Britain Is Botching This Cold War Just Like the Last One

British politicians and spies are continuing a tradition of sticking their heads in the sand against inconvenient attacks.

Boris Johnson slips over while competing in a tug of war during the launch of London Poppy Day on October 27, 2015 in London.
Boris Johnson slips over while competing in a tug of war during the launch of London Poppy Day on October 27, 2015 in London. Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

Britain’s long-awaited intelligence report into Russia has finally been published. The report, suspiciously delayed for seven months until after Britain’s December 2019 general election, is a damning indictment of London’s failure to recognize Russia’s threat. The British government took its eye off the ball regarding Russia, concludes the report, with its attention focused instead on counterterrorism. While Britain looked away, Russian President Vladimir Putin pursued an aggressive clandestine foreign policy against Britain and other democracies, carrying out assassinations on British soil, launching cyberattacks, unleashing disinformation to meddle in elections, and using Russian money to buy political influence in London—laundered through an industry of bankers, accountants, and lawyers in “Londongrad.” Driven by a relentless desire to be treated as a great power again and to defend against perceived Western aggression, Putin’s strategy appears a zero-sum game: Anything to weaken Britain and other Western democracies means Russia is winning.

The British government has made similar miscalculations about Russia in the past. During World War II, when Britain was allies with Soviet Russia, it took its eye off the ball regarding Moscow’s long-term threat. The result was disastrous for Britain and its closest ally, the United States, in the postwar years as the Cold War set in. The same is happening today.

Although it now seems remarkably naive with hindsight of the Cold War, when Soviet Russia was drawn into World War II by Nazi Germany’s invasion in June 1941, the British government imposed a moratorium on all British intelligence collection on its new wartime ally. It did so on the grounds that allies apparently do not spy on allies—especially when fighting a shared enemy posing an existential threat. Some British intelligence officers were unconvinced that the Soviet Union’s threat had disappeared. After the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia, MI5 circulated a memorandum to senior government officials, “lest we forget,” warning that the Russian leopard had not changed its spots. The head of MI5’s counterespionage department, Guy Liddell, noted in his now-declassified diary in March 1943 about the continued threat of espionage by Britain’s ally:

There is no doubt to my mind that it is going on and sooner or later we shall be expected to know all about it. On the other hand if we take action and get found out there will be an appalling stink.

Short of creating an appalling stink, Britain’s intelligence services tried to circumvent the moratorium on Soviet intelligence collection by ramping up surveillance on the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), using it to detect Soviet espionage. After the Anglo-Soviet alliance, MI5 planted listening devices in the Communist Party’s London headquarters, transcripts of which can be found in declassified MI5 records today, revealing party conversations otherwise long ago lost to history. Its bugs showed that the CPGB’s leadership worked hand in glove with Moscow. Its surveillance on the CPGB produced some counterespionage successes, leading to the identification and prosecution of wartime Soviet agents who passed British secrets to Moscow. In their hopeless legal defenses, those agents claimed they were merely passing information to Britain’s wartime ally, neglecting that the information they stole was classified and disclosed without permission. Using the CPGB to investigate Soviet espionage, however, was never going to be sufficient: Soviet intelligence services, the KGB and GRU, purposely distanced themselves from the CPGB, because they assumed—correctly—that British authorities kept it under tight surveillance.

Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6) was also alert to the continued Russian the threat during the war. In May 1943 it established a new department, Section IX, concerned with communism and Soviet espionage, reflecting the postwar importance it believed those subjects would have. Unfortunately for Western security, but fortunately for Soviet intelligence, in 1944 MI6 appointed a new head of Section IX: Kim Philby, a high-level Soviet agent inside the service. A Soviet agent thus became head of Britain’s foreign intelligence department responsible for catching Soviet spies. As one of Philby’s colleagues in MI6 later recalled, his appointment as head of Section IX was devastating for Western security: “Philby at one stroke had … ensured that the whole postwar effort to counter Communist espionage would become known in the Kremlin. The history of espionage records few, if any, comparable masterstrokes.”

Philby, and his fellow Cambridge spies, were not alone. While London showed police espionage restraint toward its new wartime ally, Soviet Russia showed no similar restraint toward its Western allies. While they were looking away, with their defenses down, Moscow launched a hostile clandestine assault on them. It achieved its greatest wartime intelligence successes not against its enemies, the Axis powers, but instead its Western allies. When the Soviet government established diplomatic offices in the United States under the terms of the Lend-Lease policy, America’s supply lifeline to the Soviet Union, they housed professional Soviet intelligence officers tasked not with assisting Lend-Lease but with collecting intelligence on the United States. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s strategy was to steal as much Anglo-American wartime intellectual property as possible, because he feared his Western imperialist allies would cut a peace deal with Nazi Germany, and, his Marxist reading told him, conflict was inevitable with them. Soviet agents acquired London’s and Washington’s most closely guarded wartime secrets: Bletchley Park’s successful decryption of German codes, a secret referred to as “Ultra,” as well as their plans for world’s first atomic bomb. Soviet espionage inside the Manhattan Project profoundly impacted postwar international relations.

Stalin’s British and American spies provided him with a firehose of secret intelligence about Western wartime and postwar strategy. Soviet agents penetrated every branch of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime administration, including the president’s trusted personal assistant, the Harvard economist Lauchlin Currie (Soviet codename “PAGE”), Harry Dexter White at Treasury (“JURIST”), and Alger Hiss (“ALES”) at the State Department. America’s wartime intelligence service, the Office of Strategic Services, was probably the most compromised intelligence agency in history. Its head of research, Maurice Halperin, was a Soviet agent (“HARE”), as was the personal assistant to the office’s director, Duncan Chaplin Lee (codenamed “KOCH”). Thanks to his agents, Stalin was at times better informed about Western secrets and strategy than Western leaders themselves. Stalin knew the Ultra secret, which Roosevelt and British leader Winston Churchill concealed from most of their cabinets—it was revealed to only six British ministers. The Soviet leader also learned about the U.S. atomic bomb project before Vice President Harry S. Truman, who was only briefed on it after he became president in April 1945, when he was also informed about Ultra for the first time.

It was only after World War II when the British and U.S. governments woke up to the threat Soviet Russia posed. By that time, the damage was done.

The British government today is repeating similar mistakes. While British security was focused elsewhere, on counterterrorism, Russia has been conducting a similar clandestine attack. The attention that Britain’s intelligence services, MI5, MI6, and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), have given to hostile foreign states has been decimated since 9/11, as the terrorist threat grew. The Russia report reveals that, while at the height of the Cold War 70 percent of GCHQ’s resources were devoted to the Soviet Bloc countries, by 2006 just 4 percent were devoted to Russia. In 2006, the year when Russia assassinated its former spy Alexander Litvinenko in London, 92 percent of MI5’s effort was devoted to counterterrorism. Although the resources of Britain’s intelligence services targeting Russia have recently increased, they are racing to catch up, the report concludes.

There are understandable and legitimate reasons why, after 9/11, the British secret state’s limited resources were devoted to the urgent threat of terrorism. As the report notes, however, apart from operational reasons, there was a more insidious “willful neglect” by British policymakers about Russia. When it came to Russian election meddling, few in the government wanted to go there—neither policymakers nor Britain’s intelligence services. Like their U.S. counterparts, Britain’s foreign intelligence services, MI6 and GCHQ, rely on tasking from policymakers about subjects they need intelligence on, which determines where they will recruit foreign human agents and which communications they will intercept. When no tasking is forthcoming, there is no intelligence collection.

The issue of Russian meddling in British elections, particularly the Brexit referendum, have been such politically charged subjects—“hot potatoes”—that nobody in government wanted to touch them with a “10-foot pole.” British politicians have little desire to see whether Russian skeletons are lurking in the closets of elections they won. They are not alone in this: U.S. President Donald Trump has persistently dismissed Russian election meddling as a “hoax” because, it seems, he fears it threatens his election victory legitimacy. Western politicians who welcomed, and sought to benefit from, Russian meddling may now wish it away and pretend it is so-called fake news, but it is real—and a serious national security threat to Western democracies. The report reveals that Russia meddled in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, with the intent of breaking up the United Kingdom. When it came to the Brexit referendum, however, the British government made no effort to investigate Russian meddling. The report’s authors, Britain’s oversight Intelligence and Security Committee, are correct to call for an independent inquiry to settle this contentious subject. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has rejected this idea.

When the Intelligence and Security Committee asked MI5 to provide written evidence about Russian meddling in the Brexit referendum, its initial report was staggeringly just six lines long—and referenced open-source (nonclassified) academic works. Unlike MI6 and GCHQ, MI5 is self-tasking, meaning that it makes its own assessments and prioritization of British national security threats. If it assessed that Russian election meddling fell in its jurisdiction, it would have been free to investigate. As it was, its six-line report on Russian meddling was because of its understandable reluctance to bring its intrusive powers anywhere near Britain’s democratic electoral process. This, of course, is correct for a security service in a democracy.

It is simply incorrect, however, that Britain’s intelligence service should refrain from involvement when a hostile foreign state like Russia interferes in its democratic elections. By definition, the subversion of democracy constitutes a national security threat. Britain’s intelligence services have a major role to play protecting its electoral process from hostile states: They have unique collection and assessment capabilities that can detect and attribute foreign intrusions, which other government departments cannot. This is important because, the report notes, Russian influence operations in Britain are now the “new normal.”

Back in 2016, soon after Russia’s U.S. election meddling was exposed, the chief of MI6, Alex Younger, made a rare public warning about Russian meddling in Britain: “The risks at stake are profound and represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty; they should be a concern to all those who share democratic values.” His warning may have been aimed at urging British ministers to take the Russian threat seriously and task his service to collect intelligence on it. Apparently it fell on deaf ears in Downing Street.

The history World War II shows that Britain and the United States were in a Cold War with Soviet Russia before they knew it. The same is true today: Whether policymakers in London and Washington like it or not, they are already in a new cold war with Russia—or rather, for Putin, the Cold War that never really ended.

Calder Walton is the assistant director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project, and director of research of its Intelligence Project. He is writing a book about British, American, and Soviet intelligence in the Cold War.

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