AoH Book Club: Michael Smith on the Real Special Relationship

The British and American secret services have had a strong relationship since the Second World War, so much so that it’s this liaison we should focus on as special.
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Michael, The Real Special Relationship book deals with the intelligence relationship going back to the Second World War between Britain and the US. Where and when did that relationship begin?

There had been ad hoc intelligence cooperation between MI5 and the FBI during the 1930s but the real beginning of the sharing of intelligence came with a visit of four US codebreakers, two from the US Navy and two from the US Army, to Bletchley Park in February 1941. The British had initially been wary of telling the Americans that they had broken the German Enigma ciphers. They thought the Americans were too prone to talking to the press, with some justification, and given that they were not yet in the war there was a lot of concern that the secret would leak out. If the Germans knew the British were breaking Enigma they would have made changes to the machine that would have made it unbreakable, robbing the allies of crucial intelligence. But the Americans brought their own cryptographic triumph with them to exchange for whatever the British had, a machine that could break the main Japanese diplomatic cipher, which the British had been unable to break. It allowed them to read the messages from Hiroshi Oshima, Japan’s ambassador in Berlin, to his bosses in Tokyo. Oshima was close to Hitler, who was looking to bring Japan into the war and shared all his plans with the Japanese ambassador.

The relationship has been tested over the years as many Soviet moles were revealed, e.g. Klaus Fuchs and the Cambridge spy ring. How much did this affect the relationship?

Inevitably, it caused problems. Fuchs was by far the biggest because it stalled nuclear cooperation throughout the 1950s. Kim Philby had been the chief MI6 liaison officer to the CIA when suspicion first fell on him and there were many senior CIA officers who saw him as a friend and felt betrayed. But even at the time, there were influential CIA officers saying that stopping cooperation would be a mistake, cutting them off from intelligence the British had to trade, and of course the Americans had already had their own traitors, in the nuclear weapons programme, and in the intelligence field. The CIA’s first station chief in Moscow was caught in a honey-trap and William Weisband, a Soviet agent-in-place inside the US army codebreaking operation, betrayed all the details of the Soviet codes and ciphers broken by the British and American codebreakers who did not get back into them for another two decades. The damage he did in terms of joint intelligence-collection was arguably far greater than anything the Cambridge Five managed.

Roughly speaking, the FBI links to MI5, the CIA to MI6/SIS, and the NSA to GCHQ. Is that the right way of looking at it and of these three pairs, is there one which as the closes relationship?

Up to a point yes, but increasingly, there is crossover between the agencies. MI5 for example works as closely with the CIA as it does with the FBI. But yes MI6 and the CIA do work together, not always. It can be very transactional, I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours. But certainly they are close at the higher levels. The cooperation on the ground in foreign capitals depends very much on individual relationships. If people get on with each other, and trust each other, it can be very good. But there is a surprising amount of anti-British feeling still, mostly among the ten per cent of US citizens who are of Irish heritage. Also among those CIA officers in the frontline areas like Pakistan and the Middle-East who are comfortable with doing things that MI6 cannot do because of legal restraints. They can often see any relationship with “the Brits” as a waste of time. Bill Burns, the current CIA Director, has gone out of his way to talk up the relationship with MI6, not least in last year’s Ditchley Lecture, and he and the current MI6 Chief Richard Moore have held joint ‘town hall meetings’ at CIA headquarters in Langley and MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Bridge to inform intelligence officers on both sides of the Atlantic about how important cooperation is.

But in terms of close cooperation, nothing matches that between NSA and GCHQ with both sides sharing virtually everything they get. GCHQ intelligence officers work alongside their US colleagues at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters and NSA staff work alongside the British at GCHQ. They share their intercepts and the intelligence produced from it.

In your research, did you find the Americans are more open than the Brits in allowing access to secret archives?

Yes. Very much so. There is a wealth of intelligence documents available at the CIA Reading Room on the CIA website, which I mined thoroughly for the book, and the NSA has a number of fascinating documents on its website as well as interviews carried out over the years with key members of staff who have retired, including John Tiltman, the British codebreaker who accompanied hose four Americans on their visit to Bletchley and persuaded his bosses, and through them Churchill that we had to trust the Americans and share the Enigma secret with them. There are also a lot of intelligence documents in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States history volumes which are also on the internet. Intelligence documents do get released to the UK National Archives but they apart from the wartime files and MI5 files from the 1950s, they are very difficult to find.

The title implies that the more conventional ‘special relationship’ referred to by politicians and journalists is not real. Is that right?

I wouldn’t say it is not real. It palpably is at times, but too often on a one-sided basis where what the US wants is what happens. That is simply not true of the intelligence relationship. The point about the title is that the cooperation between US and UK intelligence organisation is the closest in history and is never affected by whatever politician is in power. Even during the 1956 Suez Crisis, NSA and GCHQ did not stop sharing intelligence. They are tied together like Siamese twins. And if a US president and a UK prime minister are receiving the same intelligence and share a worldview, which is normally the case, they are likely to work closely together to find solutions. You can see that in the operations in the Red Sea against the Houthis for example and in the newly formed AUKUS alliance. It was most evident recently in the joint warnings of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which actually released joint intelligence, much of it collected by the British, to demonstrate what was going on.

Is the intelligence relationship one that transcends whichever political party or president is in power?

Yes, it is. Very Much so. I mentioned Suez just now but during the 1970s, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Adviser, was incensed when British Prime Minister Ted Heath, anxious to keep a close relationship with the French, refused to push better relations with the US without first consulting his new EEC partners. Kissinger told colleagues that the British were “behaving shitty” and it was time to “shoot one across the bow to them brutally now”. He ordered the US intelligence agencies to suspend all cooperation with their counterparts.  “I’m cutting them off from intelligence special information they are get­ting here,” he told Nixon. “If they are going to share everything with the Europeans, we can’t trust them for special relationship.” But with tension building up in the Middle-East ahead of what would be the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Syria and Egypt, NSA chief ignored Kissinger’s orders, and for very good reason. They knew that the British signals intelligence base in Cyprus was the main source of information on what the Israeli, Egyptian and Syrian armed forces were doing so US decision-makers would lose far more than their UK coun­terparts as a result of Kissinger’s ‘brutal’ shot across the bows.

If you were to have a new edition published, is there anything you would include that didn’t quite make it first time out?

Well the paperback was the new edition and I did include something in it on the CIA Black sites. I did not include them in the original book because to be candid I was short of space and made a decision that I subsequently realised was a mistake that since they were not an example of cooperation between the two sides, because the British were not involved. Although they did send intelligence officers to Guantanamo, Baghdad airport and Bagram in Afghanistan, they were never involved in the Black Sites So I interviewed the CIA officer who was in charge of the Black sites and rendition operations and what he said, which is interesting and worth reading, is in the paperback.

Michael Smith is a historian and the author of The Real Special Relationship: The True Story of How the British and US Secret Services Work, which is highly recommended.