Interview Part II: Prof.dr. Paul Abels

In the last part, we discuss Dr. Abels’s new book on Intelligence Leadership: ‘Spionkoppen’, ‘the Dutch perspective’, future threats and challenges to national security and we conclude with some words of wisdom on the validity of sources and information. 

David
Let’s move on to the next topic: your book. The theme of your book is intelligence leadership. What is Intelligence leadership in Dutch terms? Why do you believe it’s important? And what can ordinary people learn from it?

Dr. Abels 
It matters who is in charge of the services. Ultimately, it’s a unique and special position you have. A balance must be struck in the twilight between open and secret. This is an extremely difficult balancing act. Moreover, you’re the only voice and face of the secret service to the outside world. You can’t compare a head of service with a normal top civil servant. He has to deal with more operational details, but also has to move and operate in a world of politicians, the ministries and the services to present the main threats coming up and what has to be done to counter these threats. With intelligence leadership there’s a need for special qualities when you appoint a service intelligence leader. I studied eleven of these intelligence leaders in the Netherlands from the beginning of the first civil service from 1945 until last year. What I found out was that the intelligence culture in the Netherlands isn’t that well developed. Every time it’s a surprise who is appointed by the government as a head of service. Decision-makers often don’t know enough of what has to be expected from a head of service. They made some strange choices in this respect. This could even have harmed both the service and national security itself. Consequently, some leaders  were picked who did not possess the necessary preparation to lead the organisation properly. As a result some poor organisational decisions and changes were made. For instance, there’s a former policeman who became director-general and he treated the AIVD as a kind of police service. In fact is a completely different business catching thieves, compared to collecting information

David 
It appears that perhaps the biggest threat to the intelligence services may come from the politicians.

Dr. Abels
From the politicians and the ministers who appointed these heads.They don’t really know what intelligence work in its nucleus is. That’s also something that the intelligence services continuously need to explain to political actors in The Hague. I’m very critical of what the Dutch service has done in this respect in the last few years, because they’re busy with what I call ‘oystering’. This implies closing down to the outside world and trying to be as secretive as possible. Of course, they’re called secret services. But, the days wherein you could permit to lock yourself up and be invisible are over. You have to be transparent. You have to be accountable. If you lack the support of your bosses, If you lack the support of the media, if you lack the support of society, then you will get in trouble and you can’t do your work properly. There needs to be trust in what the services have been mandated to do. Funding and tax money is provided for their work. If you don’t have the trust and support then it’s extremely difficult for services in our society to do their job properly.

David
Is there still enough support from the government and the people, despite the ‘oystering’ that the service does nowadays?

Dr. Abels
They have to earn it every year again. In 2011 we got a new government and they thought the problem of terrorism was more or less over. There were not a lot of terrorists active in the Netherlands at that time so we can cut the budget of the AIVD with 30%. Shortly after that, Syria became a problem. This attracted all kinds of radical Dutch Muslims to travel to Syria and to take part in the Jihad. Then all of a sudden the cutting of the budget had to be withdrawn. That example shows how vulnerable the service is when people think: “Why do we have services? Why do we need these services?” You have to always show that you’re there and that the work is important. And not increase the threat in size because you will lose your credibility when you make threats bigger than they are. Just show what you do and how you do it not in detail, but be transparent. That’s my message.

David
As you said, it is hard to predict the future. Complexities regarding futurology aside, what security threats will be of central concern to security circles and policy arenas in the next 10-15 years?

Dr. Abels
The impact of the COVID crisis is still difficult to assess. But, I think it will have a huge impact and it will also have an impact on the trust in the government and trust in democracy. This creates all kinds of political impatience. There is always a risk in terms of radicalisation and of confrontation. There are several subjects in the future I foresee. There will be breeding grounds for new security problems from a Dutch security perspective. For instance, the environment discussion is important for the next few decades. The solutions that have to be found to stop global warming. That means dramatic changes and dramatic choices. It will be difficult to do this without eruptions of violence or other kinds of problems, confrontations etc. The same occurs in the confrontations between some ideological, undemocratic parties and movements that are still undermining democracy. For instance, anti-government people tend to listen to foreign parties more than to their own government. Or tend to, to be more on a religious level, active in the sphere of creating a parallel Islamic Society. There will again be a lot of security problems in the future. My successors will have a lot of work

David 
I guess We’ve come a long way from the cold war to climate change. To conclude, what knowledge or what lesson would you like to share with the next generation of students and young professionals of (inter)national security and peace?

Dr. Abels 
It’s important that you are not naive about security matters. Be aware that there always will be threats. In our times information is crucial. You always have to be critical of information. So don’t trust, but judge. Use your methods to judge if the information is trustworthy and what the underlying motives of the information supplying parties are. That’s one of the main things I would like to share with JASON’s audience. According to an increasing number of people, there is no generally accepted truth. They’re questioning the authorities of science, the authority of the government, and of the media. These days you have to be critical of information. Don’t believe all kinds of conspiracy theories. Just use your brains. Then it will be alright in the end. 

David  
Dr. Abels, thank you very much. 

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