America’s Intelligence Empire

I’ve been reading Empire of Secrets, a book about the role of MI5 as the British spun off their empire. It describes how, in country after country, the government that took over from the British — even including people who had been surveilled and jailed by the British regime — retained the British intelligence apparatus and crafted a strong intelligence sharing relationship with their former colonizers. As an example, it describes how Indian Interior Minister, Sardr Patel, decided to keep the Intelligence Bureau rather than shut it down.

Like Nehru, Patel realised that the IB had probably compiled records on himself and most of the leaders of Congress. However, unlike Nehru, he did not allow this to colour his judgment about the crucial role that intelligence would play for the young Indian nation.


Patel not only allowed the continued existence of the IB, but amazingly, also sanctioned the continued surveillance of extremist elements within this own Congress Party. As Smith’s report of the meeting reveals, Patel was adamant that the IB should ‘discontinue the collection of intelligence on orthodox Congress and Muslim League activity’, but at the same time he authorised it to continue observing ‘extremist organisations’. Patel was particularly concerned about the Congress Socialist Party, many of whose members were communist sympathisers.


The reason Patel was so amenable to continued surveillance of some of his fellow Indian politicians (keeping tabs on his own supporters, as one IPI report put it) was his fear of communism.

And the same remarkable process, by which the colonized enthusiastically partnered with their former colonizers to spy on their own, happened in similar fashion in most of Britain’s former colonies.

That’s what I was thinking of on March 13, when John Brennan gave a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. While it started by invoking an attack in Copenhagen and Charlie Hebdo, a huge chunk of the speech talked about the value of partnering with our intelligence allies.

Last month an extremist gunned down a film director at a cafe in Copenhagen, made his way across town and then shot and killed a security guard at a synagogue. Later the same day the terrorist group ISIL released a video showing the horrific execution of Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya.

The previous month, in a span of less than 24 hours, we saw a savage attack on the staff of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in France. We saw a car bomb kill dozens at a police academy in Yemen.


As CIA tackles these challenges, we benefit greatly from the network of relationships we maintain with intelligence services throughout the world. This is a critically important and lesser known aspect of our efforts. I cannot overstate the value of these relationships to CIA’s mission and to our national security. Indeed, to the collective security of America and its allies.

By sharing intelligence, analysis, and know-how with these partner services, we open windows on regions and issues that might otherwise be closed to us. And when necessary, we set in concert to mitigate a common threat.

By collaborating with our partners we are much better able to close key intelligence gaps on our toughest targets, as well as fulfill CIA’s mission to provide global coverage and prevent surprises for our nation’s leaders. There is no way we could be successful in carrying out our mission of such scope and complexity on our own.

Naturally these are sensitive relationships built on mutual trust and confidentiality. Unauthorized disclosures in recent years by individuals who betrayed our country have created difficulties with these partner services that we have had to overcome.

But it is a testament to the strength and effectiveness of these relationships that our partners remain eager to work with us. With the stakes so high for our people’s safety, these alliances are simply too crucial to be allowed to fail.

From the largest services with global reach to those of smaller nations focused on local and regional issues, CIA has developed a range of working and productive relationships with our counterparts overseas. No issue highlights the importance of our international partnerships more right now than the challenge of foreign fighters entering and leaving the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

We roughly estimate that at least 20,000 fighters from more than 90 countries have gone to fight, several thousand of them from Western nations, including the United States. One thing that dangers these fighters pose upon their return is a top priority for the United States intelligence community, as well as our liaison partners.

We exchange information with our counterparts around the world to identify and track down men and women believed to be violent extremists. And because we have the wherewithal to maintain ties with so many national services, we act as a central repository of data and trends to advance the overall effort.

On this and in innumerable other challenges, our cooperation with foreign liaison quietly achieves significant results. Working together, we have disrupted terrorist attacks and rolled back groups that plot them, intercepted transfers of dangerous weapons and technology, brought international criminals to justice and shared vital intelligence and expertise on everything from the use of chemical armaments in Syria to the downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine.

These relationships are an essential adjunct to diplomacy. And by working with some of these services in building their capabilities we have helped them become better prepared to tackled the challenges that threaten us all.


With CIA’s support, I have seen counterparts develop into sophisticated and effective partners. Over time our engagement with partner services fosters a deeper, more candid give and take, a more robust exchange of information and assessments, and a better understanding of the world that often ultimately encourages better alignment on policy.

Another advantage of building and maintaining strong bilateral and multilateral intelligence relationships is that they can remain, albeit not entirely, insulated from the ups and downs of diplomatic ties. These lengths can provide an important conduit for a dispassionate dialogue during periods of tension, and for conveying the U.S. perspective on contentious issues.

In recognition of the importance of our liaison relationships, I recently reestablished a senior position at the CIA dedicated to ensuring that we are managing relationships in an integrated fashion. To developing a strategic vision and corporate goals for our key partnerships and to helping me carryout my statutory responsibility to coordinate the intelligence communities’ foreign intelligence relationships. [my emphasis]

We are and still remain in the same position as MI5, Brennan seems to want to assure the CFR types, in spite of the embarrassment experienced by our intelligence partners due to leaks by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Information sharing remains the cement of much of our relationships with allies; our ability to let them suck off our dragnet keeps them in line.

And of particular note, Brennan described these “strong bilateral and multilateral intelligence relationships …remain[ing], albeit not entirely, insulated from the ups and downs of diplomatic ties.”

The spooks keep working together regardless of what the political appointees do, Brennan suggested.

But that speech is all the more notable given the revelations in this Der Spiegel story. It describes how, because of the Snowden leaks, the Germans slowly started responding to something they had originally discovered in 2008. The US had been having BND spy on selectors well outside the Memorandum of Understanding governing the countries’ intelligence sharing, even including economic targets. At first, BND thought this was just 2,000 targets, but as the investigation grew more pointed, 40,000 suspicious selectors were found. Only on March 12 — the day before Brennan gave this remarkable speech — did Merkel’s office officially find out.

But in October 2013, not even the BND leadership was apparently informed of the violations that had been made. The Chancellery, which is charged with monitoring the BND, was also left in the dark. Instead, the agents turned to the Americans and asked them to cease and desist.

In spring 2014, the NSA investigative committee in German parliament, the Bundestag, began its work. When reports emerged that EADS and Eurocopter had been surveillance targets, the Left Party and the Greens filed an official request to obtain evidence of the violations.

At the BND, the project group charged with supporting the parliamentary investigative committee once again looked at the NSA selectors. In the end, they discovered fully 40,000 suspicious search parameters, including espionage targets in Western European governments and numerous companies. It was this number that SPIEGEL ONLINE reported on Thursday. The BND project group was also able to confirm suspicions that the NSA had systematically violated German interests. They concluded that the Americans could have perpetrated economic espionage directly under the Germans’ noses.

Only on March 12 of this year did the information end up in the Chancellery.

This has led to parliamentary accusations that BND lied in earlier testimony. The lies are notable, given how they echo the same kind of sentiment John Brennan expressed in his speech.

According to a classified memo, the agency told parliamentarians in 2013 that the cooperation with the US in Bad Aibling was consistent with the law and with the strict guidelines that had been established.

The memo notes: “The value for the BND (lies) in know-how benefits and in a closer partnership with the NSA relative to other partners.” The data provided by the US, the memo continued, “is checked for its conformance with the agreed guidelines before it is inputted” into the BND system.

Now, we know better. It remains to be determined whether the BND really was unaware at the time, or whether it simply did not want to be aware.

The NSA investigative committee has also questioned former and active BND agents regarding “selectors” and “search criteria” on several occasions. Prior to the beginning of each session, the agents were informed that providing false testimony to the body was unlawful. The BND agents repeatedly insisted that the selectors provided by the US were precisely checked.

As almost a snide aside, Der Spiegel notes that in spite of these lies, the public prosecutor has not yet been informed of these lies.

That is, the spooks have been lying — at least purportedly including up to and including Merkel’s office. But the government seems to be uninterested in pursuing those lies.

As Brennan said as this was just breaking out, the spooks retain their “strong bilateral and multilateral intelligence relationships …remain[ing], albeit not entirely, insulated from the ups and downs of diplomatic ties.”

And as with Brennan — who, as Gregory Johnsen chronicles in this long profile of the CIA Director published yesterday — the spooks always evade accountability.

21 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Nice piece, a precis, in fact, of the post-1945 world.

    Colonial occupiers, not just the Brits (although they did have the largest empire of which to divest themselves), desperately try to leave behind “reliable” governments when they formally leave. There are too many secrets, too many repressive institutions, too much evidence of criminal acts to allow them to fall into the wrong hands. That’s true even when the occupiers supposedly left decades earlier, or occupy by arrangement rather than by overt armed force (Whitlam, 1975; Moro, 1978; Sukarno, 1965-67).

    Occupiers try to leave in name only, retaining ministry heads, control of trade and finance or intelligence, and hence, foreign policy. Having a good man to leave behind is a prerequisite to leaving. Pity Ahmed Chalabi’s backers weren’t as effective as Shah Pahlavi’s in 1953. The deal for the latter gave the US half the oil that was then going to the Brits.

    Colonialists would also find it inconvenient to start paying market prices for all that hardwood, rubber, gold, diamonds, bananas, oil or Coltran. That’s one reason the West acted so precipitously when the newly independent Congo’s leadership threatened to be, well, independent and to put the interests of Congolese above that of outsiders. If the Belgians hadn’t murdered Lumumba first, Eisenhower and Dulles had already authorized the CIA to show him the same door.

    In a world defined by game theory, permitting a former colony to control sufficient resources to act independently would create a competitor or leave a board piece that could be taken by an opponent. That’s like an American manufacturing plant manager voluntarily allowing a union to form in his plant, a distinctly career limiting move.

    These days, we seem to prefer creating persistently failing states to more subtle means of dominance such as outright occupation or control through arrangement. It seems to justify the overt use of violence, but under a humanitarian guise. It leaves the private sector and its private military associates free to get on with the business of extracting the resources that, if controlled locally, might allow for the creation of a stable polity.

    The interests of local inhabitants, be they Congolese, Iranian, Iraqi, Guatemalan, Chilean, Algerian? They can be disposed of with a little trade and development aid, a lot of misappropriated foreign debt, a little more PR from Hill+Knowlton, or a few drones.

    • P J Evans says:

      nitpicking a little: the Shah was named Mohammed Reza Pahlavi; ‘shah’ is a title, not a name. It’s as if you referred to ‘Queen Mountbatten-Windsor’.

    • bloopie2 says:

      All this is correct, and it also sounds like human nature through all of time. Not going to change. And my question is, is the information sharing per se bad, or is it the lack of accountability for the spooks that is bad?

  2. bloopie2 says:

    “Information sharing remains the cement of much of our relationships with allies; our ability to let them suck off our dragnet keeps them in line.”
    Well, they do say that communication is key to a strong relationship – e.g., marriage. And in many such relationships, there will be a stronger partner and a weaker partner – or at least one of them will feel that way. A stays with B because of the money. Or B stays with A because B wants to be with the kids and the kids like A best. So, it’s perhaps for a different reason in this case, but there does need to be Some reason for maintaining a relationship – why not this reason? After all, they also say (there’s that famous ‘they’ again) that knowledge is power.

  3. rapier says:

    Spook act outside of democratic governance and some combination of awe, respect, fear and pick some other word, deferred to them. I use the past tense because at some point politicians discovered that they could not govern without the consent of the spooks.

    The way this plays out is that no politician in the West seeking a top position has the slightest intent to challenging the spooks. Any politician who does is not considered ‘serious’ and you know what that ironc quote means I hope. In America anyway with its Presidential system even if some politician did choose the road of skepticism or worse of the spooks and by some miracle won power they would find that filling the bureaucracy would be impossible. There is nobody within two degrees of policy power in the Beltway who would follow.

    The same applies to financial/banking power by the way. There is no way to govern without their consent. .

    We are seeing this being played out in tinyGreece currently since because of the dire economic circumstances my rules were broken and a true anti establishment party, Syriza, came to power. Mark my words soon enough they will be gone. The EU wants their heads and PM Tsipras and Finance Minister Varoufakis are despised by them. One way or another they will be gone by years end probably. Don’t forget Greek generals took over in a coup in 1967. As the war with Russia gets hotter and since Syriza is already painted as a Russian ally the probable cause is ready.

    • Don Bacon says:

      Yes, when some pol hints about reigning in the spooks, he’s invited up to the dark room on the thirteenth floor and made to watch the Dealey Plaza video.

  4. Don Bacon says:

    “The tragedy of modern war is not so much that the young men die but that they die fighting each other–instead of their real enemies back home in the capitals.” — Edward Abbey

  5. TarheelDem says:

    The doctrine of state secrecy that appeared during the Truman administration has finally corrupted government absolutely. Without real power over war and peace, Congress has become a freak show. Tom Cotton can preen, knowing that what he does will not matter as to whether there is or is not an agreement with Iran, a war in Ukraine, or any other national security decision.

    And the colonies will not rebel because the corrupt elites there benefit from the special information they receive even if the economic espionage destroys their economies. What we seem to be seeing is that either Merkel is in on the information or is not part of the German elite. It may be that some folks in the US intelligence community can never trust anyone born behind the Iron Curtain. Institutional culture dies hard.

  6. Rich says:

    Emptywheel wrote, “And the same remarkable process, by which the colonized enthusiastically partnered with their former colonizers to spy on their own, happened in similar fashion in most of….”.
    when you write “enthusiastically” do you mean Patel “fearfully” partnered? Language does matter even on this blog. To describe Patel’s decision to keep intact the “indian intelligence apparatus” confers upon him an undeserved patina of respect, pragmatism, or rational decisionmaking when it can be easily discerned he was acting out of pure pants-shitting cowardice.
    and I defer to TarHeelDem for nailing it more eloquently.

  7. Don Bacon says:

    To ask the question this way is to answer it.
    –Is it plausible that any incoming government operative would ever dispose of information programs which enhance his power and control? — not really.
    And I’m reminded of the remarks of a retired highway patrolman I spoke with the other day, on how he operated with people when he represented the government, and he would tell people: “We can either do this your way, and have problems, or we can do it my way.” –i.e. no mention of “the legal way.”
    I’ve been in government, and this is not unusual. People tend to think that they are the law. We see it on a national scale. Is it a good idea if the US attacks Iran, or not? –There is never a mention that this would be illegal, only if it would be practical and beneficial to those in government.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      As you say, and as Mr. Obama’s presidency beautifully illustrates, those in power never give it up, regardless of their public promises. Mr. Obama’s forte, in fact, is to normalize and institutionalize previously (at least publicly) unacceptable grabs for more power. I imagine that’s why fictional exploits about heaving rings into the fires of Mt. Doom and outlaws in Sherwood Forest have such lasting appeal. They are counterfactual, but necessary to deal with the dissonance separating public promises and private acts.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I found Empire of Secrets useful for its access and analysis of new archives about real world intelligence. It seemed in part, though, a tad credulous, as if the author had never read C. Wright Mills (and despite his quoting from David Cornwell’s work). The academic understatement sometimes hides the egos, fears, lust for power and retribution, the fears, blood and sweat, that accompany the work of intelligence.

    • emptywheel says:

      It was definitely written by a fan of intelligence, and thus the credulity. But as you say, really useful for the review of the archives.

  9. Rich says:

    Rational elites as John Ralston Saul describes them. Hijacking language for their own means. You know what I’m talking about. There’s no reason to confer on them any special ethics, morals or motivations. Patel had a fear more in keeping with a personal existential crisis by way of the departed British than he would ever know from the hyped and manufactured threat of the communists.
    Nevertheless, I AM flattered by your reply, sincerely. Rich

    • emptywheel says:

      Well, there’s no evidence from the passage that that’s what motivated him. As it happens, even the former colonized can pragmatically embrace spying out of a desire to undercut a potentially threatening force, which in this case are the communists.

      You see, you may like language to be free of spin, but I start first from evidence and use the language that describes the evidence.

      I don’t doubt that Patel also considered the power the British still exercised, which might amount to fear, in the same way that the Germans won’t offer Snowden asylum out of fear of the power the US will leverage if they do. But that doesn’t mean the Germans aren’t also operating from self-interest in maximizing their own power.

  10. Rich says:

    Some people will say anything to “curry” favor even with their former colonizer so which raises the question what was worse in Patel’ s mind, the recently thrown off colonizer or the specter of communism? On and on we go.

    • emptywheel says:

      Sure. But now you are clearly playing the word games you criticize.

      Currying favor is not fear. It’s ambition, careerism, etc.

      I do think he likely had fear of their power. But the passage is also clear that Patel was surprisingly enthusiastic about spying bc he saw how it could help him.

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