The Real Special Relationship: The True Story of How the British and US Secret Services Work Together by Michael Smith

In August 1973 Anglo-American relations were plunged into one of their periodic crises, when the US national security adviser Henry Kissinger lost his temper with the prime minister Edward Heath. The European newlywed Heath, having just secured British membership of the EEC, insisted on consulting his partners about delicate transatlantic issues.

Kissinger, observing that the Brits were “behaving shitty”, said it was time to “shoot one across the bow to them brutally now”. He decreed that the CIA and other intelligence agencies should halt cooperation with their UK counterparts. Bill Bonsall, newly appointed GCHQ director and the last wartime Bletchley Park veteran to hold the post, flew to Washington amid panic in London.

Yet on his arrival he was immediately reassured by American chiefs. They had decided, they told him, that the UK-USA intelligence collaboration was a contractual agreement that could not legally be broken. This was not, in truth, the case, but it suited all parties to assert that it was. The remarkably frank daily exchange of information between the British and American agencies continued uninterrupted after Kissinger regained his mislaid temper, and does so to this day.

Michael Smith, a respected historian of spookery who himself served in army intelligence before becoming a journalist, here offers an insider’s view of the transatlantic partnership. I am a skeptic about the dreaded words “special relationship”: seldom has the US done Britain any favors, unless — as is happily quite often the case — our national interests coincide.

Yet the author is absolutely right that intelligence collaboration, also now extended to Canada, Australia and New Zealand through the Five Eyes agreement, is important, effective and highly valued in Washington as well as London. Even when much else is fractious between the capitals, the spooks keep talking.

Kissinger, observing that the Brits were “behaving shitty”, said it was time to “shoot one across the bow to them brutally now.”

The partnership began in melodramatic circumstances. Just before midnight on February 8, 1941, a delegation of four Americans headed by Brigadier General George Strong, chief of the US army’s war plans division, arrived at Bletchley Park. Churchill, desperate for US aid, had ordered that even though Roosevelt’s nation was still stubbornly neutral, the visitors should be told everything — yes, everything — about Britain’s most precious secret.

The Americans were awed by the British codebreaking achievement but they, in their turn, had not come empty-handed. They gave their hosts an example of the machine with which they had been reading the Japanese Purple cipher, which among much else offered access to the dispatches of General Hiroshi Oshima, Tokyo’s ambassador in Berlin, who unknowingly became the Allies’ most valued agent.

Cooperation thereafter worked astonishingly well, although it was always more difficult with the US Navy, whose chief, Admiral Ernest King, was an Anglophobe. After 1945, as the Cold War got under way, the relationship became even closer, although it was interrupted by breaches of security caused by traitors on both sides of the Atlantic, above all Kim Philby.

The British, on the whole with good reason, thought themselves better at human intelligence and fieldcraft — recruiting and running agents — while the Americans could surpass the British at anything involving machines, especially in the early years of computers.

The two sides’ spies worked closely together on such grand successes as the Berlin tunnel, intercepting Soviet communications in the East, and the entirely deplorable 1953 Tehran coup, to undo and murder Iran’s prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq, then pillage his nation’s oil enterprises.

I am a skeptic about the dreaded words “special relationship”: seldom has the US done Britain any favors.

This is a thoroughly responsible, unsensational account of the interservice relationship, which eschews harsh judgments about personalities — a foreword is contributed by the former MI6 chief John Scarlett, whose reputation was forever blasted, in the eyes of some, by his complicity with Alastair Campbell in compiling the dossier on Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Smith confers deserved praise on the contributions of such Soviet-era informants as Oleg Penkovsky and Oleg Gordievsky, both run chiefly by the British, although their “product” was shared with the CIA. I am wary about his assertion that in 1962 MI6 officers were briefed much ahead of time about covert US knowledge of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. To be sure they were given a general sense of US alarm, but I do not believe they were given detail. Ray Cline, the CIA’s deputy director of intelligence, later talked almost pityingly about the agency’s conversations that week with MI6 chiefs, who assured the Americans that the Soviet army would never place offensive weapons in Cuba.

In any such work as this, it is also useful to balance accounts of the wonderful wheezes spies contrived with analysis of how little or how much these changed events. To understand intelligence organizations, we should consider the falsehoods they submit to their political masters alongside the accurate information.

Some practitioners are very smart and dedicated people. But the trade also attracts a substantial quota of charlatans and fantasists, together with a few traitors. Smith’s book is admirable as far as it goes, but he confers on spooks both past and present more deference than I would concede to them.

As for Anglo-American relationships, British spooks and politicians would get on better with our allies if we were more honest with ourselves about how little Britain matters to most US decision-makers, especially now that we have quit the EU. Many actively dislike us.

Smith justly applauds the Western intelligence warnings about the threat presented to the West by Vladimir Putin before his invasion of Ukraine. But our understanding of the internal machinations of the Kremlin is no better today than it was at the time of the 1962 missile crisis. Moreover only wise politicians can make good use of good intelligence, and there are not many about.

Sir Max Hastings is the author of several works of history, a columnist for The Times of London, and a former editor for The Telegraph