Ensure the ‘special relationship’ survives Brexit
“Here is a book you should have, Mr. Director.” With that, Jacqueline Kennedy handed CIA Director Allen Dulles a copy of “From Russia with Love” by Ian Fleming, the latest novel in the series featuring lethal British agent James Bond.
Their 1957 encounter in Palm Beach, Fla., reflects the continuing close cooperation between government professionals in Britain and the United States. The term “special relationship” aptly describes the understanding.
Our partnership began during the darkest early period of World War II, and is rooted in national intelligence operations. This bears directly on the current effort by Britain’s government to withdraw from the European Union (EU), known as “Brexit.”
Peter Gross recounts the conversation between Kennedy and Dulles in his important book “Gentleman Spy,” a comprehensive biography of Dulles, who was a world-class networker. That skill was important to his rise to the top of the highly competitive world of intelligence. Mrs. Kennedy’s husband had emerged as a serious contender for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination.
President John F. Kennedy’s fondness for Bond novels sparked the durable movie franchise. The Hollywood Bond’s fetish for high-tech equipment, however, contrasts with the Bond of Fleming’s novels.
Both Dulles and Fleming served as intelligence officers during World War II. That war began extremely close cooperation between American and British intelligence.
Earlier, British intelligence work was crucial in persuading the U.S. government to intervene in World War I. British agents intercepted the so-called “Zimmerman Note,” a German government cable describing plans to develop alliance with Mexico, and London shared the alarming document with Washington. That plus German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare against Allied shipping tipped the balance in favor of the U.S. declaration of war.
During Fleming’s World War II service in New York, he described for Bill Donovan, head of embryonic U.S. intelligence, the sort of personality to direct a new operations office in that city. Dulles, who fit Fleming’s profile perfectly, was hired.
Dulles later managed operations in Switzerland, a neutral meeting ground for agents of the Allies and Axis. A vast cast of characters in between encompassed fanatics, fools, fraudsters, dedicated patriots, geniuses and skilled operatives. Electronic surveillance existed, but the working environment and challenges were overwhelmingly human.
The British led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill were anxious to secure vital American economic and military assistance, but were initially extremely careful about collaboration on military matters, in particular regarding sharing of sensitive information. United States success in breaking Japanese military codes proved to be an extremely important, timely development. The British became steadily more confident about the partnership and forthcoming about collaboration. Alliances are always challenging enterprises, as Churchill liked to emphasize, and in this case intelligence was key.
The ugly as well as complex nature of human intelligence operations naturally encourages the alternative of using electronic information gathering and surveillance. American fondness for and skill at technology has led us to embrace this approach, during but especially following World War II. The British are relatively more committed to the use of human agents and means.
An important but under-discussed dimension of Brexit is the impact on defense and security cooperation in Europe. Jonathan Evans and John Sawers, former heads respectively of MI5 and MI6, Britain’s intelligence agencies, have stated loss of shared data and general collaboration argue against Brexit.
Pauline Neville-Jones, a former national security adviser, warned Brexit could weaken police cooperation and border security, perhaps encouraging renewed Northern Ireland violence. Even Theresa May before becoming prime minister noted the EU facilitates such collaboration.
Beyond NATO, there is the important “Five Eyes” intelligence network, which includes Australia, Canada and New Zealand along with the United Kingdom and the United States. In the future, this partnership could be strengthened, and perhaps made more formal.
If Britain actually leaves Europe, the U.S. should pursue new bilateral intelligence collaboration efforts. Ideally, our strong bias toward technological means would shift.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”