Tuesday, 29 April 2014

For Your (Scottish) Eyes Only - intelligence and security in an independent Scotland

The UK Government has published its assessment on the benefits to Scotland of remaining part of the UK when it comes to defence and security matters (link is HERE). As part of this review, it highlighted the value to Scotland (and the UK as a whole) that comes from being supported by the existing security and intelligence agencies. The paper rightly noted that Scotland would have to set up from scratch a security and intelligence apparatus in order to preserve their national interests. This would be time consuming and expensive to do. It is worth considering briefly just how significant a change to Scottish security would be if it were no longer able to rely on access to the UK apparatus, and just how exposed this could potentially leave Scottish interests.

At present the UK security and intelligence apparatus is built through several different institutions and sets of relationships. On the practical side there is the actual collection organisations – the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more commonly known as MI6 and which handles Human Intelligence matters. There is GCHQ, which handles communications intelligence, both from the traditional interception role (in both the classic listening to signals, and also handling cyber security) and also the equally critical cyber defence role to provide assurance of protection to UK national infrastructure. Finally there is the Security Service (MI5) which handles domestic security and counter terrorism work – although in reality there is often significant blurring between the boundaries of all three organisations. At a lower level there is also an extensive police and border security intelligence function, which helps provide predominantly criminal related intelligence. Additionally there is a comprehensive military intelligence community built across all three services which encompasses both collection and analysis organisations, primarily to support military operations, but also working in support of wider UK requirements too.

Supporting the collection effort the UK also possesses a strong analytical community, which includes Defence Intelligence, which acts as a centre of excellence for analytical assessment of material collected, and also the Cabinet Office which is home to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) which sets the requirements and priorities for intelligence collection and provides overarching assessments on intelligence matters.

The UK is lucky enough to also enjoy a strong intelligence relationship with what is commonly known as the ‘Five-Eyes’ community. This grouping comprises the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and has its roots in the intelligence sharing built up during the Second World War. Formalised as a relationship during the early cold war, this grouping is perhaps the ‘crown jewels’ of the world’s intelligence community – providing a genuinely collaborative environment where all five countries are able to share material and work together far more closely than any other nation on the planet.

Backing this up, the UK also benefits from its membership of both NATO and the EU, which also provide intelligence functions. One of the often forgotten benefits is that member states of NATO and the EU are often able to pool material together to form products which can be shared and discussed with other member nations. This matters a great deal as in the early 21st Century, no country can be a master of the entire globe, able to collect and analyse against every conceivable threat. By working together, it is possible for member states, particularly smaller ones to specialise in one or two specific areas of interest, and offer this material into an alliance on a basis whereby they get access to other work they’d never otherwise be able to support.

The challenge though is that intelligence sharing is a process built on trust and confidence. While many nations in the world enjoy close diplomatic relations with one another, the intelligence community is part of it where most nations are far more reticent to expose their capabilities. To offer to share assessment or intelligence means exposing your own national capabilities, where you may be interested in conducting collection or assessment work, and also exposing it to another party which could easily betray this confidence. In some ways intelligence sharing is akin to having a discussion in a relationship where you expose all your dirty sordid little secrets and fantasies to someone else, knowing that another person now has a significant hold over you – you only do it when you implicitly trust the person in question.

The traditional view of intelligence gathering?

It is reasonable to say, based on the material publicly available, that the UK enjoys a strong relationship with a range of countries and alliance partners. This is a relationship built on trust, and one which has been built over many years, if not decades, of understanding and agreement. Not least because over this time the UK has proven itself to be a reliable partner of choice which can be trusted with material, and which brings a range of valuable assets and capabilities to the relationship.

A newly independent Scotland would have none of these advantages at all. The first challenge facing it would be to work out what level of security and intelligence capability it needs, and what it could actually afford. In practical terms, there would need to be a decision on whether Scotland wanted or needed a capability which looked beyond its own borders, and whether this was about pure assessment (e.g. using open source material) or whether there was a need for collection too. Establishing a collection agency is not cheap – it requires years of work to get to the point where it has the access it needs, the material it needs and the pool of staff it requires. While there may be some ex SIS or GCHQ staff who wish to join, it will take a significant and sustained investment to create a meaningful collection organisation which generates material of value.

The next issue is what does Scotland do with its material, and who can it talk to? Once independence occurs, Scotland is going to be cut off from the 5 EYES, NATO and EU feeds of material, meaning that it will suddenly have no intelligence reports other than those which it can generate, or which is occasionally shared by other nations. It is exceptionally unlikely that Scotland would gain admission to the 5 EYES community – considering New Zealand was expelled for its policy on nuclear armed ships in their waters, it is hard to see any support for admitting a newly independent nation which will have just caused significant damage to the continuation of the Nuclear Deterrent (impacting on both UK and NATO nuclear deterrence). It is worth considering that despite massive global changes, in nearly 70 years no new country has been admitted to 5 EYES on a full time basis.

Given, it appears highly unlikely that Scotland will be a member of either the EU or NATO on independence, this immediately means that it will not be eligible to receive any material produced by either organisation. Instead it will have to negotiate bilateral sharing agreements until such point as it is admitted to both organisations. Such agreements are two-way – nations may have remarkably strong diplomatic relationships, but this doesn’t automatically translate into a desire to share intelligence. A newly independent Scotland will need to demonstrate that in receiving this material, it is trustworthy (e.g. material it sees is purely for the host Government and will not be seen or used further), that it can safeguard the material (e.g. appropriate physical and electronic security measures are in place to protect it from compromise) and that it has something worthy of being traded in return. While it is nice to think that some countries will be benevolent to Scotland and perhaps expose intelligence of interest, the reality is that like any other newly independent nation, other countries will be watching closely to see if Scotland is a safe bet to do business with. Any hint that material shared could be compromised and the shutters will come down in an instant.

A cynical view of intelligence...

What this means in reality is an independent Scotland will in intelligence terms be blind for the first couple of years, if not longer? It will have to work hard to prove itself a credible international partner, and one worthy of discussions and sharing material with. In the intervening period an independent Scotland will find itself dangerously reliant on the largesse of other powers in order to build a credible understanding of its own security challenges.

While it is easy to say ‘but what does Scotland NEED intelligence for’, and then assume that all this sort of business is linked to spies drinking vodka tonics in the tropics, the reality is more mundane. Being switched off from the wider intelligence community means, for example, that an independent Scotland will have no forewarning (unless another nation feels generous) that a Russian Naval task force has sailed and is 48 hours away from anchoring in the Moray Firth. It will not get the full insight into international crises which are emerging which could have an impact on Scottish Foreign Policy objectives. It will not necessarily receive the full level of information on domestic terrorist threats or other such risks. In other words, an independent Scotland, bereft of alliances will find itself reliant on the internet and other open source media to pull together much of the analysis and assessment that is required to inform policy making. More crucially, unless it can generate the material itself, Scotland is going to be reliant on others goodwill to inform it as to what may be going on just over the horizon.

This isn’t just a question of protecting against existential threats to Scottish homeland security. The aspiration in the proposed SDF appears to be to have a force capable of deploying when required in support of international operations. This raises the question of whether the security and intelligence apparatus which will be created is capable of properly supporting them – it is one thing to have a frigate and a desire to sail it into a danger area. It is another to not have access to a fully supported intelligence organisation capable of advising on risks, on potential hostile forces, on capabilities of their likely opponents and most importantly their intentions. Supporting this is the development of a proper secure communications infrastructure capable of providing encrypted communications that can send this sort of material to and from the operation. While not remotely glamorous, the investment required to support a credible deployed expeditionary capability, even when working as part of a multi-national task force is expensive and requires a lot of money to keep going.

A final thought worth remembering is that the sort of skills and training required to be a good collector or analyst do not come cheaply. Many of the smaller NATO nations rely heavily on access to the training schools where resources, techniques and training is shared. To establish an independent training programme would be very expensive and take resources off other tasks. Similarly, the Scots are going to have to invest in secure communications from the outset – quite literally on the first day of independence they will no longer have access to the highly secure UK government networks, and will instead have to rely on their own crypto methods. This could make their communications immensely vulnerable until such point as a truly secure Scottish capability is set up to ensure the integrity of the IT networks. This may sound like nitpicking, but it is unlikely that either NATO or the EU would support accession unless they were confident that IT security and physical security measures were in place to protect against compromise. A newly independent Scotland may find itself landed with a very large bill to put sufficient measures in place to ensure it can properly protect NATO and EU material.

This is not to say that it could not be done – far from it. An independent Scotland will have greatly diminished interests and responsibilities, and is unlikely to need a major intelligence or security capability. But, it is worth remembering that it is a leap of faith in the security of Scottish citizens, who will suddenly be living in a much more exposed society, at much greater risk. While no one envisages a sudden invasion from overseas, the harsh fact is that an independent Scotland will have practically no means of being aware of what is going on inside its borders, let alone outside them.

It is perhaps appropriate to finish by imagining the conversation the chief of the new Scottish Intelligence Service would have to have with the new Prime Minister of Scotland on the first day of independence. The questions that would be asked are 'who/what/where is the threat', 'where do you want our attention to focus' 'who can we talk to for liaison purposes', 'what is the legal position on collection both here and abroad', and most importantly 'what resources do we have to make this happen'… There is no simple answer to any of those questions, but it would be perhaps useful to consider what the response would be. 


  1. Interesting article and very much a peek into the establishment 'police' mindset. We all know the noblest form of life on the planet is the various nations intelligence communities. At least this is what we are led to believe. They keep the sheep safe from the wolves and obviously demand quite a bit of leverage for such a sacrifice. In the UK context, often an agreeable Highland estate or so.

    However, back in the real world, the threat of Islamic extremism for example is now unstoppable due to the very policies that the establishment allowed and indeed promoted for 60 years. The social experimentation will mass muslim immigration - among others - means the UK will soon have more first and second generation muslims from Asia and Africa than Scotsmen. The SAS, GCHQ and MI5/6 will stop any future trouble perhaps, or more likely we will be faced with a Northern Ireland situation, permanently, on the mainland. The big difference is, the IRA had a limited numbers of backers outside of Ireland, muslim extremists have uncounted millions.

  2. Benjamin Franklin said, "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.

    So where is Scotland's well armed lamb?

    Probably dressed as a goat and pointing to the border with England.

    I do so hope they vote NO.

  3. George Roberton’s call for Putin and Russia to be included in NATO in order to treat them as a friendly nation in a formal defence alliance, passes without comment, yet it is unlikely Scotland will be in NATO for at least 2 years?

    In spite of our strategic location, we'll have no friends?

    We won't even know what's going on within our borders - in spite of having a mature anti terrorist unit within our own police force?

    Maybe we'll track the Russian Navy via facebook - I believe that's how the "professionals" do it- at least there will be ships and MR in situ.

    You are right when you state our security needs will be reduced as we won't have the same responsibilities as the rUK - illegal wars, bombing brown people, and generally acting as lickspittles to the US.

    Anyway not to worry we have it on good authority that there won't be any real trouble until after the aircraft carriers are completed and furnished with aircraft so that gives everyone plenty of time to sort things out.

    1. You will be irrelevant with nothing to offer. I don't really care myself, I can barely wait for you lazy parasites to have to stand on your own two feet, its going to be hilarious for the first couple of years but you will get the hang of it in the end.

      In the mean time England will not have to suffer another Labour government using English money to buy Scottish parliamentary seats.

    2. LOL! - Well I like England and the English and I hope you do well standing on your own - don't forget you'll have Wales and Ulster for company as well - I'm sure you didn't mean to leave them out.
      By the way the Scottish vote has only made a difference in two elections since the '20's but a UKIP/Tory alliance will probably bring long term stability.
      Anyway we're getting into politics which isn't really the remit for this site so unless you have anything to say re Security/defence I'll sign off

    3. With regards to comments, then they can be as wide ranging as you wish. I only moderate gratuitously offensive ones against other posters or where they are very clearly designed to cause maximum offence. By all means engage in a debate to take it where you wish :-)

    4. Sir Humphrey. I admire your tolerance, but personally I find anon 13:13 and 13:01 comments deeply offensive. I am presently watching a documentary about the arctic convoys. The people being interviewed are from all corners of this nation. This is what my country means to me. All the peoples of the British Isles fighting together for what is right. To divide this nation from within and tear ourselves apart in this way is sheer folly and manner from heaven for those who would see our ideals destroyed.

  4. For me, the key issues in creating an intelligence service aren't even mentioned in this piece. The legal and oversight framework need to be settled first. No point in replicating the UK's set-up. It is not, and never has been, fit for purpose on those counts.

    While I have concerns about the accountability of a domestic intelligence service which was an arm of the police, it would be part of a greater organisation which operates under the rule of law. Whether there's any need of a GCHQ-analogue seems doubtful. Computer security is a separate area, and it is only very recently that the intelligence service and the military have attempted - with little obvious success - to get involved. Again, no need to copy the UK's flawed model there. Domestic communications intelligence can best be left in the hands of the domestic intelligence service. Getting a warrant to tap phones, et cetera, does not need a GCHQ-equivalent.

    1. Swallowed the Scottish Nazi Party's propaganda hook line and sinker I see. Well have fun in Salmond's authoritarian socialist dystopia. I can't wait to see the back of you lazy, drunk parasites.

  5. It is an interesting discussion as part of the bigger debate but as usual with most of the debate coming out of London it is scaremongering nonsense in part.

    The argument would just as easily been made in 1922 with Ireland or every colonial discussion from 1947 in India to Zimbabwe in 1980. The argument is why the Baltic state should clearly stayed part of Mother. Russia and the Czechs and Slovaks stayed together.

    Scotland is not going to vote for independence on this occasion. There has not been a single poll with the Yes campaign in the lead. The refferendum in 1997 on a devolved Parliament had 75% support and at least 60% support in every single constituency in the country. However if it did happen now or in some subsequent refferendum in a few decades time it would hopefully come about after some negotiation between the decision in principle and the actual date of independence.

    If Scotland votes for independence in Sept independence is not till 2016, and that allows time for Scotland to be welcomed into NATO co-operation if that is what both sides want. If NATO is awkward and demanding most Scots if they have just voted for Independence will shrug their shoulders and take the option of the. Irish Republic and neutrality as a policy.

    Ironically Scotland will need an intelligence and counter intelligence operation in the very early days but not against Russia or to support Scottish involvement in some multinational operation. They will need it against rUK which will be trying to influence and intimidate in the negotiations of the details of the unravelling of a 300 year union, and from US and NATO who will want assurances of access to the airspace etc.

    1. Interesting - you are assuming the UK and NATO will be your enemies? That's going to make for an interesting relationship going forward...

      aka GNB

    2. The SNP, with its close links to CND, seems to think that it will be able to dictate conditions to NATO and to the UK (and of course we have seen the same belligerent approach over Scottish advocacy of currency union). The Scots political leadership seems unaware that it is already generating long-term political and diplomatic opponents who will not be amenable to their idea that if something is said three times it will automatically follow.

      The reality is that an independent Scotland will have just token forces and will be totally dependent on the UK in the event of any serious problem, thus hogging a free ride, just as the Republic of Ireland did throughout the Cold War.

      In the event of a Yes vote I strongly suspect that Scotland will be stuck with the entire bill for relocating Trident (otherwise no EU membership, tariffs on Scotch, etc). The defence industry will disappear in short order and Cammell Laird will be rubbing their hands at the order for Type 26 frigates in place of BAE Glasgow.

      I cannot see Scotland being given access to Five Eyes material and the lack of intelligence available to its fledging foreign ministry will guarantee it is royally screwed in any trade negotiations and EU membership talks.

      P*ssing off your much bigger next-door neighbour is never a good idea, but having read 'Scotland's Future' all I can say is that the sheer naivety, underlying malevolence and lack of analytical rigour make clear that it has been thrown together by a gang of chancers and snake oil salesmen. If Scotland votes Yes it deserves all it gets - and it will be a pretty rough ride.

      A Scotsman

  6. I'm not suggesting England will be an enemy in terms of Edward the First crossing the border. However England will be an enemy in terms of spying on and trying to influence Scotland and the Scottish government. The past year has just seen revelations of NSA spying on both NATO allies as countries I.e. Merkels phone and NATO allies in terms of mass surveillance of populations but usually in collaboration with the local intelligence agencies.

    The major issue of an independent Scotland initially will not be how does it take part in international contingency operations but how does it split up the assets of the UK, and gain or retain membership of UN, EU, NATO etc etc! those will be life and death negotiations for the new country and will set the limits of its true independence for generations. It is naieve to think that the partners in those negotiations will not be using the full force of their intelligence agencies.

    Longer term the strategy will depend on the voters and politics of the independent country. Anything being produced now by the SNP government is to do with reassuring weak Labour and Lib Dem voters that nothing much will change. The committed SNP voters were until recently committed to neutrality a la Ireland or Finland, and most care not about NATO membership they do not see a true external threat to Scotland specifically, and are not interested in trying to punch above our weight worldwide.

    I still suspect the vote will be no but if it was yes, you will have a country which could be in military terms Ireland or Iceland, in or out of NATO but with negligible forces! or Belgium, slightly more forces, but opposed to using them. A country that wants to keep a higher profile would not have voted for independence in the first place.