Wednesday, December 21, 2011

US-UK Intelligence Co-operation

Two Sides of a COIN. Examining the growing discrepancy between US and UK Counter-Terrorism rooted Intelligence Operations.

Tom Rogan
It is true that there exists significant consensus in terms of the political strategy that underpins both UK and US counter terrorism efforts. The two states share agreement on the need to address root recruiting factors for Sunni Islamist extremist groups – a lack of empowerment (especially for young men), weak education and institutions, a failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, absent legitimised governance etc. The ‘Arab Spring’ has helped coalesce this position beyond the stigma of the 2003 ‘neo-conservative’ ideology. This consensus being stated, there also exists a real variance of tactical methodology in UK-US counter-terrorism efforts.
For the United States, even under President Obama, counter-terrorism continues to function under an overarching ‘war’ mentality. While Obama has moved the American strategic narrative away from the notion of a ‘war on terror’ (as much for domestic reasons as for foreign policy ones), for the United States, highly kinetic attrition warfare coupled with aggressive intelligence collection efforts remains key.

For the UK however, the patient accumulation of intelligence takes precedence under a European conceived ‘rule of law’ based approach; an approach favoring traditional police investigation and criminal prosecution over more aggressive foreign action. Successive senior leaders of both the UK Security Service (MI5) and the UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) have often stated their profound discomfort with the notion of targeted killing and extraordinary rendition. Simultaneously, the United States continues to show a willingness to conduct intelligence operations that are inconceivable under a UK reading of international law. As former CIA Director, Michael Hayden stated to the BBC in regard to drone strikes, ‘This is a war, this is action against opposing armed enemy force. This is an inherent right of America to self-defence… [it is the CIA’s obligation] to take this war to this enemy wherever they may be.’ This isn't a partisan issue for the United States. Indeed, the frequency of predator drone strikes has increased dramatically under Obama.
In the later stages of Al Qa’ida’s failed 2006 Trans-Atlantic Plot, tensions over counter-terrorism tactics played out loudly in UK-US discussions over when and how the suspects (and Pakistan based cell controllers) were to be neutralized. A number of relationships between senior US-UK intelligence officials were badly damaged in this affair.
Interestingly, while President Obama is highly regarded by a cross-partisan consensus of UK politicians, CIA activities are regarded by the same officials with deep unease (even though these actions proceed under Presidential authorisation). It is not solely the UK Government that holds this view; British news outlets publish frequent ‘horror’ stories on the treatment of terrorist suspects at the hands of American intelligence officials.
Further exemplifying this discomfort with the perceived ‘American approach’, UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently announced an inquiry into allegations that UK intelligence officers were complicit in the purported mistreatment of terrorist suspects held by Gaddafi’s regime at the request of the US Government. This inquiry is the second such investigation that Cameron’s Conservative Government has ordered in response to accusations made against UK intelligence services. Conversely, the Obama Administration has been able (and has decided) to remain relatively quiet on the issue. While UK services are facing ever increasing attention and condemnation, the domestic American preference towards US intelligence efforts is very different. This preference being- that operations should be left to proceed with relative freedom and secrecy (prosecution of intelligence leaks being an area on which the Obama Administration has been as, if not more robust, than the Bush Administration).
Although significant, these tensions should not be taken out of context. Material intelligence sharing between the UK and US, especially with regards to signal intelligence, remains abundant and even symbiotic. UK-US ties in this area are ingrained and formal. However, in the context of operational disagreements, co-operation between UK and US clandestine/covert action officers is now extraordinarily politically sensitive. When it comes to sensitive joint operations, the UK and the US are now forced to ensure that their co-operation is compatible with two sets of ever evolving and very different rules. For each state, the advantages of highly skilled officers working together on a mission of shared importance, must now be balanced against the risk of undesired front page news stories and/or formal inquiries.
The questions now being asked in Washington and Whitehall will be along the following lines.

For the US, ''what risk does our intelligence sharing with the UK pose, in terms of our own operations being compromised in future UK public inquiries?'' 

For the UK, ''what risk of our officers being implicated for future ‘wrong doing’ alongside US officers?''
Implicitly or explicitly, politics will now weigh heavily at the calculating core of sensitive tactical decisions. This adds a new, uncertain dimension to a long-time and highly successful intelligence relationship.

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