Lee Ruddin: The Anglo-American (Intelligence-Sharing) Relationship in the War Against Islamist Terrorism

Roundup: Media's Take

Lee Ruddin is Roundup Editor at HNN. He lives in England.

Anglo-American relations are, not for the first time during the Obama presidency, strained: reports of aides to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticising David Cameron’s recent White House ‘love-in’ with Barack Obama can be brushed off as election talk; news that neither President Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has backed the self-determination of the Falkland Islanders is less easily so.

The Foreign Office did not take too kindly to the State Department coming out in support of direct negotiations between Great Britain and Argentina over the sovereignty of the Falklands and yet, three years on, Obama continues to ‘remain neutral’ in the dispute between London and Buenos Aires and a relative ignoramus when it comes to events 30 years ago and the liberation of British folk from Argentine occupation.

Talk of the commander in chief’s nonaligned stance being an ‘act of cowardice … in the face of Latin American [belligerence], and another slap in the face’ for her indispensable ally may appear hyperbole to some. Yet the question remains: why cannot Obama support the right of 3,000 British Falkland Islanders to live under the protection of the Union Jack? Let us not forget, Britain has lost some 414 souls (as of 14 May 2012) on the battlefields of Afghanistan and stands shoulder to shoulder with her transatlantic cousin in the wider war against Islamist terrorism.

Talking of the wider war against Islamist terrorism, the unauthorised disclosure of confidential information pertaining to the British double agent (and his role in the foiled underwear bomb plot coming out of Yemen) by unnamed U.S. officials has caused anger on the banks of the River Thames. “MI6 should be as angry as hell,” Michael Scheuer, the former Head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, said, and “is something that the prime minister should raise with the president.” Robert Grenier, former Head of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Centre, went further, noting that British intelligence “are often exasperated … with their American friends, who are far more leak-prone than they.” Similar thinking was uttered across the pond, with Nigel Inskter – former Assistant Chief of MI6 – posting on Twitter that “the revelations about the British agent in AQ [al Qaeda] remind us that Beltway leaking is a major security threat.”

With the serious breach of secrecy surrounding joint operations between MI6 and the CIA, officials in Whitehall and Washington must have breathed a sigh of relief recently after producers omitted to include the operational fallout between the Special Boat Service (SBS) and Delta Force in the ITV programme, The Hunt for Bin Laden.  

Students of the war in Afghanistan are acutely aware of the Pentagon’s failure to put “boots on the ground” in late 2001. The story goes that had Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reinforced Delta Force with the Tenth Mountain Division, Osama would not have been able to escape from the Tora Bora mountain complex and into the Pakistani tribal regions. What many are not cognisant of, however, is the fact that the Rumsfeldian doctrine of war – which comprised a large use of air power with a small use of ground forces – incensed the SBS who, as Jonathan Randal, author of Osama:The Making of a Terrorist, writes, ‘were convinced they had located [bin Laden] and wanted to trap or kill him, but were not told not to.’ It is worth quoting at length what the former Middle East correspondent for the Washington Post reports on this matter:

‘If no American ground troops were to be committed, the generals in overall charge didn’t want the British involved either. “Within weeks high-ranking British officers were saying privately that American commanders had vetoed a proposal to guard the high-altitude trails, arguing that the risks of a firefight in deep snow, gusty winds and low-slung clouds were too high.” Clearly, the British were intimating that those were risks their men weighed and were ready to assume. That version gave birth to another. The British force was “eager to move in,” but the American high command didn’t want the embarrassment of having even its closest ally “claim the war’s great prize.”’ (p.256)

Consumed by the (domestic) turfs war between the FBI and CIA, documentary-makers also overlook the (foreign) battles between American and British agencies and, specifically, the former’s withholding information about a “Mumbai-style” terrorist plot in the latter’s mainland out of fear that top-secret sources would be exposed in its courts. The breakdown in the intelligence-sharing relationship, for those previously unaware, came in the wake of the case concerning Binyam Mohamed (a former Guantánamo Bay detainee) which saw U.S. intelligence released and, in turn, Her Majesty’s Government forced to pay millions in compensation.

The fallout from events of recent years evidently plays on the mind of transatlantic spy chiefs (not that viewers of the 90-minute film would know) since the CIA is rumoured to have since refused a full read-out of the intelligence “cache” seized during the early hours’ raid on bin Laden’s compound. A senior British security source told the Daily Telegraph that “The urgent threat-to-life operation material is still coming, as it should. But we see strong signs of a greater reluctance to share some of the other stuff – the building blocks, the bits that let you put the jigsaw together.”

To those with a deep interest in the Anglo-American relationship, the aforementioned makes for hard reading, especially in the wake of last week’s scathing report – Anchoring the Alliance – by the Atlantic Council think tank. Published just days ahead of a crucial NATO meeting in Chicago, the author’s conclude that cuts in the British military budget threaten the “special relationship” with the U.S. Granted, the economic impact of the Coalition government’s austerity program looks ‘worrisome,’ but Islamist terrorists have far more to worry about.

I say this since, from reading between the lines, it was British intelligence that led SEAL Team Six to Abbottabad. Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt:The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad, but reporting for CNN, says that the ‘first really big break in finding “the Kuwaiti” came in 2007 when another intelligence service provided the CIA with the … real name [of bin Laden’s courier].’ I believe the ‘intelligence service’, in this instance, to be MI6 after AQ leader Hassan Ghul was held in Pakistan and befriended British national Rangzieb Ahmed who, after testifying about his time in the adjacent cell, was the first member of AQ to be convicted of directing terrorism in the UK. The fact that legal proceedings have now been initiated by human rights groups against civilian staff at the Government Communications Head Quarters for allegedly assisting U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan with “locational intelligence” only supports my claim of Anglo-American cooperation and should help allay authors’ fear of a ‘risk’ to the ‘operational nature of the “special relationship”’. (p.6) 

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