Operation Yellowhammer

On 18 August, the Sunday Times carried a front page story based on leaked government documents (Codename: Operation Yellowhammer). This secret report concerns the consequences of a No Deal Brexit. Most of the subsequent media attention has been on possible fuel, medicine and food shortages. But one line of the secret report, almost hidden amongst the reams of text, was significant in espionage terms. It read: “This is a clear indication for the first time that the intelligence suggests just how hard the European Union (EU) will punish us.”

Two points arise: the first is that the UK is gathering secret intelligence on EU intentions. But this is hardly a surprise. As those who study espionage know, allies spy on allies all the time. Brexit is so important to the economic prospects of the UK that it is to be expected that they will gather secret intelligence on this subject. What is slightly more worrying is that the report says that “for the first time” the intelligence is “suggesting” what the EU will do. So what does this mean? Why is there no definite intelligence? And why is it so late? Is this another case of SIS failing to deliver?

According to our sources it is not quite as simple as that. SIS has long had the capability to report on EU targets. As long ago as 1986, SIS had a source known as ORCADA in Germany’s central bank, the Bundesbank. Subsequently, the SIS defector Richard Tomlinson revealed that in the 1990s, SIS was able to pass sensitive intelligence on German interest rate plans to British customers including Midland Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland and Kleinwort Benson. At that time, SIS maintained up to ten officers in a section known as UKB whose job was to conduct economic espionage against European targets including Germany, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. In 1993, intelligence provided by this section helped British Aerospace to secure a £500 million deal to supply twenty four Hawk jets to Indonesia by supplying details of a competing bid from French manufacturer, Dassault.

Further confirmation of the SIS anti-EU capability was provided by former Press Secretary Alastair Campbell in his published diary extracts. In a diary entry for 12th October 2000 he wrote: “TB showed me a piece of intelligence which showed that the Germans assessed our problems on Europe not as one of public opinion, or the Tories, but a sense that TB and GB were on a different track to each other.” Similarly, on 7th December 2000, Campbell wrote: “The French and Germans, according to the spooks, were exploiting the fact that GB was seen as a rival to TB, to try to divide them further”.

So there is no doubting the SIS capability against EU member states. There is also a long standing Cabinet Office requirement for intelligence on the EU’s intentions towards the UK post-Brexit. The problem with providing meaningful intelligence has been the uncertainty surrounding whether or not Brexit will happen and if it does, what form it will take. It is not as if there is a secret plan locked in a vault in Brussels and all SIS has to do is to break in and steal it or recruit an extra source. The intelligence, such as it is, has been far more tenuous and it is this fact that has given SIS problems.

For the past three years, much of the useable intelligence of EU intentions has been gathered the old fashioned way – through diplomatic channels. The FCO has been able to provide a fairly comprehensive picture of EU thinking. It is only recently that SIS has been able to step in as it has become clearer that there is almost certain to be a No Deal Brexit and the members of the European Union have been forced to make definite plans. This is the new intelligence that the report is referring to. If SIS had been able to produce meaningful intelligence then the UK should have been able to procure a deal. It did not. How effective the remaining SIS intelligence has been will be judged by the UK’s post Brexit performance. Judging by the leaked report, the signs are not promising.

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