The true nature of how the intelligence world works is far from the James Bond potboilers beloved of us all. In practice, the intelligence arena is far more bureaucratic, far more organised, and far more important than the fertile, fevered imagination of Ian Fleming.
And quite possibly the most important cog in the wheel of Western intelligence security revolves around the Five Eyes (FVEYs), the long-standing signals intelligence links between Britain, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Evolving out of the profoundly close US-UK ties of the Second World War, for decades the five countries have been working hand in glove, closely sharing intelligence with each other.
As the post-9/11 era dawned, FVEYs has played, if anything, an even larger role in Western security. There is open source documentation that FVEYs intelligence sharing allowed US-UK security officials to thwart a major terror attack in 2006, the trans-Atlantic liquid bomb plot to blow up 10 airliners. In addition, New Zealand relied on FVEYs to send in troops to Afghanistan, just as Australia used common intelligence to convict a would-be bomber. In short, FVEYs is likely the most important pillar of British defence you have never heard of before.
On security grounds, it would probably be better it stayed that way. However, since we live in an age both of Wikileaks and of vexatious MEPs, a large amount of information about FVEYs has recently entered the public domain.
The documents associated with the original agreement alone show it to be an extraordinary deal. It allows the exchange of intercepted raw traffic, analysis, work on cryptology, and intercept theory. This is an unusually broad-ranging agreement. The partner states gain a level of privileged entry for a bargain membership fee. Cooperation is close and personal. As one retired official has reportedly observed, “when you get a GCHQ badge, you get access to the NSA lunchroom”.
From Wikileaks, it is perhaps the scale of the programme that has been the single biggest take away. It has been suggested that GCHQ, far from being a laggard in the world of signal intelligence, benefits by getting two thirds of its intercepts on a plate.
This generates legitimate questions about personal privacy. But it also shows the extraordinary intelligence tools available to those who throw their lot in with their US counterparts as opposed to, say, the Italians.
For since 1948, a deal has operated that has divided the West into two categories: those who are second parties to the agreement, and those that are not. Of the EU’s 28 member states, only one, the UK, has the club tie. It is important not to underestimate the knock-on effect this in turn generates in US defence circles and on Capitol Hill.
However, all of this is in peril if Britain decides to stay in the EU. The French have called for greater intelligence sharing within the EU, in the wake of the bombings that have rocked both Paris and Brussels. While that makes eminent sense on the surface, it actually amounts to a dagger pointed at the heart of the present British intelligence posture.
For all countries are not created equal. It is not a mistake, or random chance, that the five English-speaking democratic partners chose each other, chose to work together over the most sensitive intelligence material they possess. Instead, they did so because at some basic level they trust each other more than they trust other allies, such as the French and the Germans, both of which are viewed with a measure of distrust in Washington as having other motives and interests than those of the United States.
The French are still dreaming of great power status, with the Germans being wedded to an isolationist, pacifist future. In the multipolar world we actually live in, these dreams rather quickly turn into nightmares.
But the Brexit question leads the UK to a seminal choice: does it wish to share more intelligence with the French – a move Washington will not countenance – or does it wish to stick with FVEYs? It cannot have both, as America would be loath to allow Britain to remain in the FVEYs, all the while it worried about repeated French intelligence leaks (such as happened in abundance during the bombing war against Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia) ruining the agreement.
So contrary to Project Fear, the strategy of the Remain campaign, over the vital question of intelligence, it is actually staying in the EU that amounts to the great, unknown gamble.