Not so secret: deal at the heart of UK-US intelligence
• 1946 agreement tied allies into spying network
• Freedom of information requests bring publication
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* Richard Norton-Taylor
* The Guardian, Friday 25 June 2010
* Article history
The GCHQ building in Cheltenham The GCHQ building in Cheltenham. The organisation did not officially exist until 1982. Photograph: David Goddard/Getty Images
The terms of a secret agreement that became the core of the special relationship between Britain and the US are released today more than 60 years after the deal was signed by senior military officials.
A six-page "British-US Communication Intelligence Agreement", known as BRUSA, later UKUSA, tied the two countries into a worldwide network of listening posts run by GCHQ, Britain's biggest spying organisation, and its US equivalent, the National Security Agency.
Though its existence has long been known, the agreement, negotiated in London in March 1946, is only now being published, and for the first time officially acknowledged, after freedom of information requests in Britain and the US. Under the agreement, the countries agreed to exchange the knowledge from operations involving intercepting, decoding and translating foreign communications, including the "acquisition of communication documents and equipment". In a passage which ensured that GCHQ's activities remained wrapped in official secrecy, the agreement states: "It will be contrary to this agreement to reveal its existence to any third party whatever."
Documents released – and available from today, and free for a month, at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ukusa – include amendments and annexes to the agreement. One, dated 1948, states: "The value of Communication Intelligence in war and peace cannot be over-estimated; conservation of the source is of special importance." It adds: "The time limit for the safeguarding of Communication Intelligence never expires."
The documents emphasise the importance of individuals with access to this information – now know as "sigint", short for signals intelligence – to be indoctrinated about its sensitivity and the need for it to be protected. No one who knew about these intelligence gathering methods "shall be committed to a hazardous undertaking which might subject him to capture by the enemy or third party", one document says.
GCHQ's cover was blown by Time Out in 1976, but it was only officially "avowed" in 1982 when Geoffrey Prime, a former linguist at GCHQ, was jailed for 38 years for passing secrets to the Russians over a 14-year period. He was released in 2001.
Many documents have been weeded out of the GCHQ files to be released today. They include an appendix on the "designation of intercept targets" and another on "collaboration in the field". Also missing is a document titled: "Arrangements for emergency location of Comint (Communication Intelligence) units".
A GCHQ spokesman said last night: "The 1946 UKUSA agreement formed the basis for co-operation between the two countries throughout the cold war and continues to be essential in keeping the UK safe from today's threats."
Ed Hampshire, a senior records specialist at the National Archives, said: "The agreement represented a crucial moment in the development of the 'special relationship' between the two wartime allies and captured the spirit and practice of the signals intelligence co-operation which had evolved on an ad-hoc basis during the second world war."
He added: "As the threat posed by Nazi Germany was replaced by a new one in the east, the agreement formed the basis for intelligence co-operation during the cold war. The two nations – linked by common bonds of history, culture and language – agreed not to collect intelligence against each other or to tell any 'third party' about the existence of the agreement."
The UKUSA agreement was later extended to include Canada in 1948, and Australia and New Zealand in 1956. According to the intelligence historian, Richard Aldrich, the British tried to use the Commonwealth as an "equalizer", summoning the Canadians and the Australians to a London signals intelligence summit before meeting the Americans, Shortly afterwards, Stewart Menzies, the head of MI6, met an American team led by Joseph Wenger at Bryanston Square in London to work on a bilateral deal. "When negotiations became sticky, Menzies whisked everyone off to White's Club for a bibulous lunch and – suitably refreshed – they resolved their differences", says Aldrich.
The agreement was signed on 5 March 1946 by Colonel Patrick Marr-Johnson on behalf of the UK's London Signals Intelligence Board and Lieutenant General Hoyt Vandenberg for the US State-Army-Navy Communication Intelligence Board.
The US was reluctant to include Commonwealth countries as equals and on occasions blocked intelligence sharing with them. The 1946 agreement states the exchange of intelligence would not be "prejudicial to national interests".
But, despite occasional rows, the eavesdropping network, sometimes referred to as Echelon, has expanded. Norway joined in 1952, Denmark in 1954, and Germany in 1955. Italy, Turkey, the Philippines and Ireland are also members. Documents released today contain thousands of intercepts from the Soviet Union but stop at 1949, as does the first official history of MI6, to be published in the autumn. Though GCHQ employs about 5,500 staff, significantly more than MI5 or MI6, its budget also remains a secret.
Then sensitivity surrounding GCHQ operations is further reflected in its strong opposition to the product of intercepts being used as evidence in court trials, a ban which critics say would obviate the need for control orders and secret hearings but one which GCHQ argues is needed to protect the capabilities of its technology.
GCHQ, the government's communications headquarters, is based in Cheltenham and grew out of wartime Bletchley Park where mathematicians, scientists and linguists broke the German Enigma codes.
Snippets of life under Stalin in GCHQ files
The GCHQ files reveal examples of repression, censorship, industrial and agricultural upheaval - and plans for Stalin's 70th birthday.
• In 1948, farm workers resettled in Kamchatka appealed to Vyacheslav Molotov, the deputy prime minister. "For four years we have somehow failed to receive accommodation, cattle, seeds, and fodder."
• Patriarch Alexis, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, told the bishop of Tashkent in December 1949: "The Holy Synod has approved the text of the congratulatory address to be presented to Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin on the occasion of his 70th birthday."
• In 1949, "pseudo folksongs" were banned by Dalstroi, the Gulag mining camps in Kolyma. GCHQ's intercept remarks: "Most of these songs were popular in pre-revolutionary days."