Looking back from 2019, the collapse of Western intelligence sharing under Trump was inevitable.
- By Jeremy Duns Jeremy Duns is the author of Codename HERO: The True Story of Oleg Penkovsky and the Cold War’s Most Dangerous Operation and four spy novels.
FEBRUARY 2019 — “It sounds like a Frederick Forsyth novel.”
The Western intelligence alliance that had held firm since the end of World War II was finally shattered this month by U.S. President Donald Trump. To understand how it came to this, one must consider the above quote, which appeared in the New York Times back in the heady spring of 2017 and would quickly be lent the undue authority to eventually jeopardize the entire Five Eyes intelligence-sharing program.
The speaker was former CIA analyst Larry C. Johnson, who left the agency in 1993, and the comparison he wished to draw was between the U.S. government’s relationships with its closest allies and the plots of best-selling British pulp spy novels. In March 2017, Johnson claimed on his blog that Britain’s signals intelligence agency GCHQ — or, as he repeatedly called it, “GHCQ” — intercepted communications within Trump Tower during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. His evidence for this? GCHQ Director Robert Hannigan had resigned three days after Trump’s inauguration. Hannigan announced that he would be caring for his ill wife and elderly parents, but Johnson saw a darker plot in the timing, writing, “I do not believe in coincidences.” Like many a conspiracy theorist before him, Johnson sought out a reassuringly malevolent order amid the world’s daily churn of chaos. The real reason, he surmised, was obvious: The Brits had passed intelligence they had gathered on Trump to the Obama administration, and as soon as Trump was apprised of this, Hannigan had been forced to step down.
Johnson repeated this fanciful claim on the Kremlin-funded network RT, after which it was picked up by Andrew Napolitano, a Trump confidant and pundit for Fox News. Two days later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer cited Napolitano’s comments at a briefing, provoking an unusually forceful denial from the Brits.
Intelligence insiders were aghast. Johnson was best-known for a hoax in 2008 in which he claimed Michelle Obama had been caught on tape using the racist term “whitey.” More recently, he had claimed, without evidence, that it wasn’t the Russians who had hacked the Democratic National Committee but the CIA.
In normal circumstances, nobody close to power would have taken seriously the conspiracy theories of this discredited crank. But since January 2017, the American president has been a man of the same stamp, having entered politics propagating the lie that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Spicer, with Trump’s blessing, clutched at Johnson’s claims in a desperate attempt to bolster Trump’s own fabrication that Obama had wiretapped him illegally.
The invoking of Frederick Forsyth was fitting, though ironic. Best-known for the classic thriller The Day of The Jackal, the British novelist’s specialty is making fantastical near-future plots seem plausible. But even he would have struggled to sell the story of an American president giving credence to a conspiracy theory, fanned by a Russian propaganda network, that the British had spied on him at the behest of his predecessor.
In light of subsequent events, this farcical episode seems less like Forsyth than John le Carré at his most downbeat.
Before its disbandment, Five Eyes was the world’s most significant intelligence alliance. Founded in the aftermath of World War II with an agreement between the United States and the U.K., and later expanded to include Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, it entailed the mutual sharing of signals and communications intelligence between these countries — and the understanding they would not spy on each other. The terms of the arrangement had not always been upheld, and relations had occasionally been fraught, with Washington previously threatening others with expulsion or suspension from the group.
But the alliance had borne fruit on countless occasions, particularly between Britain and the United States. Anglo-American cooperation had been crucial in tracking Soviet ballistic missile-carrying submarines during the Cold War, and the United States had for decades relied heavily on British listening posts in its former empire for signals intelligence in the Middle East and elsewhere. Following 9/11, American and Pakistani intelligence arrested Osama bin Laden’s aide Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on the strength of an intercepted text message, leading to a wealth of intelligence about planning against British targets.
Some spies in the alliance’s member countries had initially welcomed Trump’s presidency, imagining they would be able to take advantage of his ignorance to increase their budgets and minimize interference in their activities. But looming over everything was the specter of Russian interference. In late 2016, former MI6 officer Christopher Steele had handed the FBI a dossier detailing dozens of sourced claims that Russian intelligence had cultivated and compromised Trump years before he became a presidential candidate.
Investigations by Congress into the relationship between the Trump administration and Russia sparked a Cold War between the U.S. president and his own intelligence agencies. Trump derided every new piece of evidence as fake news, and coupled with the public’s fatigue at a seemingly never-ending political circus, that managed to reduce a scandal that in scale and severity eclipsed Watergate to a mere sideshow for most Americans. But U.S. intelligence officials were less easily distracted and began to wonder how they could share secrets with a president who might be compromised by a hostile power.
The best-selling memoirs of Trump administration survivors have now confirmed Trump’s own insistence that intelligence briefings be as brief as possible (“you know, I’m, like, a smart person”) gave them some leeway. Under the guise of concision, they omitted as much potentially sensitive information as possible. On the rare occasions that Trump asked for more, they buried him in a mix of bureaucratese and espionage jargon. If National Security Agency analysts intercepted a message in Damascus from a terrorist courier working with minimal information about the rest of the organization, they would provide the president with a 45-page report titled “Provisional assessment of ELINT take from interception of cutout to handler in Syria,” knowing he would almost certainly not read it. Pressed to explain the operation face-to-face, they would use similar tactics and retreat to explaining procedures for protecting sources in excruciating detail. Trump, increasingly distrustful, started intimating that he would cut budgets for time-wasters who couldn’t give him straight answers.
Halfway through Trump’s first year in office, even the Russians had concluded that Trump was too volatile. In September 2017, a clip was uploaded to YouTube in which someone looking and sounding exactly like Trump was heard giving explicit requests to prostitutes in a hotel room once frequented by the Obamas in Moscow, backing the most sensational claim of the Steele dossier. And yet even this proved unable to penetrate Trump’s “fake news” defense. There was a media frenzy, and senior Democrats and some Republicans alike called for Trump to resign or be impeached, but Trump claimed the clip had been concocted with an actor and produced by his enemies.
The real bombshell came in December 2018. Overnight, WikiLeaks published a cache of high-level correspondence between British and American intelligence analysts about their investigations into Vladimir Putin’s business dealings. One document quoted by Julian Assange in an interview on conspiracy site and Trump favorite InfoWars seemed to suggest the Brits had recommended that the president be “taken out.” The full context made it clear the suggestion had been to remove Trump from the distribution list for reports on Putin, but the damage was already done. Watching the interview over breakfast in Mar-a-Lago, the president reached for his smartphone.
Trump’s subsequent Twitter rant eclipsed even the wiretapping crisis. In a series of rapid-fire tweets, Trump accused the British of plotting to assassinate him. By the end of the day, he had fired the directors of the CIA and NSA and ordered all U.S. agencies to suspend sharing intelligence with the British. He even temporarily added Britain to the list of countries whose citizens could not enter the United States. After several frantic calls from British Prime Minister Theresa May, who promised an investigation into the allegations, he quietly rescinded that order.
Reporters pressed Trump and his aides for evidence for the assassination claim other than an obvious linguistic misunderstanding but had as little success as they had had with previous claims.
Despite pleas from the intelligence community, Trump’s order to suspend all cooperation with Brits was not lifted but extended. His anger with the British dated back to the Steele dossier and the idea that GCHQ had spied on him. Now he took his revenge, ordering the dismantling of projects with British intelligence piece by piece. This eventually brought to an end Five Eyes’ founding agreement. In response, the Brits naturally also stopped sharing their intelligence, including the fruits of their listening posts in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. Terrorist cells started thinking about how to benefit from the new blind spots.
Today, Britain, already weakened from Brexit and no longer a member of Europol, is looking for alliances elsewhere in this field. Australia and New Zealand are still too small to risk losing their access to U.S. signals intelligence, but Canada has decided to take Britain’s side. The United States has reportedly tried to woo Germany and France into a closer arrangement, but the leaders of both countries envisage their own resignations if WikiLeaks or anyone else ever exposed that they had made a deal with an American administration despised by their voters. Italy, Denmark, and others have filled in some of the gaps left by the Brits and the Canadians, but decades of infrastructure and expertise have not been easy to replace.
Five Eyes had lasted through the Cold War and beyond but had finally been undone by Donald Trump misunderstanding a mischievous leak distributed through Russian cutouts. What happens next depends in large part on the upcoming U.S. presidential election in November 2020. If Mike Pence, who has resigned as vice president to challenge Trump in the Republican primary, wins the election, as the polls indicate, some in the intelligence community are optimistic that Five Eyes could be resurrected under his presidency. Terrorists, criminals, and tyrants around the world have benefited from the collapse of the arrangement, but perhaps, slowly, things can start to return to something like normal again — and the day of the crackpots will finally be behind us.
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