might have been avoided had the UN taken a more forthright approach to intelligence and possessed a stronger mandate to gather information and improve its information-gathering systems.
The list includes outbreaks from the distant past, such as the Korean War of 1950 (witnessed but not foreseen by the UN Commission on Korea), and more recent ones, such as the incursion of SWAPO guerrillas into Namibia (1989), the Iraqi attack on Kuwait (1990), the renewal of civil war in Angola (1995), and the genocide in Rwanda. (1994), all of which occurred in or near areas of United Nations operations. UN Force commander Romeo Dallaire complained of being ‘deaf and blind’ in Rwanda without a substantial intelligence capability.4 Many UN force commanders, past and present, would echo his remarks.
The UN’s information branches and units, both in the field and at UN headquarters, when they are created, are merely small parts of a vast network of international and national bodies engaged in information-gathering and sharing during a peacekeeping operation. While the UN information units are dwarfed by national intelligence bodies, they can gain much useful information using a variety of means to help the UN’s mission. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few articles, little attention has been paid to intelligence-gathering peacekeeping.5

The Secrecy Dilemma

One of the first stumbling blocks that the United Nations encounters in intelligence gathering is the issue of secrecy. Secret intelligence (i.e., intelligence that cannot be divulged except to specifically authorised individuals or organisations) has been used by the UN regularly, though hesitatingly and inconsistently, over the years. For the UN, a great dilemma arises when the information is gathered secretly, since the world body is officially dedicated to transparency, impartiality, and the rule of law. On the one hand, the UN recognises that secret information-gathering and handling is often required to achieve its noble ends (e.g., the protection of its forces and the success of its missions); on the other, this sometimes questionable means carries great hazards, even if legal. UN officials have seen that even open, passive information collection, such as taking photos with an unconcealed camera, can raise the hackles of a conflicting party, who might consider it a hostile act and may suspect (wrongly in most cases) that the UN will use it in a way that will hurt its cause. (In the former Yugoslavia, UN peacekeepers have been prohibited from carrying cameras except by special authorisation from the force commander). The UN cannot afford to lose credibility or tarnish its image as an honest broker and impartial mediator by having competing parties accuse it of using covert methods to gather information. Moreover, the UN must seek to maintain high moral and ethical standards. According to an earlier secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjold, the UN must have ‘clean hands’.6

The first multidimensional peacekeeping effort, the UN Operation in the Congo, created by Hammarskjold in 1960 and described in detail here, shows the difficulty and the importance of finding the proper limits for secret information-gathering.
Under certain circumstances, secrecy of information is unarguably essential. A case in point was UN monitoring in Bosnia. Scandinavian soldiers in the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) carefully observed the impact of mortar fire from Serb units outside a besieged Muslim town. The peacekeepers immediately reported by radio the locations of the hits to UN force headquarters. But unknown to the peacekeepers, the Serb soldiers were monitoring the UN radio communications and using this information to correct their fire. By sending messages ‘in the clear,’ the UN was inadvertently helping one party to commit aggression. In this case, secrecy of information, (through secure communication lines or other methods) was clearly called for.
More generally, the success of a UN PKO may depend on secrecy and intelligence gathering. This is true for both classical PKO’s tasked with monitoring cease-fires and those interposed in a demilitarised zone between opposing forces, where ‘quiet diplomacy’ behind closed doors and quick pre-emptive (secret) deployment is often the best means to address observed or potential violations. Often, moving peacekeepers into a position desired by one or more conflicting parties is necessary to prevent them from fighting for it. For this kind of rapid and undeclared preventive action, early warning about the actions and intentions of the parties is needed. This involves unobtrusive and keen observation of their troop dispositions.
Secret intelligence is even more important in modern multidimensional PKO’s with their expanded responsibilities: elections monitoring, where individual votes must be kept secret - arms control verification, including possible surprise inspections at secret locations - law enforcement agency supervision (to ‘watch the watchmen’) – mediation where confidential bargaining positions that are confidentially shared by one party with the UN should not be revealed to the other - sanctions and border monitoring, where clandestine activities (e.g., arms shipments) must be uncovered or intercepted without allowing smugglers to take evasive action. When forces are operating in hazardous or potentially explosive areas, such as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda or Somalia, secret intelligence takes on added importance and calls for special skills in intelligence gathering. For instance, clandestine arms shipments, secret plans for aggression or ethnic cleansing or genocide, and threats to the lives or the mission of the peacekeepers should be uncovered as quickly as possible.
While secrecy can often be justified as essential, there are also many reasons to support openness. Table 1 provides a list of the advantages of openness, as well as the requirements for secrecy. The list shows the complex dilemma the UN (and, indeed, any organisation that tries to live up to high ethical standards) faces when it tries to determine the degree of secrecy it will employ.

Advantages of Openness

More acceptable/desirable morally

Positive example to conflicting parties

Less threatening (‘nothing to hide’)

Reduces suspicions of covert operations1

Less potential for misunderstanding

Demonstrates lack of self-interest

Builds confidence

Increases knowledge (info to right hands)

Permits greater feedback (internal/ext.)

Less costly in time, money, people, equip.

Facilitates accountability (credit/blame)

Reduces compartmentalisation2

Advantages of Secrecy

Better protection of sources & methods

Increases secret inputs from others

Prevents disclosure of weaknesses3

May reduce information misuse (or not)

Provides competitive advantage

Permits selective information exchanges

Allows better timing/amount of release

Permits time for authentication/correction

Factors Influencing the Degree of Secrecy Required

‘Need to know’ for mission success or safety of personnel

Political approval of UN member states4

Approval (tacit or explicit) of host state or parties observed

Legal implications (violations of national or international laws?)

Operational considerations (technical and human means of information gathering)

Cost in time, manpower, money

Table 1. Secrecy versus Openness: Advantages and Factors

Unfortunately, the UN has not adequately prepared itself to deal with secret intelligence in a systematic fashion. In comparison with nation states and military organisations (such as NATO), little consideration has been given to the matter. The UN does not have guidelines to govern the methods of information-gathering, to determine which material is to be kept secret, at what classification level and with what means, to uphold rules of secrecy or workable procedures for declassification. Often the character of a PKO’s information policy is decided by the commander in the field or by each contingent, or even each individual, differently.
The tension between secrecy and openness, between information ends and means, makes a study of the problem not only interesting academically, but also potentially useful in practice. As background, Table 2 describes the basic components of the ‘intelligence cycle’: planning, gathering, processing, and disseminating. With each stage, the UN has requirements and limitations that need to be reconciled, as well as secrecy issues to be addressed. This conceptual, staged view of the intelligence process provides a logical manner to study the major issues. In detail and examine the balance to be achieved. While the planning stage is important, the major issues are found in the other stages, starting with information gathering.



UN Limits

UN Issues


Decide needs, methods, limits, and limitations.

Prioritise needs, key sources, key targets.

Complaints from nations about infringement.

Secrecy helps prevent detection or manipulation.


Obtain raw data, learn history, have situational awareness.

Obtain information from multiple open, gray, and covert sources.

Abide by international laws, avoid association with Intel. orgs.

Active vs. passive monitoring; avoid cover, distortion; protect sources.


Understand actors, create contextual understanding, develop scenarios, policy options.

Corroborate, synthesise, analyse. Identify gaps, apply creative thinking.

Avoid partiality, excessive criticism, over or under-prediction.

Degree of openness about results of analysis.


Take action, demonstrate competence in field and at HQ.

Communicate to right person in time—uni, multi, broadcast.

Sharing with other parties (equally?), sensitivity to parties concerns.

Protect sources & methods, honour security guidelines from members.

Table 2. Stages in the Intelligence Cycle

Often the United Nations must engage in information-gathering activities that could be termed ‘borderline’ or in the ‘grey zone.’ What are the limits of this intelligence grey zone, in theory and practice? The balance point is, obviously, dependent on the situation, but some basic principles can be established. The wide spectrum of intelligence, gathering activities is illustrated schematically in Figure 3. On the left are the non-controversial (white) activities and on the right those which are prohibited and generally associated with more secrecy (black), Even in the white area, the UN PKO’s must generally have the approval of conflicting parties, or at least that of the host state. These include setting up permanent observation posts, installing sensors, and overseeing certain areas for reconnaissance purposes. The black areas are ‘out of bounds’ for the UN, for example, hiring of agents who misrepresent themselves to authorities, theft of documents, extortion to obtain information, etc. Since such activities can be categorically dismissed, the most interesting studies can be made in the grey area. The limitations on intelligence gathering are legal as well as moral, political, and practical.
Permitted Questionable Prohibited

(White) (Grey) (Black)

Visual Observation

- Observation posts - Observation after forced entry

- Vehicular observation - Observers concealed or camouflaged

- Aerial reconnaissance - Observers out of mission area


- Visible (video) - Infrared (IR), radar, X-ray, satellite

- Ground sensors (acoustic/seismic)

Human Communications

- UN personnel: - Clearly, identified - Unidentified -Undercover/disguised

- Informants: - Unpaid - Rewarded - Paid (agents)

- Radio message interception (SIGINT) - wiretaps

* clear and encoded message’s

Documents (read/copy/distribute)

- public - private - confidential - stolen

Passive Active

Overt Covert
Figure 1. Information-Gathering Spectrum from Permitted to Prohibited

The UN, being a law-abiding, as well as partly law-creating, organisation, pays careful attention to the legal limits placed upon its field missions. To begin with, the UN Charter in Article 2(7) states that:

Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state ... except for the enforcement measures under Chapter VII.
While this provision is often interpreted as a prohibition, it is in fact, neutral. The Charter itself may not be used as a basis to authorise intervention (except for UN enforcement measures), but one can argue that the UN acting on its own authority or based on customary international law (e.g., the implied powers doctrine accepted by the International Court of Justice 7 ) may selectively make such interventions (including information–gathering at an early stage). This is an important argument, since modern conflicts are largely internal in character,5 and UN intervention is becoming increasingly significant and frequent in such important areas as human rights and preventive action, which require in-depth monitoring of domestic affairs and early intervention.
A significant legal and political constraint on UN behaviour arises from the mandate of the mission, usually supplied by the Security Council, and the Status of Mission Agreement (SOMA) or the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) into which the UN enters with the host state and/or the local authorities, including the combatants. The agreement almost always stipulates that the UN PKO and its members will ‘respect all local laws and regulations’ (which could presumably include laws on monitoring of military activities). The standard SOMA/SOFA also requires that they ‘refrain from any action or activity incompatible with the impartial nature of their duties.’8 PKO’s are usually exceedingly careful not to wander too far from the mandate or original agreement, either in their monitoring or other actions, for fear of jeopardising the consent or co-operation of the parties.
An excellent, but tragic, example of the ‘sovereignty constraints’ on information gathering and sharing was provided by the UN Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group (UNIIMOG), prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.9 The mission was mandated in 1988 to monitor the cease-fire between Iran and Iraq. Since the July 1990 movement of Iraqi troops was southbound toward Kuwait rather than eastbound toward Iran, the UN observers could not officially report on them. UNIIMOG monitors saw plenty of evidence of an Iraqi build-up far in excess of that required for training or exercise purposes. Housed at the Shatt Al Arab hotel, beside the southern terminus of the main Iraqi railway, UN team number 6, for instance, obtained a clear view of extensive Iraqi preparations, including the establishment of third–line maintenance and supply depots, and the steady flow of tons of military equipment (including tanks, trucks, and rockets) and thousands of personnel. But the UN mission headquarters, located in Baghdad, had imposed a reporting ban on any activities and equipment directed toward the south, The Iraqi government threatened to expel the UN if it did not comply.10
The then-UN secretary-general Javier Perez de Cuellar would later write: ‘The major powers knew in advance that a very large Iraqi force was moving towards the Kuwaiti border. I did not have such knowledge...I failed to anticipate Saddam Hussein’s aggressive intent’.11 While Perez de Cuellar fails to mention the evidence in the possession of UN peacekeepers that could have been sought, he does draw an important lesson:
The United Nations and the secretary-general, in particular, should have better sources of information on developments such as large troop movements that pose a threat to the peace, And the United Nations, as much or more than national governments, should have the skill and insight to understand the import of such information and take appropriate preventive action.12
Information about armaments, their movements and sources, is a common need in proactive PKO’s. In some cases, the importation of weapons constitutes a violation of peace agreements or Security Council resolutions. In most cases, they are destabilising to the peace and even threatening to the UN personnel. The UN faced this challenge as early as 1962 in the Congo, when the UN Force Commander asked the Military Information Branch (MIB) to conduct a ‘special mission’ to gather intelligence from surrounding African countries. The Branch nominated a French-speaking Canadian officer to undertake this mission. The Canadian contingent commander, however, refused to accept the request, stating that Canadian personnel could not participate in missions outside of the Congo without the approval of their government, and that approval was unlikely to be forthcoming considering the covert nature of the task.’ In the Congo operation, more peacekeepers were killed than in any other venture (until the ongoing UN operations in the former Yugoslavia), thus making the development of the MIB a critical requirement even at that time. Many lessons on the opportunities, uses, and limitations of UN intelligence-gathering can be learned from this early experience.

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