OTTAWA – The 2011 Arab Spring uprising in the Middle East came as a surprise to the Canadian government, which risks getting caught off-guard again without a new approach to gathering intelligence, an internal government report says.
Among other developments, analysts underestimated the repercussions of regime change in Tunisia, the Egyptian military’s efforts to control dissent and the duration of the civil war in Libya, says the assessment of how well the Privy Council Office did in keeping an eye on the Middle East two years ago.
The Privy Council Office, or PCO, is the bureaucratic arm of the prime minister’s office and includes an Intelligence Assessment Secretariat, which provides a regular range of reports to senior government officials.
Earlier this year, the research arm of the Department of National Defence published an analysis of how accurate their predictions were as part of a broader look at the state of human analytics.
“With regard to the Arab Spring, the study found that the wave of protests and regime changes that swept the Middle East in 2011 had not been anticipated,” the report concluded.
However, the privy council was no different in that respect than most academics, reports, think-tanks, private sector analysts or even other governments, the report found.
That includes the analysts in the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand, which along with Canada make up the so-called Five Eyes network.
“There is no reason to believe that IAS did any worse than other Five Eyes and allied agencies in its analysis of the Arab Spring, and in a few areas it appears to have done somewhat better,” the report says.
Canadian analysts had a handle on the crises once they were underway, with the report suggesting there was good analysis of the “dogs that barked” — events in the Middle East that were getting press and policy attention.
But they need to look further afield, the report found.
“In general, there has been little attention to the ‘dogs that didn’t bark’ — that is, underlying medium-and long-term trends in countries without ongoing protests or civil violence,” the report said.
“Failure to do so may set the stage for future Arab Spring-type strategic surprises.”
The potential implications of the gaps in Canadian intelligence aren’t discussed in the report, but it recommends a rethink of how intelligence is gathered and shared.
It suggests that a reliance on briefings of just two or three sentences needs to be shelved in favour of more substantial examinations.
“For some time to come there may be a particular need in Middle East assessment to flag wildcards and low probability/high impact developments that could result in rapid and substantial shifts in otherwise apparently stable political trajectories,” the report said.
The 26-page-report had been approved for publication by Defence Research and Development Canada, and was briefly posted online in April by the lead researcher from McGill University.
But the Privy Council ordered it to be taken down.
“The report was commissioned for internal purposes,” PCO spokesman Raymond Rivet said in an emailed explanation of why the report was removed.
“The study is part of our practice of reviewing our internal processes and capacities on an ongoing basis.”
McGill University professor Rex Brynen, who wrote the study, said he wasn’t able to comment on the report as it was no longer considered a public document.
Defence Research and Development Canada did not return repeated calls for comment.