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Another US-UK 'special relationship' - between intelligence services

Edward Snowden's leaks about the NSA's PRISM program have drawn attention to the extraordinarily tight partnership between the US agency and GCHQ, its British counterpart.

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Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, England. The British intelligence organization's close ties to the US National Security Agency have come under scrutiny amid the controversy over the NSA's PRISM surveillance program revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Reuters/Handout

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A week on from revelations about the secret US eavesdropping program called PRISM, the British government has warned international airlines not to allow former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden to board flights to Britain.

The effective labeling of Mr. Snowden as a “persona non grata” over his leaks about PRISM underline how they have struck a nerve with authorities here due to the long, close historical partnership between the American NSA and the British equivalent, known as Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

International airlines have been warned not to fly Snowden to Britain because he is “highly likely to be refused entry" to the country, it emerged on Friday. So-called "carrier alerts" are used when the government wants to deny entry to individuals who don’t normally require visas or if events have occurred since visas were issued, according to a British diplomat who told the Associated Press that Snowden, currently believed to still be in Hong Kong, would likely have been deemed to be detrimental to the "public good."

But Snowden's whistleblowing over the NSA's PRISM program has brought the extent of cooperation between GCHQ and the NSA under unprecedented, and apparently unwelcome, scrutiny. GCHQ has reportedly had access to since at least 2010 and has used to generate 197 intelligence reports last year – raising questions about whether GCHQ used US-gathered intelligence to dodge strict UK rules on government surveillance.

Those questions are rooted in the "special" relationship between the two intelligence organizations.

“All intelligence agencies share a lot of intelligence now because the targets are global, but the Anglo-American relationship is special to the extent that, since the 1970s, with processes and projects, at various points GCHQ and NSA are effectively the same organization,” says Richard Aldrich, a professor of international security who has written a critically acclaimed unauthorized history of GCHQ.

'Unique in the world'

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With the GCHQ-NSA relationship in the background, the tone of the British government reaction to the PRISM revelations has been markedly different to that elsewhere in Europe even before it took the step of issuing the carrier alert against Snowden.

In Germany, reportedly the most spied-on European state of all by the PRISM system, Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to raise the disclosures with President Barack Obama when he visits Berlin next week, while a European Parliamentarian from her Bavarian sister party likened US spying methods to that of the Stasi, Communist East Germany’s security service.

By contrast, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague has strongly defended the US-Britain intelligence relationship, maintaining that it "has stopped many terrorist and espionage plots against this country and it has saved many lives."

Since the 1940s, the NSA and its forerunners have had a relationship with GCHQ that is "unique in the world", he added.

Hague’s 1940s reference relates to the role of Britain’s unrivaled World War II code-breaking operation on a rural English estate known as Bletchley Park. After the war, the operation’s core moved to the town of Cheltenham, where GCHQ is now based, while the US developed the NSA.

Such was the “unstinting” sharing of intelligence between Bletchley Park and the US that it has formed the basis for an enduring partnership, says Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham.

That relationship was formalized in 1946 with the signing of the UKUSA agreement, which formed the basis for cooperation between the two countries throughout the Cold War.

“Yes, the US has far more power, resources, and money today when it comes to intelligence, but in the days after 1941 it was in effect the other way around,” adds Professor Glees.

“Today, Britain is still treated like an equal even though the amount of intelligence produced by the US is vastly greater. The UK continues to perceive itself as a global power, but what gives us the ability to punch far above our weight in world affairs is the fact that the Americans share intelligence with us. If you were to take the intelligence that the US gives to the UK away from the UK, then Britain would be a minor power, albeit one with nuclear weapons.”

Today, liaison officers from the NSA are reportedly assigned to GCHQ while officers from the British agency can be found working at the NSA's headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

Other complications

Other factors are important too in terms of why the intelligence sharing relationship between the US and UK is closer than it is with other European states.

Taking Germany again as a comparison, commentators point out that West Germany was even more badly penetrated by Soviet and Warsaw Pact spies than Britain during the Cold War. 

They also note that law plays a part in making the sharing of certain types of information difficult. In cases where some cross-border intelligence operations in Europe are investigating a German national, legally a German has to be put in charge of the operation.

And, adds Aldrich: “The UK also spends more money, frankly.” 

“The UK intelligence budget is reportedly £2 billion [$3.1 billion] but my guess is that it is more like £4 billion. We have hidden it within our nuclear program and elsewhere.”

All said and done however, intimate intelligence ties come with unique challenges of their own, which are likely to be the cause of much noise as fallout from the Prism revelations spreads.

“The legal stuff becomes complicated,” says Aldrich. “If you have a roomful of British and American intelligence operatives who are sharing operations and equipment, whose legislation is being operated under?”

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