The Real Special Relationship with Michael Smith

Intelligence Historian Michael Smith reveals more about his latest book, The Real Special Relationship – The True Story of How the British and US Secret Services Work Together.

On this episode of Spybrary the Spy Podcast, host Shane Whaley sits down with guest Michael Smith, an intelligence historian and author of The Real Special Relationship: The True Story of How the British and US Secret Services Work Together.

Michael Smith delves into the origins of the special relationship between the UK and the US, focusing on their collaboration in code-breaking during World War II and the subsequent intelligence sharing during the Cold War. The book covers key figures, such as Winston Churchill, Ian Fleming, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Kim Philby, and Edward Snowden.

Drawing on his personal experience in British military intelligence, Michael Smith provides a behind-the-scenes look at the close collaboration and alignment of intelligence that drives decision-making in both nations. The episode delves into various anecdotes and stories, including the recovery of a Soviet jet from a lake in West Berlin.

Join Shane Whaley and Michael Smith as they explore the fascinating world of UK and US secret services and their unique relationship.

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More About The Real Special Relationship – The True Story of How the British and US Secret Services Work Together.

Gripping, deeply researched, and authoritative, the history of one of the closest intelligence and security relationships in the world

The Special Relationship between the United States and Britain is touted by politicians when it suits their purpose and, as frequently, dismissed as myth, not least by the media. Yet the truth is that the two countries are bound together more closely than either is to any other ally. In The Real Special Relationship, Michael Smith reveals how it all began, eighty years ago, when a top-secret visit by four American codebreakers to Bletchley Park in February 1941—ten months before the US entered World War II—marked the start of a close collaboration between the intelligence services of the two nations.

When that war ended and the Cold War began, both sides recognized that the way they worked together to decode German and Japanese ciphers could be used to counter the Soviet threat. They laid the foundation for the behind-the-scenes intelligence sharing that has continued—despite rivalries among the services and occasional political conflict and public disputes between the two nations—through the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to the threats of the present moment.

Smith, who served in British military intelligence, brings together a fascinating range of characters, from Winston Churchill and Ian Fleming to John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Edward Snowden. Supported by in-depth interviews and a broad range of personal contacts in the intelligence community, he takes the reader into the workings of MI6, the CIA, the NSA, and all those who strive to keep us safe. Sir John Scarlett, former chief of MI6, has written the introduction, and Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and the NSA, has provided the foreword.

Intelligence Community Endorsement of The Real Special Relationship

‘A fascinating analysis of the greatest military-intelligence-political alliance of the modern era … warts and all'

– Nigel West

‘Smith compellingly conveys the conflicting currents in [the Special Relationship]. What Michael Smith has ingeniously written is a shadow history of the post-war world. It is a grippingly told, authoritative story roaming across continents and troubled regions, from Malaysia to the Middle East to Russia… This book is also a fascinatinganalysis of how empires dissolve, and of how new powers fill the vacuum.'

– Sinclair McKay, Mail on Sunday

‘As NSA Director for six years, I participated first hand in this special relationship. So special in fact that in the early days of the War on Terror, I told my British counterpart that in the event of a catastrophic loss at NSA Headquarters we would entrust management of the US SIGINT system to him. There is an unprecedented level of trust and this book is an excellent chronicle of the critical junctures that created this relationship, tested it and kept it strong.’

– Michael Hayden, former Director of both NSA and the CIA

‘Michael Smith, a respected historian of spookery who himself served in army intelligence before becoming a journalist, here offers an insider’s view of the transatlantic partnership… This is a responsible, unsensational account of the interservice relationship, which eschews harsh judgements about personalities.'

– Max Hastings, Sunday Times

‘This excellent book gives a detailed, highly professional account of the unique intelligence relationship, originally between the US and UK, now including Canada, Australia and New Zealand – the Five Eyes. For more than 80 years, this “special relationship” has been fundamental to the security of our countries and of liberal democracy. As the story makes clear, we certainly need each other now.’

– Sir John Scarlett, former MI6 Chief

‘Michael Smith was an intelligence professional before turning to journalism. There are few as qualified as he to put the whole story together and few who could tell it with such cogency. He relates the 80 years’ cooperation between the intelligence communities (principally the SIS and CIA) in astonishing and revelatory detail, with pace, clarity and authority. It is, quite simply, magnificent.'

– Allan Mallinson, Country Life

‘A fascinating, meticulously researched and deeply insightful book on what truly has been a “real special relationship” between British and American intelligence services over the past 80 years. Smith expertly chronicles the many secret conversations, decisions and joint activities that shaped not only the breadth and depth of the US-UK security relationship but also the course of major world events. The Real Special Relationship is a remarkably good read that will capture the interest of those with an understandable curiosity about how such close ties developed and why they continue to this day. As a former CIA Director, I can personally attest to the importance, strength and intimacy of the US-UK security partnership, which has no equal.'

– John Brennan, former CIA Director

‘[The Special Relationship's] history also makes for an engrossing, even thrilling, read. Michael Smith, a former military intelligence officer and author of several books about spying, handles the material judiciously and writes with élan.

– John Paul Rathbone, Financial Times

‘The US/UK intelligence relationship has quietly shaped world events over the last 80 years. Michael Smith convincingly explains how and why this unique partnership of trust came into being. He does not shy away from illuminating the difficulties and personality clashes in its early years but it is the account of the subsequent extraordinary joint successes that provide the most riveting read, successes that will ensure that the relationship will continue to be essential to our national security.’

– Professor Sir David Omand, former Director GCHQ and UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator

‘One of the many strengths of Michael Smith’s account is his charting of its transition from co-operation through wartime expediency to Cold War collaboration. With this thorough and very readable account there’s no excuse for anyone failing to understand the Special Relationship. That’s quite apart from the gems and asides Smith engagingly sprinkles throughout…It all makes for an excellent read.'

– Alan Judd, Spectator

‘A well written and gripping overview of one of the closest intelligence and security relationships in the world – one that has served both the UK and the US incredibly well over the past 80-plus years and that continues to make a true difference today to each nation and their friends and allies. Amazing to see the twists and turns in the relationship laid out before the reader in such a compelling story.’

– Admiral Mike Rogers, former NSA Director

‘'What keeps us on an even keel is the extraordinary connections between the military establishments…above all between the code-breakers and eavesdroppers at the National Security Agency and GCHQ. Smith’s well-researched and topical book (he manages to get in Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine) provides the answer to the perennial White House head-scratching question: do we still need the Brits? Smith’s conclusion: yes, they do.'

– Roger Boyes, The Times

The pre-eminent historian of Bletchley Park cuts through the hype about the Special Relationship to tell the gripping stories of what has been achieved in secret through the ups and downs of this enduring 80-year partnership. His account reminds us why it is worth preserving.’

– Robert Hannigan, former Director of GCHQ and Prime Minister's Security Adviser

‘A lucid account, rich in anecdote and detail, of events that defined Britain’s role during the Cold War and its aftermath.'

– Richard Norton-Taylor, Times Literary Supplement

‘[An] excellent overview from the Second World War to the present day. Smith’s account…covers over a broad span of years, all facets of what is not a single strand but a complex web of parallel arrangements between UK and US agencies. The trust and candour that makes the relationship so powerful has at times been undermined by lack of political support, or inter-agency rivalry. It is a challenge to convey all these elements over a period that includes the evolution from hot to cold war, and major turning points such as 9/11, but Smith rises to it in this very readable and well-researched account.'

– Gill Bennett, former chief historian of the FCO, Engelsberg Ideas

‘There is no more critical intelligence partnership than that between the US and the British secret services. Founded in the exceptional circumstances of the Second World War, it has been tested and developed in the confrontation with the Soviet Union, in every major foreign crisis in the post-World War II era and, most recently, in the war on terrorism, the tensions with China and the major confrontation with Russia over Ukraine and NATO expansion. Michael Smith has done a remarkable job in this book detailing the sheer depth of that historic collaboration. It is truly a “Special Relationship” built on trust and shared values and one that has been absolutely essential to protecting the national security of the US, Britain and the world.'

– Leon E. Panetta, former Director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense

Michael Smith’s fascinating new book reminds us that both sides have been the winners in the ‘special relationship' while not always following the same set of rules… This book should be read by anyone who wants to understand what this cooperation has done for each country. Smith … has done us a great service. He is right that the real special relationship should be celebrated: but it must not be mythologised, and never taken for granted.'

– Nick Fishwick, The Cipher Brief

‘The book is a brilliant illustration of the multiple strands of liaison on Sigint, Imint, human intelligence and other forms of sharing. Smith is excellent at documenting the issues from tensions over US activity in China to UK–US competition in the Middle East, yet the relationship remains as strong as ever. This is a meticulous study of the US–UK relationship…backed by intensive research of US and UK sources, and highly recommended reading.'

– Dan Lomas, Lecturer in Intelligence and Security Studies at Brunel University, RUSI Journal

‘A significant contribution to the literature of intelligence. It is a masterful, comprehensive exposition of a complex, compelling, often shrouded history

– Bowman H. Miller, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence

‘Smith approaches his work in the tradition of a seasoned researcher — exploring primary sources in archives, referencing other secondary literature, and conducting interviews — but he writes with the captivating prose of a crime novelist. Despite Smith’s laudable objectivity, his access to interviews with key players is illustrative of the trust that the US and UK intelligence communities place in him

– David V. Gioe, Society

Excellent … the book makes for an easy, well-organized read. The author’s style isclear and crisp and the substance backed by extensive research, much of it archival as well based on interviews with former intelligence officers' 

– Srdjan Vucetic, Intelligence and National Security

‘Fascinating … A detailed, richly sourced, analysis of an enduring special relationship … an excellent introduction to the key international events from World War Two to the present day'

– Journal of Intelligence History

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