This article was adapted from a presentation given at a conference called “Grand Strategy and the Anglo-American World View: A Century of the Special Relationship.” The conference was jointly sponsored by King’s College London and the University of Texas at Austin and held at King’s College London on November 13–15, 2014.During my career in government service I had direct experience of a number of the strands of the U.S.-UK security relationship: signals intelligence, nuclear deterrence, cooperation in NATO, and, after September 11, in homeland security. From my retirement perch in King’s College I have also seen just how productive and imaginative the U.S.-UK intelligence relationship presently is—from the documents stolen by Edward Snowden. My direct answer to the question of how greatly leaders matter to the “special relationship” is that it helps the workers to know that their leaders have a meeting of minds. But what really matters is the patient transmission of the flame of cooperation from generation to generation of professional military and civilian players in each of the many strands of the relationship, and with it a commonality of purpose, outlook and values.When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917 and sent General Pershing to Europe to prepare, priority was deliberately given to the relationship with the French lest too close a contact with the British Expeditionary Force encourage too much interoperability and harm the independence of the American force. But the Head of the British Intelligence Staff, Brigadier-General John Charteris (later Douglas Haig’s Chief of Staff), hit it off with Brigadier-General Dennis Nolan and briefed him on British signals intelligence in MI1b, a topic the French were reluctant to discuss with the U.S.1 Nolan adopted the British intelligence model and accepted UK training for his intelligence officers.Such friendly working relationships came to define and enhance the intelligence coordination between the two forces. A certain Major Stuart Menzies was in charge of counter-espionage at BEF headquarters and forged a close relationship with his U.S. counterparts—which proved to be of great value later on, when, as Chief of MI6, he came to New York to set up the British Security Coordination. Most importantly, in 1918 General Charteris took the brilliant young U.S. Army cryptographer William Friedman under his wing. Friedman got to know, respect, and, crucially, trust all the leading figures in British signals intelligence including the equally young Alastair Denniston of Room 40 in the Admiralty. In 1941 it was that same William Friedman who, having risen to be the leading figure in U.S. cryptography, recreated the relationship with his old friend at Bletchley Park, where Denniston had become Director.As the American scholar of the “special relationship” Bradley Smith observed, “Never before had sovereign states revealed their vital intelligence methods and results even to their closest allies.” Churchill had set the tone in his famous letter to Roosevelt of February 25, 1942, in which the Prime Minister revealed that British cryptographers could read U.S. diplomatic cyphers. He wrote, “From the moment that we became allies, I gave instructions that this work should cease.” The logic was that since the U.S. was entering the war those cyphers would in future also carry British secrets and the Germans might succeed in exploiting the weaknesses in U.S. cyphers. For the British to give up such a remarkable intelligence advantage is unprecedented, and must have contributed to the trust that underlay the closeness of the subsequent signals intelligence cooperation and its Cold War continuation. The letter is short and in Churchillian style ends “I shall be grateful if you will handle this matter entirely yourself, and if possible burn this letter when you have read it.” Number 10 of course kept a copy, as did the White House.Sometimes it has been those at much more junior levels who have made a difference, professionals occupying posts of influence who kept the relationships going within their limited spheres. They work together toward a common purpose on specific defense operations, projects, and scientific research, and through this experience recognize the professional competence of their U.S. or UK counterparts. A good example of a joint investigation was the Venona project,2 which successfully accessed KGB one-time pad communications and led to the uncovering of Donald Maclean and Klaus Fuchs—a case where brilliant SIGINT cooperation also, alas, led to temporary reductions in cooperation in human intelligence and atomic research.Examples of cooperation in specialized Cold War intelligence collection programs abound,3 including the nuclear attack submarine deployments in the Arctic, or the signals collection flights in the Barents, Baltic, Mediterranean and Far East, or the Air Force collection missions to scoop up nuclear debris from atomic tests in the atmosphere, or the Vienna and Berlin tunnels. Expert spoke to expert across the Atlantic even on those rare occasions when political storms blew far above their heads.In the specialized areas of transatlantic defense, security, and intelligence cooperation the British side always recognized that, relatively speaking, they were the beneficiaries, and that they had to ensure there was enough in it for their U.S. counterparts to sell to their own political masters. On the White House tapes of President Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s discussion of the offer of covert assistance to the French nuclear program, Kissinger is heard to say that the U.S. must make the French “drool” and sweat for it, but remarkably there was very little will to extract a price from the UK, perhaps because the British side had already convinced the U.S. of the value of its offerings. These have included: Tritium production and nuclear strike basing in the UK in the early days (including the controversial plan to deploy LRTNF Cruise and Pershing missiles in the 1980s); the Cyprus bases, Diego Garcia, and other staging posts; and the location of the main undersea cables—a matter to which Snowden has drawn attention. Indeed, in a number of very significant deals such as Trident D5, the U.S. allowed the UK to reduce costs by processing missiles at King’s Bay in Georgia, which means the UK pays for a share of the missiles, but a submarine of either nation coming out of refit simply draws the required number out of the common pool, generating economies for the U.S. as well.The SIGINT agreements dating back to 1946 are the best-known pooling arrangements for mutual advantage. But the 1958 U.S.–UK Mutual Defense Agreement on nuclear weapons cooperation runs it close, along with the Polaris Sales Agreement of 1963 (extended in 1982 for Trident).To speculate, perhaps there is a pattern:
- Stage 1: The UK has significant intellectual property.
- Stage 2: The UK is initially reluctant to share, then realizes it cannot afford not to and shares its information fully with the U.S.
- Stage 3: The UK becomes junior partner for economic reasons, but provides high-quality people and entrée to some useful facilities or territory.
- Stage 4: The U.S. imposes key restrictions on security grounds
- Stage 5: The UK has therefore to develop sovereign independent capability (weapons design) to prove that it is worth talking to.
- Stage 6: The U.S. and UK recognize the mutual advantage in minimizing cost by avoiding duplication in research and development, sharing results, and having expert peer review, thereby also enhancing innovation.
Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls’s discovery at Birmingham University in 1939 that the U235 critical mass is only around 22 lbs. led to the Maud Committee, and then the covert UK Tube Alloys atomic bomb project. But then came the recognition that wartime UK could not afford to go it alone. Successful cooperation with the U.S. followed, then the McMahon Act, and finally the British showed they could build their own bomb. Cooperation continues to this day. At least some of these stages recur, for example in Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park, naval nuclear reactors, the Chevaline program (the UK’s own maneuverable spacecraft designed to sit on top of Polaris), and later Zircon, the SIGINT satellite.That all usually works out to mutual advantage is thanks to personal relationships between professionals, which ensure that as the incoming generation takes over responsibility the necessary personal introductions are made, and that those chosen for the key posts will have the right habits of mind to keep the relationship going. That last point is important. The United Kingdom is the junior partner in terms of scale, but sometimes leads in specialized areas. I used to joke with my U.S. counterparts that the UK intelligence community was like Saville Row tailoring—beautiful hand-sewn fitted suits that would last a lifetime but were so expensive that only a very few could be afforded on a UK budget. The U.S., on the other hand, could afford to set up mass production using the latest machinery to cut serviceable suits, cheap enough for the average man to own a full closet of them. The combination of both niche quality products (the work of the GCHQ mathematicians comes to mind) and full coverage (the satellite constellation of the United States, for example) is very powerful. Even better when there is sensible division of labor—although this does mean that sometimes the UK is putting valuable effort into projects that it might not justify for itself.Another reason for challenging the importance of presidents and prime ministers relative to administrators, soldiers, spies, and scientists is the frequent presence of policy disagreements at the political level that do not invalidate the closeness of the relationship, though they constrain its operation in practice.An example from my own time in the Ministry of Defense in 1994: The Royal Navy and U.S. Navy were attempting to enforce at sea the UN Security Council’s arms embargo on Bosnia. The U.S. Congress believed in “Lift and Strike”—lift the arms embargo and use U.S. air power to strike the Bosnian Serbs, regardless of the danger to the UK-led UNPROFOR, whose soldiers were riding around in white-painted vehicles wearing blue helmets, trying to escort the delivery of humanitarian aid. Following Congressional resolutions, the President announced in November 1994 that the U.S. would not enforce the UN resolution and would cut off intelligence sharing on the matter. The U.S. Navy’s Aegis cruiser correctly pulled out of the intelligence work supporting the embargo, but as far as I was aware the overall joint NSA/GCHQ intelligence effort was not impeded. Those who believed in the relationship made it work.Likewise, after September 11, Washington and London adopted different strategic objectives toward dealing with the problem of al-Qaeda and associated groups. The U.S saw itself—and still does—as being in a state of armed conflict, and therefore has followed its interpretation of international humanitarian law by undertaking targeted strikes by remotely piloted aircraft against al-Qaeda leadership outside of the battlefield. The United Kingdom’s objective in its counterterrorism strategy is to maintain normality, and that has led the UK to apply international human rights law to all its activities against al-Qaeda outside recognized areas of armed conflict such as Iraq.That fundamental difference of legal interpretation has not stopped the very close cooperation between U.S. and UK forces, for example the cooperation between the RAF and the USAF that allowed the British force to operate its drones in Afghanistan from Creech Air Force Base in the U.S. Nor did it stop Admiral Jim Loy, the Deputy Secretary of State of DHS and me from setting up the U.S.-UK homeland security contact group. We worked together on domestic security to the mutual advantage of both countries and launched joint research and development programs. Even on that most domestic agenda, the instinct to share across the Atlantic was strong despite differences over strategy in the U.S. “war on terror.”The material stolen by Edward Snowden offers another example. The U.S. Patriot Act permits the collection and storage of very large quantities of communications metadata. Under its long-standing relationship with GCHQ, the National Security Agency makes this information available to its British counterpart. But the UK applies a narrower definition of communications data than the U.S., and British analysts can only access U.S. material if they have the necessary authority. Thus we have a situation of continuing very close cooperation but with each side applying its own legal interpretation. Within those constraints, cooperation is lawful and seems more productive than ever.
1Jim Beach, “Origins of the Special Intelligence Relationship? Anglo-American Intelligence Co-operation on the Western Front, 1917-18” Intelligence and National Security (April 2007).2Venona: Soviet Espionage and the American Response 1939-1957, R.L. Benson and M. Warner, Eds. (National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, 1996).3See, for example, Richard J. Aldrich, GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency (HarperPress, 2011).