Dangerous liaisons: post-September 11 intelligence alliances

by Richard J. Aldrich

Intelligence alliances are often highly secretive and consequently poorly understood. Some argue that no secret services are friends with one another and point to the large amount of recent economic espionage by supposed allies. Others claim that clandestine agencies cooperate too closely and cannot be trusted by the states that employ them. The attacks of September 11 blurred the boundaries between friends and enemies even more, as Western agencies have now teamed up with unlikely partners in order to pursue a vigorous war on terrorism. The campaign in Afghanistan, however, reminds us of the importance of intelligence alliances and shows that the real priority is finding a robust doctrine that allows some regulation of the diverse friendships required by the war. Far from constituting a world of unyielding competition, intelligence alliances can teach would-be practitioners of liberal institutionalism about structures that radiate trust, order, and devotion to the public good.

Intelligence alliances are among the most closely guarded secrets of clandestine agencies. Inside large alliances, these organizations behave remarkably like states, with their own treaties, embassies, and emissaries. Such intelligence groupings are more common than most realize, and most Western agencies enjoy treaty relations with dozens of foreign equivalents, setting out rights, permissions, and, most importantly, their l)lace in the hierarchy of intelligence powers. The United States is at the top of this hierarchy, not only by virtue of its vast intelligence spending--over US$30 billion per year--but also because of its position as a global intelligence alliance manager.

Perspectives on the inner workings of intelligence alliances differ sharply. Some argue that clandestine agencies pursue national interests ruthlessly against friends and enemies alike. This secret statecraft school of thought is typified by the much-quoted adage: "There are no friendly secret services, only the secret services of friendly states." Conversely, others argue that agencies of different states operate together like an international brotherhood, and that this clandestine kinship means they often owe more allegiance to each other than to the stares they purport to serve. Whatever our perspective, the events of the last decade have created turbulence in the realm of intelligence alliances. The end of the Cold War left established allies with seemingly less need to cooperate after their common enemies had disappeared. Globalization and the quickening pace of technological change gave developed states more incentive to spy on each other in search of high-tech gains.

Public discussions of intelligence alliances have tended to focus upon the low politics of economic espionage between established allies, something that comes close to commercial theft. But the importance of this aspect has been exaggerated. In the last decade, real cooperation over issues such as nuclear proliferation has become increasingly important. Today, it is the war on terrorism and the exponential growth of US intelligence and military activities that pose urgent questions for the West. If the 20th century was characterized primarily by war, then the 21st century might well be one marked by terror. Terrorist organizations and the clandestine agencies of Western states operate in similar ways. In this new landscape of silent warfare, clandestine agencies may cease to be a supporting arm of defense and diplomacy, instead becoming themselves the cutting edge of foreign policy.

As these agencies increasingly pursue global issues, intelligence alliances will become yet more important. What kinds of intelligence alliances will be needed in this new landscape and how will they be managed?

Hidden Partnerships

Established allies fight over policy-related intelligence, corroding trust and undermining possibilities for high-level policy convergence. One would hope that a sharing of intelligence among friends would promote similar outlooks. But in reality, even the closest intelligence allies are reluctant to accept finished analysis from one another, turning instead to raw data for fear that they will become victims of analytical spin. Whether allies ultimately receive raw data or mere analysis is a function of their place in the intelligence hierarchy. The ebb and flow of raw data can also be used as a weapon even against familiar partners, as when the United States famously cut the flow of intelligence to New Zealand in response to the latter's withdrawal of facilities for US nuclear ships in the 1980s. Although this caused some surprise among observers, such arm-twisting among intelligence allies is not unusual. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, British Prime Minister Edward Heath's decision not to allow US intel ligence gathering from British bases in Cyprus resulted in a temporary halt in the US signals intelligence tap. In these incidents, intelligence flow was used to underline sharp differences over policy.

More recently, Pakistan's foreign intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), provides a fascinating example of policy divergence. What happens when a friendly regime, such as Pakistan, professes support for Western powers against the activities of Al Qaeda but its agencies do not? One of the complexities for intelligence officials is that a friendly secret service is rarely like one's own. In Pakistan, the foreign ministry is a relatively ceremonial apparatus, while the ISI has secured control of many vital areas of Pakistani foreign policy, including Afghanistan and Kashmir. The ISI is now heavily factionalized, with some elements having assisted the remnants of Al Qaeda that fought in southern Afghanistan in February 2002. Inevitably, the number of US operations in Pakistan that are undeclared to their Pakistani hosts has risen. This situation is not unprecedented and results from the ISI's continued close clandestine kinship with those that are no longer favored by the state.

This conflict has become more widespread in the months following the attack on the World Trade Center, as Western agencies enjoy the cooperation of a surprising range of allies. These include the Libyan intelligence services that the West has condemned for their association with terrorism in the 1990s and the Syrian intelligence services that played a major part in sponsoring terrorist groups in the 1980s. Both Libya and Syria were made pariahs, their agencies reviled in the West as no better than the terrorist groups with whom they have worked. But both countries have shown signs of diplomatic rehabilitation, in part facilitated by clandestine kinship, because Western contact with their agencies has always continued at some level. Other active US allies during the ongoing war against terrorism have included the Russians and the Chinese.

Clandestine kinship means that many of these seemingly new partners are, in reality; old friends. Despite periodic disputes over mutual penetration since the end of the Cold War, Russian agencies have worked well with both British and US agencies across substantial areas of mutual interest. Yet in 1990, respected US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) veterans held divergent views as to whether this cooperation would even be possible. Former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Ray Cline warned that all that awaited would-be fraternizers with the East was entrapment or deception. By contrast, former CIA Director William Colby was upbeat about the possibilities and personally traveled to meet many of his former opponents, seeking to build bridges on matters of common interest. The dividends of cooperation were not long in coming. For example, during the Gulf War, the Russians provided Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) with vital information on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's armory of Scud missiles an d the nature of modifications that had been undertaken to enhance their performance.

Meanwhile, the United States has maintained a fruitful intelligence alliance with Beijing based on a mutual interest in Russian matters. In intelligence terms, China is also an old friend, with joint intelligence activities against Russia dating back to US President Richard Nixon's normalization of relations in 1972. Some commentators have attributed the reluctance of successive US administrations to criticize human rights abuses in China to the continuing presence of two vital US-engineered listening stations inside China that are focused on Russia. The Sino-US intelligence relationship has grown recently owing to Beijing's concerns with Islamic militancy in its western provinces. Against this background, the recent incident involving the Chinese detention of the US EP-3 spy plane on Hainan Island might be seen as a brief interruption of an awkward but nonetheless time-honored intelligence alliance.

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