Tom Rogan

Ten years since the 9/11 attacks, the intelligence alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States remains strong. However, in terms of tactical methodology for counter-terrorism rooted intelligence operations, increasing differences can be seen between the two long-time partners.

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 favouring 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.’ Drones strikes have increased dramatically under Obama.

In the later stages of Al Qa’ida’s failed 2006 Trans-Atlantic Plot, these tensions over approach played out loudly in UK-US discussions on when and how the suspects were to be dealt with. 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 purported mistreatment 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 mistreatment of terrorist suspects held by Gaddafi’s regime at US request. 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 (protection of classified material 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. 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, both 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. Put simply, the advantages of highly skilled officers working together effectively on a mission of dual importance, must now be balanced against the risk of undesired front page news stories and/or formal inquiries.

The questions now asked in Whitehall and Washington will be along the following lines. For the US, what risk does co-operation pose towards operations being compromised in future UK public enquiries? For the UK, what is the risk that our officers will be implicated in the future for ‘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.

The author:
Tom Rogan holds a BA in war studies from King’s College London and an MSc in Middle East politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He is currently studying for a joint UK/US law degree from the College of Law.

Read more from Tom:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/tom-rogan