Crispin Black: A one-sided relationship isn't that special

The Foreign Secretary's suppression of evidence of alleged torture was typical of Britain's 'intelligence cringe' towards the USA

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Why is it that a British Foreign Secretary invokes "national security" to suppress details of the alleged torture of a British resident by American intelligence officers – at which British intelligence officers may have been present – in defiance of common sense and what normal people would understand as the rule of law? Apparently, because to reveal the details would "damage intelligence co-operation with our US allies". This is just the latest symptom to erupt in that embarrassing and humiliating disorder suffered by most British politicians and senior officials – the special relationship syndrome (SRS).

The physical symptoms keep coming thick and fast – allowing the CIA to conduct so-called "rendition" flights through UK airspace. Probably allowing the CIA to run a prison on UK territory (Diego Garcia). Not to mention extraditing British subjects to the US on the nod or despatching British troops to two American-led wars just because they wanted us to. The physical symptoms derive from the way the syndrome works in the brain, attacking the parts which deal with the sense of sovereignty. In effect it becomes impossible for British ministers to work out where the UK national interest lies in our dealings with the US. To be fair to David Miliband, he is confronted with a set of circumstances not of his own making. His predecessor but one, Jack Straw, suffered from the most virulent form of the disorder and Miliband is merely uneasily mopping up some of the less pleasant results. Although his gushing behaviour in Washington with Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, and his refusal on the floor of the House of Commons to take the matter up with President Obama suggest that at the very least he is already in early-stage SRS.

The syndrome does not come into being out of nothing. It has its roots in the way that the UK's central decision-making structures on national security and intelligence are configured. The Joint Intelligence Committee, the military, the intelligence services, the mechanisms that control our "independent" nuclear deterrent are all heavily "penetrated" by American influence. It is almost impossible for a British minister to make a decision on a range of national security and foreign policy subjects without the US being involved at every level. The UK's national security infrastructure runs on US software which we have happily installed.

To underline how one-sided the UK's relationship with the US is, compare and contrast how the two countries organise their most serious national security decision-making. Imagine a scene in the West Wing of the White House: the President's top security and intelligence officials are in a secret conclave; the heads of the CIA, NSA, military intelligence, the President's national security adviser, and members of his personal staff, discussing the most secret aspects of the US's security and intelligence policy, hammering out the precise wording of a paper to be presented urgently to the President himself. In the Rose Garden outside, the Obama daughters are playing with their new puppy.

The President himself is waiting impatiently in the Oval Office a few hundred feet away for the result on which he may have to base a decision that will send young servicemen to their deaths. The chairman of the meeting goes round the table one final time. Each official is asked to give his or her last comments. It's a tense moment at the beating heart of the American republic... and the person asked to speak last is a Brit – the head of MI6's station in Washington.

It's an absurd picture, of course. The Americans would never permit a British subject to sit at the heart of their security establishment. All the US's important meetings and documents are classified NOFORN – which means what it says – NO FOREIGNERS. But guess what? We allow the Americans to sit at the beating heart of the UK's system. Make a few changes: the Brown sons playing in the Downing Street garden (not sure if they have a dog). The Prime Minister sitting in his study, biting his nails impatiently. The Joint Intelligence Committee (the exact equivalent to the meeting in Washington described above) in urgent session in its rooms behind Downing Street. And the person asked to speak last really is an American – the head of the CIA's London station.

You have to visualise it to understand how extraordinary it is. It is hard to think of another country that allows this. The French would rather die. The irony for us is that it is exactly how we used to control nominally independent faraway countries. And it is one of the mechanisms by which the US ensures that we do their bidding.

There seems to be little sensible discussion at the moment of the so-called "special relationship". It is invariably considered in almost infantile terms – how much everyone despises George Bush or who will get the first phone call or first meeting with President Obama. There is little cost/benefit analysis of our relationship with the Americans. And absolutely none about the intelligence relationship, either in public or behind closed doors. We persist in a kind of "intelligence cringe" – the Americans know more, the Americans know better. Well, they did not know what was going on in Iraq. Even their much vaunted (and envied) satellites misidentified Portaloos as biological warfare installations. Quite why we should think they understand what is going on anywhere else better than we do remains a mystery.

It's not that Blair was President Bush's "poodle". Excessive American influence over and interference in British affairs is institutionalised. The personalities involved merely exaggerate the very one-sided arrangements that are already there.

We must all be encouraged by President Obama's internationalist public-spiritedness, and hope he sticks with it. The worry is that British politicians will be readier than ever to subordinate British interests to a charismatic President, should he revert to type and single-mindedly pursue the national interests of the US.

Crispin Black, a former government intelligence analyst, is writing a book on the 'special relationship'

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