Biosecurity should be ‘whole of intelligence enterprise’

Friday 29 Jan 2016

The potential impact of biosecurity threats means improving intelligence and early warning should be a 'whole of intelligence enterprise', according to a Charles Sturt University (CSU) expert.

Associate Professor in intelligence and security studies in the CSU Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security (AGSPS), Patrick F Walsh (pictured) argues in a recently published paper that the health and broader biosecurity environment has evolved dramatically since the 9/11 attacks, but the role intelligence should play in understanding emerging bio-threats is less clear.

"Understanding clearly the role and limitations of intelligence gathering and analysis in interpreting a complex set of potential 'bio-threats' is essential as advances in synthetic biology and biotechnology grow exponentially," Professor Walsh said.

"Questions remain about how well and to what extent intelligence services can play a role in managing this environment in ways that can both reduce the uncertainty and impact of biosecurity related risks and threats for policy makers, first responders, security managers and public health officers."

Professor Walsh argues there is no simple way to manage the role of intelligence and improve strategic early warning practice to better prevent, disrupt and manage emerging biosecurity threats.

"Many of the emerging bio-threats I discuss in my paper represent 'wicked problems' that still need to be addressed and better understood, and while many of them may be in the 'high impact, low probability' threat category, this doesn't mean 'no probability'," he said.

"While it is particularly difficult to assess the motivation of individuals, groups or states, the application of an intelligence and early warning system for biosecurity will nonetheless help agencies get better at tracking emerging threats."

Professor Walsh points to definitional difficulties with the term 'biosecurity' and the need for interdisciplinary cooperation, because bio-threats, such as the current mosquito-borne Zika virus, can cross multiple dimensions (plant, animal, and human health), which in turn requires a multi-disciplinary interpretation of the 'threat' and treatment of any ensuing risks.

"The 'biosecurity' label is really a classifier for what is a broad church of related disciplines;  botanists, microbiologists, virologists, vets, physicians, laboratory bio-safety officers, and national security analysts and investigators," he said.

"This cross-disciplinary focus is both a strength and weakness to understanding biosecurity threats.  It is a weakness in that multiple players in the biosecurity field can result in a more fragmented understanding and operational response. But it is also a strength, in that if intelligence systems are optimal, a multi-disciplinary approach allows a combination of expertise to assess and manage the bio-threat or risk.

Professor Walsh said that since 2011 the bio-criminal threat landscape, which focused primarily on small individually motivated bio-attacks by criminals, has shifted.

"Global food quality, environmental pressures, and companies seeking to 'cut corners' present another layer of more complex bio-criminal threats in the future with potentially greater economic and public health impacts beyond individuals, to groups and nations," he said.

"Similarly, in countries with large primary industry sectors such as Australia and New Zealand, the organised criminal manipulation of regulations concerning export and import markets, or the criminal introduction of a controlled plant or animal species, represent serious biosecurity threats to these economies."

Professor Walsh said that because the list of potential bio-threats seems endless, it is easier to analyse them in two broad thematic areas; 'stolen biological agents', which includes material that has been stolen from a supplier, a university, research lab, hospital or animal health facilities, and 'dual-use research and synthetic biology'.


Media contact: Bruce Andrews, (02) 6338 6084

Media Note:

Contact CSU Media to arrange interviews with Associate Professor Patrick F Walsh.

The paper, 'Managing Emerging Health Security Threats Since 9/11: The Role of Intelligence', International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 29:2, p341-367, DOI 10.1080/08850607.2016.1121048, is published by Taylor and Francis Online and is available here:

Associate Professor Patrick F Walsh is a former intelligence analyst who has worked in Australian national security and law enforcement intelligence environments. Since 2003, he has been an academic specialising on intelligence and security studies at the Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security, Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is course coordinator for the postgraduate intelligence analysis program and has taught widely across Australia and internationally. Associate Professor Walsh is also a consultant to government agencies on intelligence reform and capability issues. His recent book, Intelligence and Intelligence Analysis (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011) examines a range of intelligence reform issues post-9/11 across Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and UK.