LONDON—Henry Kissinger once tried to come between the National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s GCHQ, their signals intelligence (SIGINT) brothers from the other side of the pond, and the response from the U.S. intelligence agency was short and swift.
“The NSA simply said, ‘Drop dead,’” says the author of a new authorized history of GCHQ, who explains that the two intelligence agencies have a closer relationship with each other than they do with their own governments.
The world’s two leading signals intelligence agencies are so tightly bound together that they share virtually all of the material they gather with no questions asked. Over the years, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) has frequently protected the NSA from rivals within the U.S. including the CIA and Naval intelligence units—and even their respective presidents and prime ministers come second in the hierarchy of loyalty, according to Behind the Enigma: The Authorized History of GCHQ, Britain’s Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency by John Ferris.
“I say in the book—and both GCHQ and NSA allowed me to say it—that at some point or another, every director of GCHQ and NSA colludes with each other in order to do something which their own national authority might try to impede,” Ferris told The Daily Beast.
One such clash arose in 1973 when Kissinger, who was President Nixon’s national security adviser at the time, ordered the NSA to stop sharing signals intelligence with Britain in order to pressure London to support Nixon’s Israel policy.
The NSA refused to comply, challenging Kissinger’s authority despite his key role at the White House. Ironically, under the shared intelligence agreement between the agencies, Kissinger’s move would have left the U.S. flying blind in the Middle East because collecting signals intelligence in the region was entirely the domain of the British who funnelled the intel back to Fort Meade.
One of the most bizarre aspects of this unparalleled intelligence sharing partnership is that it is not enshrined in any treaty; it’s a subnational, totally non-binding agreement, which makes the NSA’s willingness to stand up to Kissinger even more extraordinary.
“If Jeremy Corbyn had been elected with a majority, I think he would have broken it and he could have done so. And if Donald Trump wanted to break it, he could do so. Any British prime minister or American president is free to choose. The problem is they’re so closely intertwined that it would cause massive immediate problems, or huge amounts of expenditure to overcome. That wouldn’t have bothered Corbyn,” said Ferris.
The relationship was also entirely secret for 25 years after World War II. It wasn’t until 2010 that the documents behind the agreement were put into the public domain. This comprehensive book uses unprecedented access to GCHQ files to chart the full history of the agreement, which is called UKUSA (pronounced yoo-kusa, a bit like the Japanese mafia, by those in the know).
“The only organization I can think of which in any way comes close is NORAD, the North American air defense system where the Canadian and American air defense systems are integrated. But that’s much more narrow and specific than UKUSA, but that’s the only other thing that comes close. So, yes, this is really unique,” said Ferris, who is a professor of history at the University of Calgary in Canada.
At the end of the Cold War, during which British expertise on intercepting Russian communications had been instrumental, there was a fear that GCHQ’s influence would wane, but the agency, which is based in Cheltenham, southwest England, bucked expectations and repositioned itself as a trailblazer in modern signals intelligence.
With the resources freed from exhaustively covering the Soviet Union, GCHQ was able to start doing what it’s really good at, which is exploring new territories—in this case, the early days of the internet, mapping it out for themselves and the Americans and then coming up with new methods of interception and cryptography to suit the new environment.
British paymasters recognized the outsized diplomatic clout they maintained in Fort Meade and in Washington, where GCHQ intel product remains highly respected, so long as the intelligence agency was allowed to thrive, and so investment in the agency remained relatively high despite the end of the Cold War.
Ferris was not allowed to detail current intel methods in the book for obvious reasons, but the documents published by Edward Snowden, who was employed by a contractor to work at an NSA facility, give an unmistakable insight into the current balance of the relationship between GCHQ and the NSA.
“If I’m judging simply by material which has been leaked, mostly by Snowden in the past five or six years, my sense is that the British are relatively much more significant than they were at any point since the 1960s,” said Ferris. “If you go through the Snowden material, you’ll find that a huge number of the technical innovations clearly are British, and, in fact, the Americans pay GCHQ to develop them.”
The book argues that regular NSA efforts to subsidize GCHQ, which has a much smaller budget and staff, is a sign not of GCHQ’s weakness but of its strength. The British SIGINTers are seen as valuable scouts and innovators who routinely deliver a good return on investment. As the former director of GCHQ, David Omand, once joked, “We have the brains. They have the money.”
This is not to say, the NSA is not filled with brilliant people in itself, and their capacity for intelligence gathering is unparalleled. “The Americans have this raw power, which once focused is overwhelming,” said Ferris. “I would personally say that NSA is one of the most technologically disruptive organizations in history. So, the two of them together are very formidable.”
The relationship between the American and British signals intelligence communities blossomed during World War II, when U.S. pioneers were invited over to Bletchley Park, the legendary home of the codebreakers who cracked Germany’s secret wartime communications.
“Genuinely, they were astounded by the quality of every branch of British SIGINT and, in fact, came to understand that what the British were doing was very ahead of us in every single way,” said Ferris.
Anglo-American relations were complicated during the course of the war, with Washington initially reluctant to become embroiled in another predominantly European conflict. After the war, American SIGINTers, with the help of GCHQ input, succeeded in convincing President Harry Truman that a large-scale peacetime SIGINT operation was necessary to ensure there was never a “Nuclear Pearl Harbor.”
UKUSA was established in 1946, linking American and British SIGINT efforts ever since. The agreement also took in Britain’s recent Dominions; Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Together they formed a global network which is now known as Five Eyes.
The relative merits of NSA and GCHQ have fluctuated over the decades. In the ’50s and even early ’60s, GCHQ was still seen as the more impressive intelligence producer. American internal memos bemoaned the supremacy of GCHQ’s final product, which was often deemed better written and more fully analysed.
In the latter decades of the 20th century, big American investments in supercomputing and expensive advances, including satellite technology, ensured NSA was in the ascendancy.
The agreement was founded on individual personal relationships between SIGINTers, and sometimes those were rocky. There were complaints that GCHQ was hogging the most prestigious roles; British assessments of American product were sometimes deemed “too rude to share;” and in the mid-’80s NSA Director William Odom complained that GCHQ did not carry out its share of the work given how much authority it demanded.
“The British clearly can’t accept happily their own loss of pre-eminence in this business,” Odom wrote in his remarkably frank diary. “Socially I no longer find the British amusing, merely a pain in the ass.”
But throughout it all, NSA and GCHQ, two largely civilian organizations, maintained their togetherness. All of the Five Eyes countries would send senior liaison officers and up-and-coming “integrees” to work at the other agencies, sharing intel techniques and honing each other’s skills. A no-poach policy ensures that the agencies are willing to let their best and their brightest take part in the exchanges. In Behind the Enigma, Ferris writes:
In one legendary moment, an American integree at Cheltenham and a British one at Fort Meade conducted negotiations between GCHQ and NSA on behalf of their adopted services; in another, every member of a Sigint conference between Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States held a British passport.
GCHQ is also part of American decision-making. There are lots of interagency meetings and important issues where GCHQ representatives are part of the decision-making process right on U.S. soil. On Sept. 12, 2001, the head of GCHQ was on the only aircraft allowed into the United States immediately after 9/11. General Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA, has since said it was decided in the aftermath that GCHQ would assume command of all American SIGINT if Fort Meade was compromised.
“NSA could trust GCHQ to have its back in a way that it cannot trust any other American agency to have its back. And GCHQ and NSA provide each other with state secrets, which only a handful of other people would see. It is one of the most unusual arrangements I’ve ever seen,” Ferris said.
General Hayden, who was director of both the NSA and CIA, was an exception, but there has often been a rivalry between the two agencies which dates back to the 1950s when NSA was created: CIA operatives around the world had previously been responsible for foreign SIGINT collection.
“There was a huge amount of blood on the floor,” said Ferris, and relations were often tough over the decades to come. “There are moments when CIA—for good reasons or bad—is not doing what NSA would like. And GCHQ helps NSA avoid some of those problems. GCHQ has perfectly civil relations with CIA. So, it’s actually easier for GCHQ to get CIA to help NSA than it is for NSA to get CIA to help NSA.”
Many SIGINTers believe UKUSA will eventually fall apart now that the unifying threat of the Cold War has faded away and there is no guarantee that new generations of political leaders will share common foreign policy goals. The strength of the agreement was tested in the Middle East in the ’70s when British and American governments disagreed over Israel, and similarly two decades before when Washington did not support British policy during the 1956 Suez crisis. On that occasion GCHQ actually hampered British government policy by refusing to cooperate with French intelligence.
If the agreement does eventually collapse it will cost the U.S. billions of dollars—Ferris believes the NSA budget would have to increase by around a third—to replace the input from Britain. But even more than that, one of the greatest intelligence-gathering partnerships the world has ever seen would be permanently damaged.