For many years, sharing intelligence among international partners – and even those who are not partners – has been seen as essential for maintaining safety, security and peace. The phrase ‘partners and allies’ is one society is familiar with, and has been used frequently over the past few months. Good intel has been essential on countless occasions and will no doubt continue to be an important asset for nation states.

However, as the type of intel available has changed, so has the way it’s being used and shared among governments and their intelligence agencies. The sharing of this information has seldom been out of the news for one reason or another. In 2013, the explosion that was the Edward Snowden saga made headlines around the world. While the West suffered humiliation, some of its foes basked in its data revelations, embracing the damage caused. Snowden had, according to some sources, downloaded a staggering 1.5 million sensitive documents, disclosed 10,000 of these and had stolen the data during his time working as a contractor at the National Security Agency in the US, before fleeing to Asia to meet with journalists and, allegedly, other players.

Claim and counterclaim

While a lot of what Snowden had revealed wasn’t of particular surprise to seasoned professionals, there was some information that made international relations difficult, to say the least.

Allegations were made that the US spied on diplomats from the EU in New York, Washington and Brussels. In addition to claims that the UK and other European countries collaborate in mass spying exercises, it was alleged that intel agencies the world over were spying on their citizens, and those in other countries, on a mass scale. Snowden’s whistle-blowing also revealed the true nature of intel sharing, the structure such operations take and the ‘you scratch our back’ approach that intelligence officials were taking.

Although shocking to individual citizens, it wasn’t a surprise that it goes on. The problem came in the form of highlighting how many deals were in place across a gaggle of countries and supposed partners. The issue of damage limitations quickly reared its head, while governments acted fast to push back the ‘diplomatic tsunami’ the accusations looked set to cause.

This came just a few years after Wikileaks published documents classified by the US on Afghanistan and Iraq. In a review of James Igoe Walsh’s The International Politics of Intelligence Sharing, JD Webb – the pseudonym for a CIA analyst – asked, “Might our partners think we are untrustworthy and will some of them scale back sharing?” He went on to say the author, a professor of political science at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, saw intelligence as a commodity and those using it were either buyers or sellers.

In an extensive review of the book, Webb concluded, “The focus on interests and how to maximise shared ones, rather than mutual trust, is a key idea to keep in mind… I suspect our partners will want to know what we will do to better safeguard secrets in the future. Underscoring and recommitting to the shared interests that drive our intelligence relationships, however, is probably more important.”

Although these events are embarrassing and, in many cases, dangerous, they do prove that, for better or worse, sharing intel is a big part of our security mechanisms. Today, the question of intelligence sharing is – again – back in the news.

The world has changed dramatically since the Afghanistan and Iraq leaks, and the Snowden story.

The security of our citizens is far too important to start a trade-off of one and the other. Both are absolutely necessary.
– Guy Verhofstadt, European Parliament

Brexit concerns

Andrew Parker, director general and head of MI5, recently visited Germany to deliver his first address in public since the alleged Skripal poisoning in Salisbury. His choice of location was interesting and arguably significant. Heads of intelligence from agencies across Europe made up his audience at the BfV Symposium in Berlin. The venue, which sits at the heart of Europe, geographically rather than institutionally told its own story. Parker’s intention was to send an uncompromising message: we need to talk.

He tackled the pressing issue of Russia, and its growing interference around the world, both physically and in cyberspace.

Parker also warned that the continent faces a greater challenge from Islamic State (IS), and touched on the looming date for Brexit, discussing the impact it may have.

As the grinding cogs of Brexit negotiations continue to turn slowly, intelligence sharing has been a major concern. With the UK’s decision to leave the EU, questions arise as to how agencies will collaborate with the country? The answer to that question is very simple: intelligence is shared bilaterally, with Brussels having no input on when and how it is done.

However, in her letter formally triggering Article 50 – the countdown to the UK leaving the EU – delivered to European Council President Donald Tusk, Prime Minister Theresa May suggested that failure to reach an agreement during the next two years of negotiations could mean reduced cooperation on security. She was accused of ‘blackmail’ by some and using security as a ‘bargaining chip’. Within the wider backdrop of negotiations, this fell by the wayside, but the intelligence community made a note of it.

Guy Verhofstadt, who is charged with coordinating Brexit on behalf of the European Parliament said, “I tried to be a gentleman towards a lady, so I didn’t even use or think about the use of the word ‘blackmail’. I think the security of our citizens is far too important to start a tradeoff of one and the other. Both are absolutely necessary in the future partnership.” He was referring to the suggestion by May that failing to agree on trade could prevent an agreement on security too.

Although the UK’s home secretary at the time, Amber Rudd, eased the tone by which May had penned her letter, she made it clear security was a matter for discussion. “If you look at something like Europol, we are the largest contributor… So if we left Europol, then we would take our information – this is in the legislation – with us. The fact is, the European partners want us to keep our information there because we keep other European countries safe as well.”

This is a statement with foundation: the UK is respected for its intelligence across Europe, with many governments being keenly aware of the critical work undertaken by the UK’s secret services.

Sharing systems

In his speech to the BfV Symposium, Parker worked to ease tensions surrounding Brexit. He spoke of the avenues Europe and the UK can, and already use, such as the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG). “Our multilateral operational collaboration is also increasingly critical to operational success, particularly through the CTG, which is made up of 30 European domestic security services,” he said. “This is the largest multinational CT intelligence enterprise in the world, with thousands of exchanges on advanced secure networks every week.”

Instead of being a “frosty gathering of strangers” outlining national positions, the CTG comprises “intelligence officers from 30 countries” working as a “joint operational platform” to share real-time intelligence, tactics and resources. “It looks like professionals from all across Europe, who know and trust each other, working together and sharing data on shared systems about terrorist fighters dispersing from Syria,” he said. “It looks like developing new ways to run and deconflict human intelligence operations together. It looks like attacks thwarted and terrorists arrested who could not otherwise have been found in time by any one nation alone.”

Parker went on to say that because of the bilateral nature of intel sharing, the issue of Brexit and cooperation on matters of security was not a concern. “The UK is, of course, leaving the EU and our relationship with the EU must change as a result,” he said. But the UK government and May have already shown their intent to “sustain this mutually beneficial cooperation and develop a UK-EU treaty on internal security, building on our unique history of partnership”, according to Parker.

Powerful partnerships are critical to facing down these threats and to keeping us all safe.
Andrew Parker, MI5

Facing the threat

In his speech, Parker outlined what he believes to be the threats facing Europe today. IS was at the forefront of his thinking, as was the Russian Government. He said while there was much respect for Russia and its people, its government was a “chief protagonist” in attempts to destabilise the international rules-based system that underpins stability, security and prosperity. It isn’t just a case of “spies spying on spies”, it was “deliberate and targeted malign activity intended to undermine our free, open and democratic societies”. Parker added that respecting Russia and its citizens “must not stop us from calling out and pushing back on the Kremlin’s flagrant breaches of international rules”.

In regard to terrorism, he said Europe was facing an unrelenting, international threat. “I describe the terrorist threat as three-dimensional, because plots germinate at home, abroad and online,” Parker explained. “Online, Daesh (IS) pumps out its vile propaganda and practical instruction. Daesh’s twisted ideology continues to influence vulnerable and violent individuals across Europe and beyond to use crude, but deadly, methods to kill.”

It’s clear that Europe, like much of the rest of the world, is facing an evolving set of security challenges. Cooperation and intelligence sharing is arguably one of the most effective weapons democracies have in their arsenal, but people often hear of their failures.

Parker concluded, “Powerful partnerships are critical to facing down these threats and to keeping us all safe. I hope that I’ve given you a flavour of what these partnerships look like today, but also why we need to keep building and strengthening them. I’ve said that I’m optimistic about the future. And that is true. But I don’t underestimate the challenge. It requires sustained collective investment of effort, grit and political will.”