Exclusive: British, American security services clash over terror intelligence

Michael Smith

The following was written by London Sunday Times reporter Michael Smith for Raw Story.

LONG-RUNNING disputes between UK and American intelligence and security services over intelligence in the war on terror rose to the surface last week with US sources accusing the British of blocking the capture of a key member of the al-Qaeda team that carried out the London bombings.

The claims followed leaks of British police photographs, including a nail bomb found in the trunk of a bomber's car, passed to the US-based ABC News, apparently by a member of the US team sent to London to assist the investigation.


US sources named the man alleged to be suspected by British officials of playing a key role in the London bombings as Haroon Rashid Aswat, 32, from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. He was arrested in Zambia last week.

The US authorities tried to remove him from South Africa in a process known as “extraordinary rendition,” which bypasses the extradition process and normally leads to suspects being imprisoned at Guantanamo, but UK officials blocked their attempts on the basis that he was a British citizen.

The allegations, leaked to American newspapers, seemed designed to show the UK authorities in a bad light. Both the British and US authorities wanted to talk to Aswat, who is of Indian descent and is a close associate of the radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Mazri.

The US interest stems from allegations that he helped set up a terrorist training camp at Bly in Oregon, traveling to the camp where, according to US officials, he is alleged to have “met potential candidates for jihad training.”

British officials insisted that although they did want to question Aswat over his alleged links to al-Qaeda, they did not believe he played a role in the London bombings. Claims of telephone calls with the bombers appeared to have originated from inaccurate reports in the British media, they said.

Their concerns were over the legal process. If the extraordinary rendition had taken place it was highly unlikely that he could have been prosecuted in the British courts. They wanted him arrested legally; he was.

Clashes date back to Sept. 11 attacks

The rows over Aswat and leaking of photographs of explosives and bombs found in the trunk of one of the bomber's cars in Luton are just the latest in a series of simmering disputes dating back to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

While the Metropolitan Police initially attempted to prevent publication of the photographs in the UK media, officials admitted privately that it caused more damage to the trust between US and British investigators than to the investigation itself.

But while neither of the latest leaks are likely to be damaging in the long-term, they are seen in London as symptomatic of a US willingness to release information carelessly. British intelligence sources have long claimed that operations they ran were routinely leaked to US newspapers as major CIA successes.

They used to say that they normally laughed such incidents off. But in the wake of the emergence of the al-Qaeda threat, they have argued, with some justification, that leaks of intelligence have seriously damaged sources and methods.

On at least two occasions, US sources leaked intelligence about intercepts of al-Qaeda satellite and mobile telephone conversations that have had a direct effect on the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

One occurred in the wake of the 1998 al-Qaeda attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people, only 12 of whom were Americans.

President Bill Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes against a Sudanese pharmaceuticals factory allegedly owned by al-Qaeda and an Afghan training camp where bin Laden and his associates were due to have a key meeting.

The reason they knew the al-Qaeda leader was going to be at the training camp that day was that they had received a tip-off from the British communications intercept operation, which was monitoring his satellite telephone.

The British, who traditionally specialize in interception of Middle-East communications, had obtained the telephone number after a surveillance operation against Khalid al-Fawwaz, bin Laden’s London representative.

But in an apparent attempt to justify the cruise missile strikes, a US intelligence official told the Washington Times precisely why they had picked that particular Afghan training camp. Bin Laden never used that satellite telephone again.

American officials compromised another intercept operation during the investigation into the September 11 attacks when they leaked details of two mobile telephone conversations between al-Qaeda members that with hindsight appeared to refer to the attacks.

The conversations sent immediately before the attacks had not been processed until the day after because of the amount of material that was available and as a result became a controversial part of the evidence of intelligence failure.

British intelligence had barred its US counterpart from releasing details of the actual telephone conversations because it would alert those who made them to the fact that not only their phones but the phones of the people they were talking to were being monitored. But they were leaked anyway, cutting off another potential source of intelligence on al-Qaeda activities.

Tension between the US and British intelligence agencies increased during the run-up to the Iraq war, with both sides frequently savaging the other’s intelligence.

The leaked minutes of a meeting of Tony Blair’s war cabinet, during which Sir Richard Dearlove, the then head of MI6, said intelligence was being “fixed” in Washington to make the case for war, typified those tensions.

Sir Richard was forced to pull Blair back on at least one occasion when he referred to a possible link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, pointing out that there was no link at all. Subsequently, the Prime Minister backtracked on the allegation.

U.S. Iraq Niger claim sparked fight

The other main tension on Iraq came over the controversial claim that Saddam Hussein tried to buy yellowcake from Niger so he could restart his nuclear weapons programme.

The issue has resurfaced recently with the investigation into whether Bush adviser Karl Rove leaked the name of a CIA officer to the US press, a criminal offense.

The CIA made itself look foolish when it gave patently fake documents to Mohamed el-Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as purported evidence to back up the Niger claim.

But MI6 had completely separate intelligence supplied by the French, who barred the British from passing it on to the Americans, apparently fearing that it would be made public and thereby damage the source.

When Bush said publicly that the British had intelligence showing that Saddam had sought yellowcake from Niger, it was immediately denounced from inside the CIA as rubbish and George Tenet, the head of the CIA, was forced to apologize to Bush.

But both the Butler Inquiry and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee examined the French intelligence and confirmed that the British assessment of it was justified and, although it has withdrawn a number of inaccurate or disputed assessments, MI6 is sticking by the Niger claim.

Michael Smith is the author of The Spying Game: The Secret History of British Espionage, published by Politicos. He served with the British Army's Intelligence Corps for more than a decade before joining the BBC. He has written for a number of newspapers including the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph, where he was Defence Correspondent. Smith now writes on defence and intelligence issues for the Sunday Times, where he broke the Downing Street Memo.

Originally published on Monday August 1, 2005.


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