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Essay: Brexit & Our Security

Daniel Berehulak
Getty Images
The MI6 headquarters (also known as Britain's Secret Intelligence Service) are seen on the River Thames in London, England.

At a summit in Brussels this past week, European Union leaders have agreed to put off the day of Brexit - the date when Britain officially leaves the EU. The extra time will allow the British parliament to either approve Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement or ‘indicate a way forward’.

This turns of events has Lake Effect’s Foreign Policy contributor and essayist Art Cyr thinking about the relationship between US and British intelligence services and how Brexit might affect it:

“Here is a book you should have, Mr. Director.” With that, Jacqueline Kennedy handed CIA director Allen Dulles a copy of From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming, the latest novel in the series featuring lethal British agent James Bond.

Their 1957 encounter in Palm Beach, Florida, reflects the continuing close cooperation between government professionals in Britain and the United States. The term “Special Relationship” aptly describes the understanding.

Our partnership began during the darkest early period of World War II, and is rooted in national intelligence operations. This bears directly on the current effort by Britain’s government to withdraw from the European Union (EU), known as “Brexit.”

Peter Gross recounts the conversation between Jacqueline Kennedy and Allen Dulles in his important book Gentleman Spy, a comprehensive biography of Dulles, who was a world-class networker. That skill was important to his rise to the top of the highly competitive world of intelligence. Mrs. Kennedy’s husband had emerged as a serious contender for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination.

President John F. Kennedy’s fondness for Bond novels sparked the durable movie franchise. The Hollywood Bond’s fetish for high-tech equipment, however, contrasts with the Bond of Fleming’s novels. Intelligence.

Earlier, British intelligence work was crucial in persuading the United States government to intervene in World War I. British agents intercepted the so-called “Zimmerman Note,” a German government cable describing plans to develop alliance with Mexico, and London shared the alarming document with Washington. That, plus German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare against Allied shipping, tipped the balance in favor of the U.S. declaration of war.

During agent Fleming’s World War II service in New York, he described for Bill Donovan, head of embryonic U.S. intelligence, the sort of personality to direct a new operations office in that city. Dulles, who fit Fleming’s profile perfectly, was hired.

Dulles later managed operations in Switzerland, a neutral meeting ground for agents of the Allies and Axis. A vast cast of characters in between encompassed fanatics, fools, fraudsters, dedicated patriots, geniuses and skilled operatives. Electronic surveillance existed, but the working environment and challenges were overwhelmingly human.

The ugly as well as complex nature of human intelligence operations naturally encourages the alternative of using electronic information gathering and surveillance. American fondness for and skill at technology has led us to embrace this approach, during but especially following World War II. The British are relatively more committed to the use of human agents and means.

An important but under discussed dimension of Brexit is the impact on defense and security cooperation in Europe. Jonathan Evans and John Sawers, former heads, respectively, of MI5 and MI6, Britain’s intelligence agencies, have stated loss of shared data and general collaboration argue against Brexit.

Pauline Neville-Jones, a former national security adviser, warned Brexit could weaken police cooperation and border security, perhaps encouraging renewed Northern Ireland violence. Even Theresa May, before becoming prime minister, noted the EU facilitates such collaboration.

Beyond NATO, there is the important “Five Eyes” intelligence network, which includes Australia, Canada and New Zealand along with the United Kingdom and the United States. In the future, this partnership could be strengthened, and perhaps made more formal.

If Britain actually leaves Europe, the U.S. should pursue new bilateral intelligence collaboration efforts. Ideally, our strong bias toward technological means would shift.

Arthur I. Cyr is Director of the Clausen Center for World Business and Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha. Previously he was President of the Chicago World Trade Center, the Vice President of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, a faculty member and executive at UCLA, and an executive at the Ford Foundation. His publications include the book After the Cold War - American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia (Macmillan and NYU Press).