Britain's intelligence secrets: under the influence

Dan Plesch
24 April 2005

The row over Iraq intelligence focused attention on the Joint Intelligence Committee, the top coordinating body of Britain’s secret state. But how does the JIC operate? As Iraq forces itself onto the British election agenda, Dan Plesch finds a disturbing answer.

The decision to wage war in Iraq in 2003, and especially the truthfulness or otherwise of Tony Blair and his government in justifying it, erupted into the British election campaign on the weekend of 23-24 April. But still the campaign does not feel real. Too many issues, including Iraq, are left unexamined or subject to a firestorm treatment that conceals as much as it illuminates. Government officials, the “responsible” political parties and the media conspire to protect the children – sorry, voters – from questions that are simply too important for them to hear about.

How can I substantiate this scurrilous, even paranoid, claim? Fellow infants, let me offer you a fact. The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) – the lead body collating and monitoring information on security threats to the United Kingdom, and making recommendations for action – includes a representative of the United States administration (and, usually, representatives of the Australian and Canadian governments too). This is a matter of public record; Rodric Braithwaite, a past JIC chairman, confirmed it to me when I asked him about it. Since it is a matter of public record it is not “news”; no need to mention it, especially in front of Britain’s citizens.

The workings of British intelligence were extensively covered in broadsheet newspapers and subject to parliamentary and judicial inquiry during 2004. The inquiries contain no mention that foreign intelligence services participate in the JIC. There is one reference by the House of Commons committee on the intelligence services to the fact that the CIA commented on the notorious September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Some former JIC staff and chairs have told me that they consider that it has become more and more difficult for the UK to think independently and to reject United States – sourced intelligence for fear of offending the Americans. I cannot reveal the identity of these sources as the conversations were off the record.

Another past chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee said that if the UK was to make clear judgments on vital security concerns like Iranian WMD and intentions, or Syrian support for the insurgency in Iraq, then the presence of US representatives on the JIC should be reduced or ended.

Others like Rodric Braithwaite say that since JIC meetings have two parts – one open to foreigners and another (where subjects like Northern Ireland were traditionally discussed) closed, there is no cause for concern.

In any case, a search through the Iraq inquiry reports reveals that almost the only references to United States intelligence and to the CIA refer to US claims that British information was faulty, especially over the matter of “uranium yellowcake” from Niger. They make virtually no reference to the supply of faulty information from the US, though in his testimony Robin Cook – who resigned as Britain’s foreign secretary in protest against the impending war in March 2003 – goes further than most in his usual precise and sardonic manner. Even he, however – like so many current and former officials – is reluctant to jeopardise his insider status, and depends on others to put the deeper story together.

For more background into US-UK intelligence cooperation, see:

▪ Desmond Ball & Jeffrey T Richelson, The Ties that Bind (Allen & Unwin, 1985)

▪ Mark Urban, UK Eyes Alpha: the inside story of British intelligence (Faber, 1997)

▪ James Bamford, Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra – Secret National Security Agency (Random House, 2002)

▪ James Bamford, A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies (Random House, 2004)

An extract from Robin Cook’s submission to the House of Commons foreign affairs committee into the decision to prosecute war in Iraq (July 2003) illustrates this combination of revelation and restraint:

“14. Mr Cook also suggested that the United Kingdom may have been over – reliant on intelligence supplied under the sharing arrangements with its allies:

‘I would be astonished if it (the reliance of the September dossier on intelligence supplied by the US) was not immense. The United States and the United Kingdom have a unique intelligence relationship, which has probably never existed in any period of history, in which on our side we have full transparency and we strive to secure full transparency on their side. Therefore, it is often difficult when you look at intelligence assessments to spot which raw data was originally gathered by the United Kingdom and which was originally gathered by the United States. As a rough rule of thumb, and it is very rough, we tend to be rather better at gathering human intelligence; and, although we have an excellent GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) station, the Americans are even more formidable in technological ways of gathering intelligence. That said, neither of us really had much human intelligence inside Iraq. The Americans were drawing heavily on exiles who were inside America.’

15. We conclude that it appears likely that there was only limited access to reliable human intelligence in Iraq, and that as a consequence the United Kingdom may have been heavily reliant on US technical intelligence, on defectors and on exiles with an agenda of their own.”

This conclusion by the foreign affairs committee is important, but it does not touch on the day–to–day mechanisms of the US – UK intelligence relationship which goes far beyond US representation on the JIC.

The sibling services maintain close institutional links: the UK ministry of defence’s defence intelligence staff (DIS) with the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency; GCHQ with the National Security Agency and National Reconnaissance Office; and MI5 and MI6 with the CIA. Reports and revelations in the United States have revealed more of US intelligence misgivings about the Iraq war, but despite efforts the relationship has not yet received the attention it deserves in Britain.

The Butler inquiry into intelligence made recommendations for avoiding a repeat of the Iraq debacle, although former DIS official Brian Jones has said that these are inadequate. But the Butler recommendations and the debate around it – with very few exceptions – have failed to touch on the key question of reform of the intelligence relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States.

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