US-UK Intelligence Sharing

The Financial Times has an interesting piece on the “special relationship” between the US and our strongest ally, the UK, in the intellegence arena. Entitled, “The Human Factor: ‘All Is Not Well In Clandestine Intelligence Collection,’” [$] it begins with a lengthy rehash of the criticisms of the CIA with respect to 9/11 and the Iraq War. More interesting is the discussion later in the article about the nature of the relationship:

The Iraq case has nonetheless demonstrated the continued importance of British intelligence to the US, even after the end of the cold war. This is, in part, a deliberate UK strategy: if the UK is a big beneficiary of American technological prowess in signals, imaging and other electronic intelligence, Britain aims to redress the balance by delivering important human intelligence to the US. “Humint is an area where you don’t need the type of massive investment that you need for developing satellite systems, for example, or operating a worldwide network of sigint (signals intelligence) ground stations,” says Mr Richelson.

The sharing of humint between the US and UK is more selective than the sharing of sigint. Relations between the CIA and MI6, for example, are far less intimate and more marked by rivalries than relations between their sigint counterparts.
With its budget severely constrained – ignoring capital expenditures, MI6 is assumed to spend just under one-quarter of the annual Pounds 1.1bn UK intelligence budget – the service must choose foreign intelligence targets with care. That selectivity has been increased as a sharply higher proportion of the intelligence budget has been directed to counter-terrorism.

The UK targets countries where it has important political and economic relationships; ones that are considered potential trouble spots; areas such as Hong Kong where it has historical ties; and countries to which it sells military hardware. It also has a special expertise on the Middle East. “A lot of what we know on the Middle East in the co-operative relationship we have comes from (MI6),” said a senior Bush administration official last week. But it also picks targets where it knows intelligence will be of use to its US ally, and through which it hopes to encourage the US to open up intelligence files to the UK that would otherwise remain hidden. “Sometimes there’s a Pandora’s box; and sometimes there’s nothing,” says a retired British official.

Thus London may make efforts to track what happens in North Korea, not only because it is a potential global flashpoint where it is important to have reporting and analysis independent of Washington but also because of the potential to deliver something valuable to the US.

Not often, but consistently, MI6 has brought important information to the US, which has been a source of pride to British intelligence. Some of the most successful agents working at the heart of the Soviet system at the height of the cold war were cultivated by the British.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ibejo says:

    The British have always shown themselves to be far better at running successful humint programs than we are. I do agree with the article’s suggestion that we “own” the sigint and elint domains. But I personally feel that in today’s world, the importance of good humint cannot be overvalued.

  2. DC Loser says:

    Each country has both good and bad parts of its intelligence capabilities. The Brits are better in some geographic areas than we and vice versa. The SIGINT piece is not competitive as there is pretty much a division of labor between the US and commonwealth services (i.e., the British GCHQ, Canadian CSE, and the Australians). Read Bamford’s book for more details. As always, the problem with HUMINT is that it is single source and much of it cannot be corroborated, and most of it is not actionable intelligence.

  3. ibejo says:

    True – signit is a highly shared capability between us and the UK. I would strongly argue, however, that US humint has been our weakest link for perhaps the past 40 years. Most major inside sources within the Soviet Union were British, not US. We may “play well” in the banana republics, but major threat sources we have been fairly weak. I wouldn’t put too much stock in the Puzzle Palace and other JB books. He is not very well received within the intel community.

  4. DC Loser says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “not well received within the IC?” Maybe you meant the CIA? Perhaps, but he’s pretty well thought of inside NSA. Some have it out for him for his view regarding Israel, but that’s how he calls them.