The Fourth Eye

British Intelligence and the Anglo American ‘Special Relationship’, during the Cold War

Aldrich, R. J. (1998). “British intelligence and the Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship’ during the Cold War.” Review of International Studies 24(3): 331-351.

Threat to cooperation between UK and USA was the UK’s close relationship with dominions, “A number of these states, notably Australia, had developed alarming security problems during the 1940s.”

  • “The central objective of these intelligence communities has been to offer precise estimates of the capabilities of opponents and timely warning of their intentions.” P 331
  • Fear of being Pearl Harboured – the possibility of surprise attack a huge fear of the British Chiefs of Staff
  • Hang over of WW2 dependence on Ultra intelligence led to “a Whitehall habit derived from wartime operational planning based on reliable ULTRA material that had been carried over into peacetime.
  • Soviet test of 1949 (US had predicted 1953 and the UK had predicted 1954) and Russian readiness for Korean War in MIG-15s were surprises – a new intelligence picture emerged
  • On Ball and Richelson, “the approach adopted by these authors is, as they assert, to provide a handbook or organisation and structure, rather than to demonstrate the ipact of intelligence and estimates upon national security policy or upon alliance systems as a whole.
  • The release of some archival material, declassified, from London, Washington and Moscow has made study more fruitful, but, “It remains difficult to study aspects of this subject beyond 1970, “
  • “relative dearth of other serious studies in the field, compared to the plethora of unreliable memoirs and sensational accounts. There is now such a volume of improbable material in the public domain that the broad outline of the subject, as presently understood, is often in need of testing. P. 335
  • Concept of a Western intelligence community, useful shorthand but misleading, “Most postwar intelligence cooperation took place in a narrow functional context, resulting in a number of largely separate, but parallel, Anglo-American-Commonwealth communities of human intelligence collectors, signals intelligence collectors, analysts, domestic security officials and cover action specialists…The resulting pattern was a loose federation of diverse groups rather than a coherent ‘Western intelligence community.’“ p. 336
  • Inside US inter-service rivalries made it v. difficult for Britain to have a relationship with agencies because one friendship was often at the cost of another. UK also had diversity – separate army, navy and air intelligence elements, each integrated into the operational machinery of its own service. “In both London and Washington the tradition of a myriad of separate, specialist intelligence organisations remained strong.
  • There were also political difference between the UK and USA about how to best deal with the Soviet Union – the “UK had little heart for any sort of operations that might be considered provocative” and given they were 25 miles away from the Continent, not unsurprising. There were also leak scandals that caused tensions – Burgess and Maclean – Fuchs had a negative impact on atomic cooperation, but this article asserts these have been overblown, and that intel folks accept this as part of the turf – an the Cambridge 5 were not the only problem – in 1956 it was discovered that US EUCOM had been bugged and in 1960 two US SIGINT personnel defected, Benon F. Mitchell and William H Martin.
  • There were also different analysis of, for example, the significance of Sputnik in 1957 – the UK thought there would be a 3 year gap between Sputnik and the arrival of a real threat from Soviet ICBMs. The Americans thought between 1-2 years. “Bundrett warned that all this derived from an excessive American ‘fear of underestimating the enemy’ which in turn stemmed from surprises such as the Soviet Atomic bomb and the MIG-15.” P 347
  • Useful legacies of the WW2 were joint infrastructures and close personal associations.
  • The UK projected centuries of secret service activity, in contrast to the so-called amateurs of burgeoning American agencies.
  • Soviet one time pad means they enjoyed relatively secure communications, they also used landlines that could only be intercepted with great difficulty. These and their human agents “help to account for the anxiety to cooperate.” P 343
  • Threat to cooperation between UK and USA was the UK’s close relationship with dominions, “A number of these states, notably Australia, had developed alarming security problems during the 1940s.” p 345
  • Collection is less complex than analysis, and the analysis has different impact, sometimes disregarded by policy makers depending on the source. “Inevitably and, up to a point, rightly it is their job to produce the worst possible case.” P. 348
  • Britain’s intelligence contribution was in the collection department – it’s overseas territories, its residual empower which gave political contacts and key airbases, naval installations and suitable sites for technical collection.   The geographical division of labour and functional fields. The global role of the Brits declined as satellite tech took off.
  • Main thesis of this article “Intelligence cooperation was much more stable, partly because it was compartmentalized and partly because it involved less strategic risk. .. Intelligence was always part of the ‘Special Relationship” but subordinate. The ‘Western intelligence community’ enjoyed a dispersed and compartmentalized existence.”


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