The secrets of the special relationship

Review: Michael Smith comprehensively details Britain and the US's intelligence partnership. While political shifts and rivalries may cause tremors in trust, the partnership has withstood the changes of the ever-evolving geopolitical landscape.

MI6 Building Vauxhall London.
MI6 Building Vauxhall London. Credit: Mark Beton/London / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Real Special Relationship: The True Story of How the British and US Secret Services Work Together by Michael Smith. Simon and Schuster, 2022, 576 pages, hardback £25

Ray Cline, CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence in the early 1960s, realised early in his career the benefits of the ‘closest intelligence exchange in history’, between the United States and the United Kingdom. The combined resources of the two nations’ intelligence communities could provide more valuable information than either could on its own. ‘By roughly dividing the world between them and exchanging the material recorded’, Cline wrote, the US and UK ‘saved themselves a great deal of money and trouble and continue to do so’. Similar sentiments were expressed by former NSA Director General ‘Pat’ Carter, in a 1988 interview. He recalled reassuring his GCHQ counterpart, Joe Hooper, that just because the US had vastly greater resources did not mean the British contribution was less important. Magnitude of effort, Carter said, ‘isn’t something that we could measure by number of people or amount of money . . . We were all in bed together.’ These pragmatic assessments accurately sum up the core of the Anglo-American security and intelligence relationship, described in Michael Smith’s excellent overview from the Second World War to the present day, The Real Special Relationship: The True Story of How the British and US Secret Services Work Together.

Smith’s account has three main strengths. The first is that he tries to cover, over a broad span of years, all facets of what is not a single strand but a complex web of parallel arrangements between UK and US agencies. Many good books exist on discrete aspects of these arrangements, such as signals intelligence (Sigint) cooperation, but few include parallel links between special forces or military intelligence, as well as between CIA and MI6 stations, during episodes where cooperation and information-sharing was of key importance. Similarly, there are many good accounts of wartime cooperation, but fewer that carry the story through to the present day. Taking a broad view makes it easier to assess the balance between intelligence acquired through technical collection methods (satellite, imagery, acoustic as well as interception, for example), and that acquired from human sources. While the specialist may wish for greater detail, it is very useful to be reminded of the variety, and complexity, of the intelligence machine on both sides of the Atlantic.

The second strength of the book lies in its appreciation of the relationship between intelligence organisations and governments. That may operate somewhat differently in the US from the UK, but in both cases politicians are the ones who make the final decisions, including whether to heed the advice of their intelligence communities. Intelligence is only ever one piece in the policy-formulation jigsaw, and however cogent, may be outweighed by other considerations. Other players, such as the military, will have an input; Congressional and parliamentary opinion matters; the current stage of the electoral cycle counts, too. At times, politicians have unrealistic expectations of what their intelligence organisations can accomplish; while members of those organisations find their operational aspirations are unrealistic in the prevailing political context. Smith’s account navigates helpfully the way the Anglo-American relationship has survived changing circumstances. As Sir John Sawers, former Chief of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, observes: ‘Politicians come and go, but the intelligence relationship stays really solid.’

These two ideas contribute to the third strength of the book: the way in which chapters whose titles may indicate a discrete event or episode (The Iran Coup, The Cuban Missile Crisis or The Prague Spring, for example) encompass a wide range of developments and intelligence operations taking place around the time in question. This is particularly important when considering intelligence-gathering, which may take place far from the scene of a crisis. Political leaders and their advisers, and all parts of the official machine including intelligence organisations, can be guilty of compartmentalisation. Smith gives a number of examples, including the Six Day War in 1967, 9/11 and the Iraq war, that illustrate how essential it is to join the global dots, in intelligence as well as any other area of policy. His account shows how important Anglo-American cooperation has been in achieving this, even if at times the need to tell the wider story can produce a rather crowded narrative.

The ‘special relationship’ in intelligence, forged in the Second World War, is not of course a seamless and untroubled success story. At times it has been bedevilled by mutual misunderstanding, American impatience, British resentment or poor relations between individual statesmen, as well as by hostile elements seeking to disrupt it. Both the UK and US, at different times and for different reasons, distrusted the other’s motives or security precautions. The vast size and resources of the American machine often meant that US agencies—and politicians—felt they should prevail over the wishes of the weaker and poorer British, suspected of wanting to recreate their empire. (On the other hand, successive US administrations found the ability to site military bases or listening posts in British territories, such as Hong Kong, extremely valuable). The trust and candour that makes the relationship so powerful has at times been undermined by lack of political support, or inter-agency rivalry. It is a challenge to convey all these elements over a period that includes the evolution from hot to cold war, and major turning points such as 9/11, but Smith rises to it in this very readable and well-researched account.

No outsider will ever know the full extent of the Anglo-American intelligence relationship or how successful it is; indeed, few insiders will. It is the fate of secret organisations and relationships that they only become public at times of apparent failure, while successes occur in silence. It is in both the US and UK’s interests to keep quiet about how ‘special’ the intelligence relationship really is. But what is clear is that we are still ‘all in bed together’, and in an increasingly threatening world, it is important that we remain well tucked in.


Gill Bennett