A Deep Dive into the US-UK Special Intelligence Relationship

BOOK REVIEW: The Real Special Relationship: The True Story of how the British and US Secret Services Work Together

By Michael Smith / Simon & Schuster UK

Reviewed by Nick Fishwick

The Reviewer — Nick Fishwick CMG retired in 2012 after nearly thirty years in the British Foreign Service. He did postings in Lagos, Istanbul and Kabul. His responsibilities in London included director of security and, after returning from Afghanistan in 2007, director for counterterrorism. His final role was as director general for international operations.

REVIEW — In Bletchley Park in 1943, after some tensions had surfaced between British and American colleagues, the Americans suggested a game of rounders to ease relations. Rounders is to baseball what rugby is to American football. There are some similarities but not many and the rules are quite different. So, tensions in fact got worse, with the Americans claiming victory according to their rules and the Brits doing the same according to theirs. “That was all right,” observed a British codebreaker. “But they never asked us to play again”.

This little story appears in Michael Smith’s fascinating new book, The Real Special Relationship and reminds us that both sides have been the winners in the “special relationship” while not always following the same set of rules. The book’s history of the more than 80 years of uniquely close cooperation between British and American intelligence is frank in describing periods of tension and mistrust. But ultimately, Smith convinces us that “special” is not a bad way of describing the relationship, even if the occasional British ambassador or prime minister has disagreed.

Smith is well qualified to write this history. He is an experienced journalist, having for many years been the security correspondent for the British Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times. Many years ago, he published a ground-breaking work on the MI6 officer Frank Foley, showing how Foley had saved the lives of thousands of Jews in the 1930s by issuing them British visas while under passport officer cover in Berlin. He has since written about MI6 and Bletchley Park. He researches thoroughly and has a refreshingly direct style.

It was Bletchley Park, and Enigma – the German code machine – that brought the two sides together. With hindsight, the cooperation seems obvious and inevitable. The Brits had the machine, and could break the codes, but the Americans could offer vastly more resources (people, money and technology) and by December 1941, both countries were fighting together. The British were however, terrified that their success against the Germans would leak if the Americans were brought in and Smith shows that these fears were not groundless. So, the decision to let the US into Bletchley was courageous and made victory over Nazi Germany the more certain.

Of course, there were always people who did not like the “special relationship”. Some British officials were convinced that the US could not be trusted to keep a secret. Smith, who is British, from time to time describes this or that American as “anglophile” or “anglophobe”. He notes the latter tendency may not be surprising where the American had Irish blood, but he might perhaps have dwelt a bit more on the reasons for American anglophobia. (Interestingly, I am not sure there is an equivalent word for Brits who love/hate Americans).

Until very recently, it was characteristic of the British governing classes to patronise everyone else and to pretend that they knew everything. Americans were not the only people provoked by this. Smith notes American concerns during the second world war that Britain was trying to shore up its empire, and in fact, we kept trying to shore it up at least until the mad invasion of Suez in 1956. To balance this, the US side did benefit from Britain using imperial real estate like Ayios Nikolaos in Cyprus to gather vital intelligence. But one can see why Americans found British attitudes somewhat trying. The rash of British traitors (Burgess, Maclean, Philby etc) must have led Americans, not just J Edgar Hoover, to realise that there was something a bit weird about the British upper classes.

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One point that comes consistently through in the book is that the SIGINT relationship (GCHQ/NSA) has always been a bit more special than the HUMINT (MI6/CIA). The cooperation is broader, deeper, and more mutually dependent. Smith describes the HUMINT relationship as “extremely pragmatic” – in other words not reflexively frank (see MI6’s efforts to protect Oleg Gordievsky’s identity as a KGB penetration from their US allies – vindicated when a CIA officer handed details of the case to the KGB). HUMINT services have a thing about protecting their agents’ identities even from close allies, unless there is a good reason to fess up. And in recent years, differences of approach have been apparent. Against terrorists, the British played rounders (the UK CONTEST strategy) and the US baseball (GWOT). But again, perhaps, both won.

Smith’s careful research enables him to challenge a few myths. He shows that while it was true that the Berlin Tunnel was compromised from the start by another British traitor, this time George Blake of MI6, this did not stop the operation from producing some extremely valuable intelligence and enabling the decryption of a Soviet secret communications system.

The author is also clear that the British invasion of the Suez could not have been a surprise to the US. Over the Falklands War of 1982, he describes some crucial areas of US intelligence support despite the diplomatic tensions. And he even reminds us that not all the intelligence leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was wrong.

Smith concludes that “the real Special Relationship has never depended on the state of relations between the two countries’ leaders”. And yet he provides material that undermines this contention. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (1957-63) had very close relations with both Eisenhower and Kennedy and we are told that “one of the undoubted high points of the Special Relationship was at an end” with Macmillan’s resignation. Less happily, Prime Ministers Heath (1970-74) and Major (1990-97) never really understood the importance of the intelligence relationship. But in recent years, even a US president making bizarre allegations against intelligence services on both sides of the pond, made no difference at all to the reality of Anglo-American cooperation.

This book should be read by anyone who wants to understand what this cooperation has done for each country. There is more detail on the early than the later stages of the relationship: nearly 400 pages on the period 1941-1974, but less than a hundred on 1974 to the present. Smith might have written a little more about the 5 Eyes relationships. But on the whole, he has done us a great service. He is right that the real special relationship should be celebrated: but it must not be mythologised, and never taken for granted.

Real Special Relationship earns an impressive 3.5 out of four trench coats



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