Spies for Europe.

We’ve suspected for some time that the French and German governments’ refusal to take part in the Iraq war had something to do with their access to independent overhead imagery satellites. Briefly, France and Germany did (with the HELIOS and SAR Lupe programs respectively), and didn’t take part at all. Spain and Italy had some access to French imagery and had advanced plans to get their own. They made a limited commitment. The UK, Australia, Denmark, and the ROK relied on the United States and were, in a phrase that should be better known outside Australia, all the way with LBJ. Turkey didn’t have its own, although it has since acquired a satellite from Italy and it did have liaison staff at the little-known EU Satellite Centre, but it probably had ample intelligence from human sources.

The original statement is in this Ken Silverstein piece (see this blog post of mine from 2006):

“They say everyone else was wrong,” said this former official, “but we conditioned them to be wrong. We spend [tens of billions of dollars per year] on signals intelligence and when we reach a conclusion, the people who spend less than that tend to believe us. They weren’t wrong, they chose to believe us. The British, Germans, and Italians don’t have all those overhead assets, so they rely on us. Historically they have been well-served, so they believe us when we tell them the earth is round. The French have their own assets—and guess what? They didn’t go with us.”

Guilhem Penent, of France’s IFRI and IRSEM thinktanks, writes in the Space Review as follows:

Regarding outer space, France’s main objective is to perpetuate its autonomy and national sovereignty. As sovereignty is the state of determining itself based on its own will without depending on other nations, satellites are, first and foremost, the guarantee of France’s autonomy in assessment and thereby in decision-making.

The decision not to follow the US in 2003 was thus taken by then President Jacques Chirac in accordance with intelligence based for the most part on Earth-imaging satellite HELIOS 1, whose findings were in contradiction which was being said at the UN Security Council. When the war in South Ossetia broke out in 2008 between Russia and Georgia, then President Nicolas Sarkozy, as chair of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), used images provided by HELIOS 1 and HELIOS 2 to deny Russia’s allegations about the withdrawal of its troops when those troops were actually progressing southward.

This is the first public confirmation, I believe, that the French did in fact stand out of the Iraq war because HELIOS imagery showed that the WMD claims were nonsense. IFRI, and even more so IRSEM, are organisations with the status of something like CSBA in the States or RUSI in the UK, so this should be taken seriously.

Chris Williams, who pointed me to the TSR piece, contrasts the British concern about sovereignty with regard to things like bananas, beef, and birth certificates, with the French equation of it with independent verification technology. He has a point. (So does Dan Hardie in comments there, who points out that perhaps the French could have benefited by worrying more about their influence over monetary policy, something no British Eurosceptic has ever omitted to worry about.) I’ve repeatedly argued this elsewhere.

There are a couple of points here. I feel a degree of contradiction between my suspicion of mass telecoms surveillance and my enthusiasm for overhead imagery. Perhaps that’s just the conviction that however much fuss I kick up, it’s unlikely anyone will burn limited delta-vee to get pictures of me, but you can’t say that about X-KEYSCORE. With more consideration, I think it’s the terms-of-trade in the relationships I described in this post that worry me most of all.

From a British point of view, the deal was fairly simple. The UK would concentrate on signals intelligence and would share everything with the US, and would stay out of the satellite business. In exchange, the US would share back their satellite product. We know that on at least one occasion, during the Falklands War, this didn’t happen. Later, the UK started a major project, known as ZIRCON, to build a signals intelligence satellite. This went overbudget badly, but got a surprising degree of support from Margaret Thatcher for reasons of sovereignty vis-a-vis the US, before being abandoned when the Americans instead offered a share of the targeting slots for their equivalent system in exchange for cash.

But the ZIRCON strand of the story doesn’t cover imagery. It seems that the national interest was very poorly served by this part of the deal – the implicit sigint-for-imagery trade – to say the least, both in Iraq and possibly later in Afghanistan.

Since the 1980s, the cost of satellites has fallen sharply, notably due to the work at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. in Guildford. The UK had a very quiet test project between 2005 and 2009, and going ahead with an operational system on a similar basis to the Germans’ was being discussed openly by the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills as late as early 2011. Since then, it’s all gone quiet over here…so what did happen to that project? And do we need more Europe here?

I think the answer to that is much more clearly Yes than it ever was with regard to the Euro. The main objection from the UK side (and from Atlanticist Europe more broadly) is that the Americans might not share as much stuff with us. But this makes less sense on close examination. In so far as it is a market-like, bargaining relationship, we would be in a stronger position. In so far as it is a relationship of integration among allies, the alliance would be better off as a whole and might be more allied. In so far as it is a feudal, tributary relationship, it would be less so. (You’ll notice that Penent alludes to this in the TSR article.)

And this doesn’t take any account of the quality of the information received. It seems that the information the US shared with its partners in the intelligence special relationship before Iraq was worse than useless – in fact, functionally defined, it was disinformation. Its recipients were less informed after receiving it than they were before. Even a small increase in independent capability might have the useful effect of keeping both parties more honest.

13 thoughts on “Spies for Europe.

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  2. I remember reading a science fiction story a number of years back where someone was feeding disinformation to the spy satellites in the hope of bluffing the other side. Seems as though people forget that controlling information gives one control over actions.

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  6. An interesting post. Thank you.

    On a point of detail, the French did worry about their influence over monetary policy. That was why they were in favour of monetary union, which gave them a say. Before that they had their policy dictated to them by the Bundesbank as they had a fixed exchange rate regime. Everything the Germans did, they had to follow. The mainland Europeans have never shared our enthusiasm for floating exchange rates. Hence the ERM.

  7. Interesting post. I am no expert in military strategy and satellite telecommunications, however a couple of remarks:

    1) I have, unfortunately, pretty precise memories of those years: the Italians went with the US because they wanted to, not because they relied on US intel. Berlusconi essentially wanted to look good on photos with GW as a way to disenfranchise himself from the Franco-German axis. I remember the case of Panorama, a magazine owned by Berlusconi, who leaked a fake report about Iraq acquiring uranium from Niger (a French-controlled territory, no less). It was obvious to many, and doubtless to Berlusconi as well, that the whole Iraq thing was a scam, but he just needed an excuse, any excuse, to go with the inevitable winner.

    Besides, Italy used to have very good relationships with Iraq, and must have been aware of the situation.

    2) There is a slight contradiction in the article: Germany was against the war as well, yet did not have independent intelligence – though could probably rely on the French, as the axis was much stronger at that time.

    3) Italy and France have a pretty close cooperation in satellite-related things. Telespazio, the national satellite company, is a French-Italian project. So are Thales Alenia Space and NGL Prime. The French government, through Thales, is pretty much integrated into NATO. Large European countries must have had access to more or less the same information at the time.

    I believe it pretty much boiled down to “New Europe” trying to carve out a place for itself within the EU and under the shadow of the US, and “Old Europe” trying to keep the EU a Franco-German affair. Aznar and Berlusconi – essentially two heirs of fascism – wanted some respite from the French and the Germans. The Eastern block wanted to please the US and contain Russia. The French and Germans wanted to stay the hegemons of Europe. The UK wanted to displease the continental powers. The US wanted everything.

    I would not assume good faith in European governments: those who supported the war had their reasons, as did those who did not. I just assume everybody knew that there were no WMDs.

  8. This is interesting but surely a bit linear – no satellites + reliance on the US = unneccesary foreign war. What about the intimate relationship between GCHQ and the NSA/US intelligence community? As the Snowden files show quite clearly, GCHQ has been whoring itself out to the US corporate/intelligence complex for some decades now, acting not just as a provider of intelligence but a number-cruncher and metadata collector the NSA has come to rely on to the extent that it has become a significant contributor to GCHQ growth and running costs.

    Are we really supposed to think that GCHQ had a) no role at all in faking the intelligence Tony Blair needed to lie the UK into the Iraq war and b) had no idea that satellite data contradicted the ‘intelligence’ used to build the case for war, and then did nothing about it? Now that UK intelligence is just an offshore subsidiary of the NSA, we should surely take some responsibility for the atrocities that have resulted from GCHQ agreeing to become a catamite for the US…

  9. William C, above, is quite right about monetary policy. Frankfurt vs. franc fort, as it were, and we see where everyone else wanted the headquarters of the ECB.

  10. Wow, yet another perfect example of back to front cod-logic. Yes, the UK decided to go in with the US on satellite surveillance rather than pursue its own program. But did that enable the US to trick the UK into going into Iraq, unlike those shrew Frenchies?

    Apparently Harrowell has forgotten just how much work one Anthony Blair put into getting the UK into Iraq, including putting out White Papers that turned out the be plagiarised from someone’s Master’s Dissertation, alleging that the Sovereign Base on Cyprus was at risk from rockets, and going after journalists who dared to suggest that the intelligence was being “fixed” around a pre-determined conclusions. If Labour were actually fooled, they were trying rather hard to be fooled. In fact, if you think Labour were really “fooled”, I have a bridge to sell you.

    And on a note of really elementary logic, does the fact that you get satellite imagery from the Americans mean you can’t get it elsewhere? For example, from public satellite imagery that is so good that both the UK and France have been known to grey-out areas around military bases?

    The begged question in this piece is the underlying assumption that the UK wants to be independent of the US, like mighty France, but is somehow kept in helotry by lack of independent satellite data. But that’s daft. The UK keeps making conscious decisions to integrate its intelligence with that of the US, and I can only assume that this is because the UK thinks that this is in the UK’s best interests.

    Oh, and other begged question is the repeated assumption that Iraq and Afghanistan have somehow been disasters for the UK. They been disasters for Iraq and Afghanistan, that much is clear, for the UK, much less so.

  11. And on a note of really elementary logic, does the fact that you get satellite imagery from the Americans mean you can’t get it elsewhere? For example, from public satellite imagery that is so good that both the UK and France have been known to grey-out areas around military bases?

    Oh ffs, do you really think Google Earth is the last word here?

  12. Apparently Harrowell has forgotten just how much work one Anthony Blair put into getting the UK into Iraq, including putting out White Papers that turned out the be plagiarised from someone’s Master’s Dissertation, alleging that the Sovereign Base on Cyprus was at risk from rockets, and going after journalists who dared to suggest that the intelligence was being “fixed” around a pre-determined conclusions. If Labour were actually fooled, they were trying rather hard to be fooled. In fact, if you think Labour were really “fooled”, I have a bridge to sell you.

    OK, first point, here is your yellow card for being deliberately offensive. You have been warned.

    On a substantive point, the whole dossier story is all about what happened after they were convinced; it says nothing about how they were convinced. They went after journalists, etc, in June-July 2003, months after the dossier and indeed after the war, when it was painfully obvious that they’d fucked up and doing anything else would just draw further attention to the upfuck.

    On a general point, people who put effort into being conned are as common as spilled beer; the process of letting the victim make the effort and therefore commit themselves, playing on loss aversion, even has a name, “cooling out the mark”….

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