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James Cox | Personal Experience, Canadian Intelligence & Intelligence Theory | Intelligence & Interview N.24 | Dr Giangiuseppe Pili

Approved by the Author

Words sometimes are not enough. They are never as such when gratitude is involved. As William Shakespeare said, the words to express love are always a few and always the same. I’m neither Shakespeare nor Dante (to stay closer to my mother-language), but at least you can really have a gist of my own appreciation for this interview.

Dr James Cox is a Brigadier-General (ret.) and served as the Deputy Chief of Staff Intelligence at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). He is an Adjunct Faculty – Wilfrid Laurier University, and he has too many important positions but, as I’m a member of the International Association of Intelligence Education (IAFIE), at least I must report that he is part of the IAFIE’s Board of Directors as Director, beyond being Chair of the Board of Directors, IAFIE-CANADA. I must confess that Dr Cox is one of the persons with who I can talk forever. Meanwhile, I was preparing my interview, I wrote down at least twenty or so questions, realizing that I couldn’t ask anybody to use so much time, especially in this case. Then, to meet the Intelligence & Interview 10 questions standard, I finally compromised arriving at 12 questions where I tried to explore three topics: Dr Cox’s career and experience in the field, the Canadian intelligence, and intelligence theory.

Indeed, Dr Cox strongly argues that intelligence without theory will remain limited, as something missing an important component to making the leap necessary to improve further. Given my long-lasting interest in the philosophy of intelligence, I cannot agree more. As the reader will discover going through all the questions, Dr Cox’s perspective is very thought-provoking and insightful. Reading it is a deep dive into three dimensions of intelligence studies, as it should be: personal experience, national perspective, and a general vision of the field. As in GEOINT photos can be taken from different levels for different purposes, only the fusion of them can give a gist of the reality. What can I add more than that? It is then with my distinct pleasure to publish the interview on Scuola Filosofica – for those who don’t know it yet; it is one of the leading cultural blogs in Italy. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Giangiuseppe Pili, James: thank you!


1. Dr James Cox, let’s start with the basics. How would you like to present yourself to the International readers and Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?

I’m an old soldier who served more than 35 years with the Canadian Army, at home and abroad on United National (UN) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) missions on four continents, usually in operational command or staff positions. I later returned to school for contemporary advanced degrees related to intelligence and worked as an advisor to a number of parliamentary committees. The more I learn, the more I become aware of how much I don’t know.


2. Let’s stay closer to your experience, which is definitely impressive. Can you give us a glimpse of your career and achievements in the Canadian military? How did your experience shape your understanding of intelligence?

My career spanned the Cold War from the late 1960s to the early 21st century. I left the Army on 23 August 2001, just before the world changed on 9/11. As a very junior Lieutenant I served as an infantry battalion intelligence officer fixated on Soviet Motor Rifle Regiments that might attack at any moment. In this job I learned how to do “tactical intelligence preparation of the battlefield.” In later years, as I assumed higher levels of operational command, I was an enthusiastic client of intelligence. I recall being consistently unhappy with the absence of any real intelligence effort on UN peacekeeping missions, but remember being usually quite satisfied with NATO intelligence support.

In my last post, as a Brigadier-General, I served as the Deputy Chief of Staff Intelligence at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium, from 1998-2001. During these three years, I gained a broader understanding of intelligence for two reasons. First, I was asked to initiate consultations with NATO military representatives to explore ways of moving NATO military intelligence out of its Cold War mindset, to ‘something’ new and more appropriate. I left before achieving anything significant, but in those early meetings, I learned so much more about the strategic architectural, collaboration, logistic, technological, and other previously unrecognized aspects of an intelligence enterprise.

Second, in addition to generally monitoring military intelligence support to deployed NATO missions in the Balkans, we became intimately involved in the air campaign against Serbia and the occupation of Kosovo in 1999. During this time, I learned about the strength and reach of American military intelligence, the astuteness of British military intelligence, the directness of German military intelligence and the surprising credibility of Hungarian intelligence (Hungary had officially joined NATO only days before bombs fell on Serbia). Intelligence from other allies had little impact, although Danish signals intelligence (SIGINT) did detect the unexpected move of Russian troops from Bosnia-Herzegovina to the Pristina airfield.

I came away from the whole experience realizing that intelligence was more than just a military activity. It is a body of knowledge, a field of legitimate academic study, and a grossly under-theorized area of human endeavour.

When I returned home to Ottawa, and finally accepted I would never be a professional hockey player, I embarked upon serious study of intelligence. I enrolled as a (very) mature student at the Royal Military College of Canada and for the following seven years, I completed a Master of Arts and a Doctorate in War Studies, with a disciplined and driven focus on intelligence. Since then, my enthusiasm for the study of intelligence has intensified and my interest elevated to the higher consideration of intelligence theory.


3. You served during much of the Cold War. Michael Hayden said that it was a less complex but much more dangerous time. As the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga brilliantly put, the present people’s perception is always the same: pain, uncertainty, human difficulty, struggle, misjudgment, and bad governance. To live in the present looks like being in the worst time ever, always and everywhere. How would you compare the Cold War time with the current world order, if there is one?

I am something of a closet historian. I read history for enjoyment, not study. That said, I do tend to think of certain historical eras in the context of the broad sweep of history. Reading Thucydides’, The Peloponnesian Wars and Publius’ The Histories, I realize human nature is somewhat constant, and perhaps even perceptions of strategic conditions are constant too, but within the inexorable march of time, the tools at our disposal evolve and become more deadly, as we ostensibly become ‘smarter.’

As a child, I remember being taught to “duck and cover” in my early elementary school years, in case a Soviet missile attack happened in the middle of our fingerpainting class. Today, kids are semi-isolated at home, doing school-work online, hoping they don’t get the COVID-19 virus. This seems an unfair imposition after four years of Trump inquietude. So, which is worse?

On balance, I think all new times are “better,” even if more complicated, because we arrive in them hopefully having learned to not do what got us into trouble in the past. However, I suppose that inevitably, we will make our own original mistakes for future generations to critique and try to avoid repeating.


4. Let’s turn to Canadian Intelligence. How would you describe its current organization, mission, and culture?

The current Canadian intelligence enterprise is modern and well-integrated with our closest intelligence partners – the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US)). It is small, but agile. It is technologically capable, but lacks analytic horsepower. Except for SIGINT (and our broader cyber security program, both of which are very good) our collection function is largely dependent on allies and partners. Canadian intelligence activity is strongest at the tactical level, quite mediocre at the operational level, and has its moments at the strategic level. We get more from our partnerships than we contribute, but what we do contribute is sometimes critical and impressive. It pays our dues. We are reliable and trusted.

Canadian intelligence agencies and capabilities are spread across government departments, but there is a structured, centralized intelligence priority setting and coordination regime emanating from Cabinet decision-making. Within the Privy Council Office, the National Security and Intelligence Advisor to the Prime Minister, is lead coordinator of government intelligence activity. He and his staff meet regularly with government department deputies to ensure Cabinet intelligence priorities are addressed. Principal intelligence players in the Canadian intelligence enterprise are Global Affairs Canada, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), Transport Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Canada Border Services Agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).


5. What were the key moments in Canadian intelligence history?

Up until the middle of the Second World War, Canadian intelligence was largely an adjunct to British intelligence, particularly in the military arena. In fact, for the first half of the 20th Century the only ‘other’ intelligence activity in Canada was carried out by the RCMP, in their national security role – tracking down Communist subversives and then Nazi agents in Canada. In 1940, when the UK and the US embarked upon a secret signals intelligence partnership, eventually consecrated by the UKUSA Agreement in 1946, American insistence allowed Canada to become a third ‘almost equal’ member of the group. This proved to be something of a watershed experience and put Canadian intelligence on the road to being a more independent player among the ‘big boys’ in the SIGINT world.

We also claim that the Cold War started here in Ottawa, in 1945, three days after the end of the Second World War, when Igor Gouzenko, a cypher clerk in the Soviet embassy defected to Canadian authorities and brought with him documents showing an extended network of Soviet agents embedded in western governments.

In the early 1950s, when NATO decided to deploy standing forces in Europe again, Canada sent sizeable land and air force contingents that earned us a place in the NATO intelligence enterprise.  Moreover, with the Cold War intensifying in the mid-1950s, Canada and the US signed the bi-national North American Air Defence (NORAD) Command agreement, to defend North America from Soviet manned nuclear bomber attacks. This tended to cement the integration of Canadian and American intelligence cooperation. Today, the NORAD agreement includes continental aerospace warning and control, and maritime warning.

During the 1970s, as a result of heightened concern over the Quebec separatist movement, the RCMP enthusiastically conducted covert operations against suspicious groups, which included certain illegal activities. Consequently, a Royal Commission if Inquiry recommended that the national security intelligence role be removed from the RCMP mandate and a new civilian agency created. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was established in 1984, initially staffed by many former RCMP personnel, but today it is a thoroughly capable, modern, albeit not infallible, security intelligence agency, closely affiliated with Canada’s Five Eyes partners.

Canada’s decade long combat mission in Afghanistan resulted in further modernization and integration of the entire Canadian intelligence enterprise. Representatives of all principal intelligence offices in Canada deployed to Afghanistan with Canadian troops, to enable production of truly all-source intelligence in support of military operations. Cooperation and collaboration continue today. At the time of writing the Department of National Defence is concluding a two-year Defence Intelligence Enterprise Review that will result in even more capability modernization.

Over and above all this, Canada has recently instituted a robust and effective regime of independent parliamentary and government oversight of all federal-level intelligence activity.


6. You wrote “Canada and the Five Eyes Intelligence Community,” which brings me to the question everybody would raise. What is the relationship between Canada and the US intelligence communities? How close are the two countries on intelligence and national security issues?

Very close.

The Five-Eyes relationship is perhaps the closest, most integrated, most cliquish, most secretive partnership of its kind in the world. Even now, when the existence of previously secret SIGINT organizations is public knowledge – they even openly recruit online – it is difficult to know what is going on ‘inside the box,’ within the partnership. You may wish to read John Ferris’ recently published Behind the Enigma: The Authorized History of GCHQ Britain’s Secret Cyber Intelligence Agency, for an interesting explanation of how the Five-Eyes came about and remains today.

The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) is Canada’s SIGINT and Cyber Security agency. Like its Five-Eyes counterparts, it presents a public face, calls for recruits online and consults with private sector entities in matters of cyber security, but what it is actually doing, and why, where and how it does its ‘real’ work remains unknown to all except a select few in government.

Regarding the Canada/US intelligence relationship, as mentioned earlier, it is very ‘tight.’ We each really have no other choice. The US is Canada’s most important international ally for obvious reasons and even during the past four years of political irregularity south of our border, working level relationships remained largely intact and unaffected.

That said, Canada still prides itself on producing its own assessments and we do not shy from saying what we think, even if our views are unpopular. One prominent example is found in Alan Barnes’ article in a 2020 issue of Intelligence and National Security, entitled “Getting it right: Canadian intelligence assessments on Iraq 2002-2003,” the story of how Canadian strategic intelligence analysts correctly assessed there was insufficient evidence available in 1983 to confirm that Saddam Hussein had any weapons of mass destruction. That assessment, and the absence of a United Nations Security Council Resolution supporting an intervention, kept Canada from participating in the American invasion of Iraq. Privately there were some harsh words exchanged and Canada was cut off from any intelligence about the Iraq for a short time. Things returned to ‘normal’ when the Americans realized that although our public position did not support the invasion, the Canadian government did allow hundreds of Canadian military personnel, then serving in exchange positions within US Army, Navy and Air Force units, to remain in their posts and go into combat with American troops.


7. With the melting ice, the future looks quite different from the past in terms of competition in the far north. This is a new stage of global history and competition. I cannot restrain myself from asking about your vision of this unprecedented challenge. Is it true that Russia is more assertive in that region, and that China is taking the North route to avoid South China Sea? What is the general Canadian perception of this crucial evolution of environment and politics?

From a Canadian perspective, there are three general issues here. First, we are concerned with our sovereignty over all our northern territory above the Arctic Circle to the North Pole. It is sparsely populated. We are not worried about any ‘invasion’ of northern Canada, but we do intend to prevent unlawful incursions or exploitation of our resources in the region. In addition to NORAD intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, we have satellite coverage and regular air patrols over the Arctic. We consider all waterways among the northern islands to be internal Canadian waters, not international straits. The Americans have a contrary view. We have agreed to disagree. They will ask permission to travers our Arctic waters and we will grant their request.

Canada is one of the founding members of the Arctic Council and we enjoy good cooperation with Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. The Arctic Council agenda addresses non-military security and development issues in the Arctic and a number of agreements have been made in areas such as combined search and rescue, and development issues related to indigenous peoples. Another common interest is protection of the Arctic environment. This is a principal political concern in Canada and the basis of our public explanations why we are so keen to not allow uncontrolled maritime activity in Canadian waters.

Russia is developing its Arctic region more than any other country and its northern seas have tended to be more (not entirely) ice-free than the rest of the Arctic Ocean, so much so that Russia has been able to develop a viable northern sea route, for most of the year, across the top of Asia. Much of this area contains Russian territorial waters and perhaps will be bigger when national continental shelf claims are finally adjudicated. So, I tend to see Russian military activity in the Arctic region as a ‘natural’ consequence of their desire to protect their interests in the area, particularly if other nations are going to take commercial advantage of the northern sea route between East Asia and Europe. I do not see any indication that Russia is preparing to test Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. We have friends who will help if they did. Besides, Santa Claus’ clothes are red and white, Canadian colours, so our claim to the North Pole is legitimate.

On the other hand, I think China’s interests in the Arctic could be meddlesome. First, they may simply wish to show the world they are capable of a global presence. Second, they may be genuinely interested in taking advantage of a shorter northern sea route for trade with Europe, which is fine if they abide by international norms and regulations. However, I also think China is looking for more resources and fishing grounds. So, China might be inclined to do some mischief in Canadian waters and could try to illegally exploit our surface and sub-surface resources if we cannot deter and/or prevent them. No such instances have yet occurred, but Chinese maritime capability in the Arctic is growing, not receding. Canadian and American intelligence is alert to these developments.

You may know that Canada has the most northerly SIGINT installation in the world at Alert, right at the “top” (north) end of Ellesmere Island. This is station is one that has made Canada a valuable member of the Five-Eyes. During the Cold War, the station could “see” deep into the Soviet Union to monitor ICBM activity and Warsaw Pact military exercises. It is of at least equal value today.

The one glaring disappointment in all this is that we have no sure way of detecting or defending against sophisticated modern nuclear-powered submarines (friend or foe) who might wish to transit our northern waters without being noticed. We don’t know who is coming or going at depth, but discussions have started about ways and means to fix that problem.


8. As the Monty Python would have said, “and now something completely different.” We previously started a conversation about intelligence theory. There are very few scholars interested in this topic, especially professionals. Why is this so, and why, according to you, intelligence theory is important?

I think are at least three reasons why there so few scholars appear interested in intelligence theory.

First, no one (at least very few), see intelligence as one universal idea, which manifests in many different ways. There are intelligence scholars in academic fields like psychology, neurosciences, computer sciences and artificial intelligence, but it does not occur to them that the national security or competitive intelligence paradigms are within the biological taxonomy of intelligence. Conversely, government or corporate intelligence practitioners see little commonality with others outside the wall of their own agency. The gap seems to be one between the study of individual human or machine intelligence, and the investigation of intelligence in a social group.

Second, the national security and competitive intelligence fields are somewhat (overly) secretive, so sufficient access to material has been historically difficult.

Third, government intelligence has been a topic of disrespect in many countries, including mature democracies, for many years. It is favourably judged when success can be publicly acknowledged, but too often all we hear are reports of another apparent intelligence scandal. Governments have done a terrible job of convincing people that intelligence is a good thing, not a dirty word. In Canada, our robust intelligence scrutiny regime is entirely devoted to review for propriety. No one seems to have equivalent enthusiasm to review of efficacy. These circumstances do not entice aspiring scholars into the field.

I think all theory is important if you wish to truly understand a subject. If you want to understand apples, you need a theory of apples, not just red or green apples, but of all apples. You need to know why they exist and why and how they do what they do, in the way they do it.

Intelligence practitioners, mainly intelligence analysts, tend to see themselves as professionals, assuming the practice of intelligence is a profession. However, a true profession is built on a generally accepted definition of the activity, and a generally understood theory of how it works. Neither exist within the practice of intelligence. In fact, many current and former practitioners, some who now make a living in academia, have said that a definition is not all that important because “we know what we do” and can therefore examine it, without getting bogged down in semantics. They might know “what they do,” but what they do is not “all” intelligence. With great respect I suggest such a view is academically delinquent. Equally, concluding that intelligence is a product, a process, and an organization is intellectually lazy. That’s like defining the term “cold” as an ice-cube, freezing and a refrigerator. Think harder. Come to a sustainable conclusion. I’ll get into this more in my next answer.

Until intelligence practitioners adopt at least a near-generally accepted notion of intelligence and construct a more generalizable theoretical framework, I don’t think the work can be considered a true profession.


9. How would you describe your vision of intelligence theoretically? And what should a theory of intelligence be?

As touched on above, I believe a theory of intelligence should define the subject and then explain what it does, how it does it, and why it does it. The theory should be generalizable, and accurately and consistently predict how intelligence functions.

My own work in intelligence theory is based on three principal hypotheses. First, to truly understand intelligence, one must look beyond any single paradigm. National security intelligence, like green apples, is just one cultivar in a larger species of intelligence, which exists within an even larger genus of human cognition. Various forms of the intelligence enterprise are studied in a number of fields, such as psychology, professional sports, corporate competition, computer science and artificial intelligence research, to name only a few. The challenge is to deduce the fundamental essence of intelligence from its numerous manifestations.

Second, I believe that if we understand intelligence in nature, we can do no better than to emulate it. I therefore think that there is one fundamental form of intelligence enterprise – the individual human intelligence process. So, I have concluded that the various intelligence paradigms that attract our attention are simply humankind’s attempt to replicate the individual intelligence process in a social group, like an army, a government, a corporation, or any human group with a purposeful agenda. Every qualifier attached to the work “intelligence” is just an adjective. The essential nature of “intelligence” is same in all its forms.

Third, intelligence is a natural capacity, not an artifact. Moreover, it is an enabling capacity. It is not simply a product, an organization or a process. Intelligence enables advantage. Jennifer Sims wrote about “Decision Advantage and the Nature of Intelligence Analysis” in the 2010 edition of The Oxford Handbook of National Security Intelligence, but limited her discussion to the analytical function. Intelligence capacity is derived from the effective functioning of the entire enterprise.

I was motivated by the idea of intelligence described in The Nature of Intelligence (1924)  by the American psychologist  Louis Leon Thurston. He thought we all had ‘life urges’ to stay alive, to sustain ourselves and to preserve our species. If all went well, we could prosper. Human intelligence enabled people to adapt their behaviour in a manner that avoided or overcame the obstacles or adversarial influences we all must negotiate in our pursuit of a better life – some more effectively than others. We have intent, we face problems, intelligence enables us to adapt our behaviour and we move on to the next challenge.

So, I have arrived at this definition of intelligence: Intelligence is the capacity for reasoned foresight that enables advantageous action.

Some complain that this definition is too general, but I respectfully encourage them to look more closely. It highlights ideas that intelligence is all of a capacity, a human cognitive exercise (“reasoned”), a meta-cognitive challenge (“foresight”), a catalyst (“enables”), and a purposeful endeavour (“advantageous action”). If any designated intelligence office is not doing all this, it is not an intelligence enterprise.


10. Considering your experience in the field, combined with your interest in theory, what are the open issues on intelligence theory, and how do you think they should be addressed?

If you accept my claimed universal definition of intelligence, you will no doubt recognize some open questions.

First, intelligence studies have largely ignored the mandatory role of executive intent at the front end of the intelligence enterprise and, equally compulsory, of executive decision-making at the ‘action-end.’ There is no intelligence if there is no ‘commander’ to inform, or subsequent action to be enabled. Intelligence does not exist for its own sake. It has a point to it and that point must be provided by some sort of ‘boss’ who gives purpose to the enterprise and then generates adapted advantageous behaviour.

Second is a corollary of the first point. We see that the broad class of executive operational appointments has ignored its inherent, and apparently unrecognized, responsibility for the development of the intelligence enterprise, leaving pseudo-professional intelligence practitioners to engage in the recidivist empiricism of institutional intelligence training and doctrine development. Without operational direction, intelligence agencies that are left to simply “watch what is going on in the world and tell me if anything bad is happening” are just vagabonds meandering from pillar to post without profit. Such circumstances represent an abrogation of leadership responsibility by operators. To put things right, operators must be educated in intelligence too.

Third, I look forward to the day when we can finally separate the notion of intelligence from operations. Intelligence is the capacity that enables effective operations. Intelligence enables covert action, but covert action is not an element of intelligence. Even intelligence operations need their own discreet intelligence activity, to enable success. Intelligence is a cognitive capacity, not an action arm.

Fourth, we still need to recognize the need to expand our intellectual curiosity to encompass the broader nature of intelligence and allow ourselves to engage others across the boundaries of traditional academic fields of research. True intelligence education is both an inter-disciplinary and a multi-disciplinary endeavour. If AI researchers haven’t read military intelligence doctrine, they are not sufficiently informed about intelligence. If a military commander hasn’t read a book about neural networks, she is not sufficiently informed about intelligence. Those responsible for the development, deployment and control of national collection programs would do well to study how axons and dendrites work. Only with the establishment of inter- and multi-disciplinary intelligence education programs equal in substance to those that support the professions of medicine, law, economics and statesmanship, will intelligence become a true profession and the field of intelligence studies an attractive and worthwhile arena of academic endeavour.


11. How can our readers follow you?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/james-cox-31567a172/

Twitter: JimCox40150652


12. Five keywords that represent you?

Happy, pragmatic, disciplined, non-tall, un-skinny.

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