INTERVIEW-Western spies try to leap generation gap-expert

LONDON, July 30 (Reuters) - An influx of young recruits with strong cyber skills and thinking habits shaped online poses a generational test for Western espionage agencies as they adapt to a shifting terrorist threat.

Provided they integrate well with older colleagues, the new "digital generation" of 20-something spies and analysts will sharpen Western knowledge of militant groups acting increasingly online and across borders, security expert Kevin O'Brien said.

Improving intelligence service performance has been a top priority for the West since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the 2003 Iraq invasion, events widely seen as involving profound failures of information collection, coordination and analysis.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush launched the Iraq invasion citing a threat of weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein's government. No such weapons were ever found.

The role of British intelligence before the invasion is likely to be examined by a forthcoming British inquiry into the war that will ask former Prime Minister Tony Blair to testify.

Many Western services have expanded since 9/11 to make their workforces younger, more diverse, better at languages and computer literate enough to evaluate and act rapidly on an ever increasing inflow of information, much of it from open sources.

But the success of the "Generation Y" intake of those born in the 1980s and early 1990s depends on addressing a generation gap as real in the secret world as it is elsewhere, according to O'Brien, who advises governments on security and intelligence.

"It definitely happens. It's an issue," said O'Brien, referring to occasional difficulties over computer expertise or ways of thinking between older officers and young recruits.

Training, mentoring and online forums are helping to mesh the generations' different skills, he says, "but you'll always have individuals in both generations who just will not feel comfortable, who won't understand what the other is saying."

For a factbox on challenges facing Western intelligence agencies and potential solutions click on [ID:nLO308458]

For a factbox on the intelligence failures, please click on [ID:nLU39701]


"There is a clear need to ensure that the older generation is as aware of and comfortable with such new media as their younger colleagues – something that should be assured through continuous professional development schemes within the services."

For some observers, the generation gap became embarrassingly apparent when the wife of the head-designate of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service posted unsecured pictures of her husband, family and friends on the networking site Facebook, prompting astonishment among security experts and calls for an enquiry.

Espionage is marked by the generational divide as sharply as any other job: Older spies expect to serve for decades, are used to hierarchy and fume over IT failures; younger ones are less impressed by rank, more used to working collaboratively, less impatient when software fails and do not expect a job for life.

But the gap also shows up in differing abilities to handle specific tasks, such as operating IT or thinking critically.

In a 2008 article for London's International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, O'Brien wrote that the involvement of Generation Y in the workplace could provide intelligence agencies with their greatest challenge.

The way this generation reasoned and processed information would likely highlight "serious generational differences and disparities between managers' and analysts' cognitive outlooks."

O'Brien said Generation Y's short attention span was "a concern" but this could be handled by training and monitoring.

"This may sound like management-speak, but when you're wrestling with knotty intelligence problems that have the possibility of a real public security or loss-of-life outcome, they have the most serious implications imaginable."

For a text of O'Brien's paper click


Editing by Janet McBride