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One Year On: The Anglo-American Intelligence Relationship through Snowden’s PRISM


It’s been one year since selected media outlets began publishing Edward Snowden’s stolen intelligence documents.

At first glance they present a frightening picture of Anglo-American surveillance; of GCHQ and the NSA aligned to “master the internet” by hoovering up vast quantities of information. It’s almost as if the two intelligence agencies have formed a SIGINT leviathan– spying on the entire world (friends and allies included).

The files certainly demonstrate Anglo-American closeness.  Snowden, an American, managed to obtain some 58,000 British GCHQ documents – including those of a highly sensitive nature. Meanwhile, the bulk of the NSA documents were marked FVEY. Standing for FIVE EYES, this denotes that, despite being of American origin, they were to be shared with the UK (alongside Australia, New Zealand, and Canada).

However, much of the material published over the last 12 months has served only to confirm our understanding of the Anglo-American intelligence relationship:

  • It’s close;
  • It’s asymmetric, but reasonably interdependent nonetheless.

Yes, the documents have provided some fascinating titbits (especially for those who study intelligence). And yes, the scale is somewhat striking (and deserving of a debate about security and civil liberties).

In terms of the Anglo-American intelligence relationship, however, the details are not particularly revelatory. 

Such close cooperation is not new. It can be traced back to the multilateral UKUSA agreements in the aftermath of the Second World War. Britain and America have long shared signals material. Similarly, states have long spied on allies and one wonders the extent to which Merkel feigned surprise and outrage at NSA activity for domestic political purposes – especially in a country where privacy is so important post-Stasi.

Britain has long made itself useful to the Americans. Back in the late 1950s, Harold Macmillan prioritised achieving intelligence interdependence with the Americans as a means of harnessing Washington’s power to uphold British influence on the global scene. The same is true today.

Britain’s physical location as the gateway to Europe is useful to America. TEMPORA, for example, is a GCHQ programme designed to intercept data from fibre-optic cables carrying communications from North America to Western Europe where it hits British shores.

This is neither new nor surprising. Britain has long used its geography to construct an interdependent relationship. During the end of empire years, America relied on British imperial outposts for SIGINT coverage, including Hong Kong and Cyprus.

Snowdon’s files show that the Anglo-American intelligence relationship remains in good health.

In the quest for revelations, however, the media has neglected a more pressing issue; one which could undermine the relationship.

The impact of privatisation and digitisation. Snowden was, of course, a private contractor working for Booz Allen. Demand for such roles increased in the aftermath of 9/11 and there are now estimated to be at least 70,000 private contractors working alongside the American intelligence community.

This dramatic upsurge has, however, impeded sufficient examination of risks, leaks, and secrecy – as the Snowden saga attests. Privatisation raises difficult questions regarding government oversight and accountability.

The same can be said about the digitisation of intelligence. One again, failures surrounding 9/11 drove change and led to a greater emphasis on sharing, through digital databases, within the intelligence community. 

Yet increased access has also created problems. It must be remembered that Snowden’s large cache was preceded by an even bigger leak. In 2010, Chelsea Manning gave around 500,000 documents, known as the Iraq war logs, to Wikileaks.

Historically, the greatest strains on Anglo-American cooperation came when one side feared security laxness on the side of the other. American suspicion of MI6 in the aftermath of the Cambridge Five fiasco forms a good example.

What impact will the leaks, intertwined with the (predominantly American) trends of privatisation and digitisation, have on the Anglo-American relationship? Washington grew concerned when it felt Britain could not protect its secrets. Have the Snowden files caused similar concern in Whitehall?

Rory Cormac


Rory is speaking on Snowden and the Anglo-American intelligence relationship at the forthcoming BISA conference in Dublin.

His latest book, Spying on the World, is out now


Published inConflict & SecurityIntelligenceSecret Intelligence and Covert Action

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