Finally, the UKUSA Intelligence Agreement

Posted: January 17, 2011 in Canada, History, Intelligence and Covert Operations, United Kingdom, United States
Tags: , , ,

The longest-lived and most important international intelligence cooperation treaty is the UKUSA COMINT Agreement. Signed just after the Second World War, this agreement created a wide-open sharing arrangement between Britain and the United States, with secondary membership provided to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, in the area of signals intelligence. The National Security Agency (U.S.) is unquestionably the senior partner, but it and the Government Communications Headquarters (UK), Communications Security Establishment (Canada), Defence Signals Directorate (Australia), and Government Communications Security Bureau (New Zealand) basically grew up together.

What I didn’t expect, last year, was the decision by the British and American governments to finally open up the text of this agreement (mostly).

Throughout the Cold War (and for a long time after), the text of this agreement was not released or even officially acknowledged, despite the fact that it was arguably one of the important Western treaties after NATO itself. This didn’t stop substantial information about the treaty from leaking during the 1970s. Two important historians even wrote an entire book about the affair, called The Ties That Bind, back in the 1980s. Obviously Jeffrey Richelson’s and Desmond Ball’s work is now somewhat out of date.

The National Security Agency’s UKUSA Agreement Declassification Initiative now makes available a range of agreements and memoranda from the 1940s and early 1950s, but the most important unquestionably is the first-ever public, albeit redacted, UKUSA COMINT Agreement and Appendices Thereto. The agreement provided that the exchange of raw and decrypted signals, and that

such exchange will be unrestricted on all work undertaken except when specifically excluded from the agreement at the request of either party and with the agreement of the other… It is agreed… that an informal and flexible allocation of tasks… [is] possible and desirable… The two parties agree that this informal allocation can be extended by a firm division of “main responsibility” for coverage of certain specific tasks.

Unfortunately, the agreement did contain a list of specified targets, which has been fully redacted. Reading it, one can also see the British-American power struggle over who would control intelligence with the other Allies. The agreement specifically gives London the power to control what America shares with Australia and New Zealand, but authorizes Canada to deal directly with Washington.

The agreement makes things sound pretty fair and equitable. On this point all subsequent published material, unverified and dubious in the details, is undoubtedly correct in the general point that it is the Americans who actually call most of the shots. They have more money, more intelligence, and thus more influence. The description of the Canadian and New Zealand intelligence systems by “Mike Frost” and Nicky Hager, respectively, strongly suggests these two countries’ SIGINT organizations have at some times operated virtually as foreign adjunct branch plants of the NSA.

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