The 'Blood Price' Mystery
21 July 2004
In September 2002 Tony Blair used a curious turn of phrase to describe his support for Bush on Iraq: "Britain is prepared to send troops to commit themselves, to pay the blood price". What was this sword of Damocles that limited the freedom of action of a sovereign state?
One view is that the UK is beholden for signals intelligence – Sigint – where the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) possesses a network of satellites computers and cryptography hardware for world-wide eavesdropping. Journalists Stephen Findler and Mark Husband recently reported that “…piggybacking on the US opens a world of information to the government in London to which it would otherwise have no access. No where is that more true than in signals intelligence” (Financial Times, 6 July 2004).
A further elaboration of this conventional wisdom is provided by former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir Rodric Braithwaite: “The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) is relatively independent: it manages spies, and that is a cottage industry not much affected by technological change. The same goes for our Security Services (MI5)…..however in the complex and expensive world of communications intelligence – meaning eavesdropping and codebreaking – we remain heavily dependent on the US. The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) at Cheltenham….is heavy reliant on US input and would be of little value without it…..that is something that British prime ministers, submariners, and codebreakers have been loath to contemplate”.
The UK submariners are central to the defence strategy – the UK nuclear capability is Polaris based – and the politico-military elite in Britain is only too aware that in 1985 the US cut off Sigint flow to New Zealand because of its anti-nuclear stance, or that Canada found its access to US-collected signals intelligence restricted after it hinted it might not back the 1991 Gulf War.
Findler and Husband provide a graphic description of the British attempt to forge a seamless join: “the two Sigint organizations [NSA in the US and GCHQ in the UK] operate almost – but not quite – as if they were separate national divisions of some larger international conglomeration”.
However the dependence on US sigint may be overstated. It is argued by some former members of the security services that the UK’s own humint (human intelligence) is sharper edged than what the US can offer. A case to point is the role of the two SIS agents who “posed as Islamic extremists and were able to draw out information from a Pakistani scientist about nuclear weapons design and information on how to build a ‘dirty bomb’. The UK passed on this information to Washington in November 2001” (Financial Times, 7 July 2004). Rather magnanimously, the recent Butler report presents this as a joint US-UK success (p. 19, ‘Butler Report’, July 2004). Moreover the recent intelligence debacles – including the communications intercepts paraded by Colin Powell before the UN in February 2003 – raise questions on the utility of US sigint.
If not sigint, why Blair’s “blood price”? The Germany-based web journalist Michael James, thinking outside the box, has asked ‘does America's National Security Agency have something on file that would, if made public, fatally damage Tony Blair and his ruling Labour Party?’.
More realistic is the analysis offered by Robin Newnham, an Oxford academic. He notes that “the chief lessons successive British governments have drawn from Suez [the UK-French-Israeli conspiracy to attack Egypt in 1956] are two: that the US, the world’s pre-eminent global power should never again be broke with; and that the French, who played the crucial role as matchmakers between the Eden government and Israel in planning the 1956 invasion, were unprincipled troublemakers not to be trusted in matters of foreign policy”. Perhaps what Newnham describes as “never again to be broken with” is a secret military compact between the US and UK governments that is even outside normal parliamentary scrutiny. However this compact pre-dates Suez. Even during this crisis, the UK continued its intelligence exchanges with the US, and received U-2 bomb damage assessments of the RAF’s attacks on Cairo airfields. Wilson's reluctance to send British troops to Viet Nam annoyed Johnson, but it did not prevent from the CIA installing its man Chester Cooper at Chequers in the late 1960s.
One British PM after another has hinted at some insurmountable constraint: Margaret Thatcher, together with Foreign Secretary Howe and Defence Secretary Younger had misgivings when the US defence secretary Caspar Weinberger asked to use a US base in Britain to launch the revenge attack on Libya in 1986, “but none of them thought it possible to refuse” (The Guardian, 27 January 2003); in 1991, shortly before the First Gulf War John Major endorsed the American plans “without hesitation (The Guardian, 6 September 2002). The bypassing of Parliament over such a compact is quite feasible: for example in June 2004 The Guardian reported that “the government was under pressure …to disclose the contents of a secret nuclear weapons treaty it has renegotiated with the US….the MoD said the government had not set aside any time for a [parliamentary] debate on the issue”. British MPs have found that they can be denied access to areas on mainland UK that are Sigint hubs – Menwith Hill was one such site (File on Four, BBC Radio 4, 28 January 2003).
The compact perhaps dates as far back as 1948. Another former JIC Chairman, Sir Percy Craddock notes that “arrangements [for Sigint collaboration] were formalized in a UK-US agreement of March 1946 and later in the celebrated, but still secret, UK-USA agreement of June 1948” (p. 274, Know Your Enemy – How the Joint Intelligence Committee Saw the World, John Murray, 2002). Sigint was undoubtedly part of the compact; but what other clauses does it contain?