As Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon unveils a series of white papers to support the SNP’s renewed independence push, there is an open question about how Holyrood plans to organise its future intelligence agency. Some commentators, such as Andrew Neal, argue that Scotland should have a domestically focused intelligence service because foreign intelligence-gathering is too costly. Others, like former GCHQ director Sir David Ormand, believe that it’s possible to set up a successful foreign intelligence service but it would be completely dependent on allies.
The debate highlights a need to define our expectations about what a Scottish intelligence agency would do. There are many misconceptions about what such agencies are for and what they can accomplish with modest resources. Scotland’s small size would limit the resources of a Scottish intelligence agency, but it can nonetheless fulfil a core need to keep Scottish leaders informed of global affairs.
To have an informed debate about the role of intelligence, we need to start with the basics. For example, Scotland’s intelligence service would have the following requirements:
- Provide Scottish policymakers with intelligence and warning about threats, trends, and opportunities
- Liaise with foreign intelligence agencies and the Scottish police to share or receive intelligence
- Protect Scotland and Scottish embassies abroad from foreign intelligence agencies
- Support the Scottish military’s operations
There is an obvious need for some degree of domestic intelligence-gathering to fulfil the requirements listed above. There is also a limit to what a Scottish intelligence agency could reasonably achieve abroad. Still, these core responsibilities require a focus on external intelligence gathering and are perfectly achievable on a tight budget. On balance, resources put towards intelligence should skew more towards analysing foreign affairs than domestic intelligence-gathering.
Scottish interests lie in lifting the ‘fog of war’
The SNP’s commitment to joining NATO is a commitment to take foreign threats seriously. NATO is at loggerheads with Russia over the conflict in Ukraine and explicitly stated that it considers China a security challenge. Membership in NATO, and Scotland’s position in the North Sea, requires a serious effort to analyse Russian activity and a need to keep tabs on China. Scottish leaders would also need intelligence about smaller NATO missions that Scotland might be involved in, like those in Kosovo and the Baltics.
Scotland does not need resources on the scale of the UK’s intelligence community to set up a serious intelligence service. Most critics point to the cost of collecting and processing raw information, particularly intercepting signals, running spy networks, and collecting satellite imagery. Massive collection efforts like those of the US and UK are costly, but there are ways for Scotland to reduce costs and maximise resources.
An independent Scotland’s foreign policy goals would be more modest than those of a global power like the UK, so demand for intelligence-gathering via signals and spy networks would be modest. Scottish analysts could also purchase satellite imagery as needed from commercial satellite companies, which is significantly cheaper than launching their own.
Working with allies will boost the effectiveness of a Scottish intelligence service
Liaising with the intelligence services of friendly countries gives Scotland access to intelligence and tools that it otherwise could not afford. Joining intelligence-sharing efforts such as the Five Eyes, an agreement between the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, would significantly cut costs. NATO and the EU both have intelligence-sharing structures, but not on the scale or significance of Five Eyes.
Critics of joining Five Eyes, particularly Neal, argue that the standards for safeguarding intelligence would be too steep, but protecting sensitive information is feasible and necessary. For example, New Zealand, with a population slightly smaller than Scotland, meets Five Eye standards even though it spends about 1% of its annual budget on intelligence and has fewer than one thousand employees across their intelligence community. Beyond just appeasing Five Eyes, having good standards for safeguarding intelligence gives other NATO and EU countries confidence that they can securely share intelligence with Scotland.
In countries like Ireland and Estonia, law enforcement and internal security agencies lead on civilian counterintelligence issues. Of course, there is a need for internal intelligence efforts as well, but it should not consume most of Scotland’s intelligence resources. Instead, Scottish intelligence should liaise with police on counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity, and relay information from friendly governments that assist them with countering transnational organised crime. Outside of providing information, delegating much of the responsibility for domestic security to Scotland’s police force would ease the budgetary burden and avoid the controversies that accompany spy agencies aggressively surveilling their own populations.
Scotland must decide what it needs before it allocates resources
Scottish intelligence would also need to support the Scottish armed forces. The commitment to joining NATO means the possibility that Scotland would go to war with some of the most advanced militaries in the world. The potential for war, even if remote, means the Scottish military will need intelligence support to assess the size and capabilities of potential adversaries, monitoring of global crises, and assistance in securing their own capabilities and plans from espionage. If Scotland wishes to be involved in international peacekeeping, as SNP MP and defence spokesman Stewart McDonald suggested, then Scottish peacekeepers will need intelligence support to maximise their effectiveness and ensure their safety.
Designing an intelligence service that primarily focuses on internal intelligence-gathering will only lead to complications in organisational structure and parliamentary oversight when Scotland’s leaders begin sending foreign intelligence requirements. In democratic societies, intelligence agencies exist because world leaders want to know what’s happening abroad. Scotland will not have the world’s most prolific intelligence agency but using resources judiciously could make it world-class for Scotland and its interests.