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December 13, 2013 7:22 pm
Like relaxed work colleagues casually sharing the tricks of the trade, American and British intelligence officers tracking a Pakistani terrorist group chatted online about the tools used to read intercepted documents.
“I don’t normally use Heretic to scan the fax traffic, I use Nucleon,” said one officer. Another gave up trying to decipher a set of messages from Lashkar-e-Taiba. “Most of it is in Arabic or Farsi, so I can’t make out much of it,” he told an internal message group.
The chatroom contents, first published in The New York Times, were contained in the flood of documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former US intelligence contractor-turned-whistleblower now in exile in Russia.
The leaks have infuriated the US and its intelligence allies for good reason. On top of detailing sensitive spy operations, Mr Snowden has exposed the world’s most powerful and enduring intelligence alliance, the “Five Eyes”, binding together the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Formed in secret in 1946 after the second world war and not acknowledged in public until decades later, the unique Five Eyes arrangement has two core rules: the partners share intelligence and they do not spy on each other.
“There is no more important set of (intelligence) relations that each of these countries has with each other’s services,” said a former senior CIA official. “I would say they are just as important today as they have always been, if not more important.”
Until Mr Snowden left his post as a contractor at the National Security Agency in Hawaii earlier this year, carrying the electronic records of 200,000-odd highly sensitive intelligence documents with him, few outside of the global espionage establishment would have heard of the Five Eyes.
But to the anger of all five countries, he has put the alliance’s intimacies in the spotlight and fuelled a movement to rein in the intelligence behemoth that is every bit as global as the Five Eyes alliance.
“It’s a hidden empire,” says Thomas Drake, another former NSA employee-turned-whistleblower. “It is like the midnight sun that never sets. You can’t see it unless you are there.”
The NSA is facing a backlash in Congress, both from Republicans and Democrats, and also from its technology companies. America’s most successful emerging global industry has been embarrassed by revelations that its networks at home and abroad have been compromised.
America’s eight big tech companies, usually intense rivals, released an unusual joint letter this week demanding that Washington rein in its spies, to set an example that less powerful governments could follow.
Founded to share signals intelligence, the Five Eyes has expanded to include using each other’s agents on the ground and regular exchanges of strategic assessments. In the process, it has become a powerful behind-the-curtain force shaping the countries’ foreign and defence policies.
“Because you work together and share information, you start to embed each other in your world view,” says Philip Zelikow, a former White House official who served on the intelligence advisory boards of both George W Bush and Barack Obama.
Mr Bush’s “war on terror” magnified the alliance, prompting the partners to swell their intelligence budgets and hire thousands of new spies, analysts and linguists. In the US and the UK, intelligence budgets have doubled since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In Australia and Canada, spending on some budget items has tripled.
After Chancellor Angela Merkel phoned President Obama in late October to complain about the US tapping her mobile phone, Berlin also asked for a Five Eyes-style deal, in which the US would pledge not to spy on Germany. With the support of its Five Eyes partners, the US swiftly rejected Ms Merkel’s request. In their collective view, latecomers from outside the Anglosphere are not welcome to join the club.
“None of the players think the arrangement should be expanded” to include Germany, said a senior official of one of the partner countries. “This has been built up over 60 to 70 years. It works and I don’t detect any interest in expanding it.”
The alliance has both phenomenal global capacity and a level of integration unmatched by any other intelligence alliance. The five English-speaking partners have long swapped personnel so that their officials work alongside each other throughout the world and sometimes throughout their careers.
It’s a hidden empire. It’s like the midnight sun that never sets. You can’t see it unless you are there
- Thomas Drake, former NSA employee
Like a global 24-hour news organisation, their operations and facilities cover all time zones and continents, from listening stations in the Australian desert and Asia-based embassies and naval ships to the UK countryside and the NSA headquarters in Maryland, near Washington.
Such an operation is difficult to build and for the west’s geopolitical rivals, notably China and Russia, impossible to replicate. “It takes a long time to create the mechanics needed to have a relationship that is so elaborate,” says Greg Fyffe of the University of Ottawa, a former head of intelligence assessment in Canada.
Glenn Greenwald, the US lawyer and journalist who has acted as a conduit for Mr Snowden’s documents and a co-writer of many stories about them, has been taken aback by the depth of co-operation.
“It is not as though this is five distinctive countries trying to find common ground – the alliance is incredibly integrated,” he says, speaking from Rio de Janeiro. “It is surprising, really. You would think that the different political cultures and histories of each country might mean they had different approaches but there is no indication of that.”
The alliance has had only one serious public rupture, when New Zealand was excluded in the 1980s over its policy of refusing to allow nuclear-powered ships to enter its ports. Wellington was not allowed back into the club until about two decades later.
The US insists it is a partnership of equals. “Everyone brings something to the table and contributes in a significant way. I never felt it was one-sided,” says the former senior CIA official.
But the sheer size of the US intelligence budget – $53bn in 2013, some of which is spent building facilities it operates with its partners – makes Washington the undoubted leader of the group.
Far from the US coercing the other partners to work with it, the pressures often run in the opposite direction. The smaller partners sometimes press the US to share as much as possible. “The other four have a consistent interest in driving greater access because the other guy has so much of it,” says another senior western government official.
The Five Eyes relationship is being tested, however, by how the US responds to the pushback from a growing band of bipartisan critics in Congress who think the intelligence community has grown out of control.
Mr Obama, who is due to receive a report tomorrow about ways to reform the reach and oversight of its agencies, is being pulled in multiple directions. US tech companies, worried about being shut out of growing global markets, want mass data collection curtailed. Countries such as France and Germany, which are both partners and targets of US intelligence, are also demanding changes.
“The White House seems to want to find ways of reassuring those countries but I am not sure how they can resolve this,” says the western government official.
Washington has only committed to cosmetic changes so far, saying publicly Ms Merkel’s phone will not be tapped again. Privately, administration officials say the US will no longer spy on the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the UN building in New York.
But standing in the way of radical change is the NSA. It insists it must keep its most controversial method of tracking terrorists: the bulk collection of billions of telephone and internet records from around the world.
“There is no other way we know to connect the dots,” Keith Alexander, the NSA head, told the Senate judiciary committee this week.
It would be a brave president in a post 9/11 US who overrode the advice of his intelligence advisers and Mr Obama has shown no inclination to do so.
The report to Mr Obama is likely to support the continuation of bulk collection, both in the US and abroad, but with a new set of safeguards, designed both to reassure domestic critics, and also allies in Europe and South America. “I’ll be proposing some self-restraint on the NSA and, you know, to initiate some reforms that can give people more confidence,” he told MSNBC last week.
Mr Obama added in the interview that“outside of our borders, the NSA’s more aggressive. It’s not constrained by laws.”
The argument that the NSA can do whatever it likes outside the US is what infuriates its foreign critics.
For the Five Eyes governments, though, the arrangement has too much going for the fundamentals of the alliance to be disturbed. “That is one of the things that has surprised me the most: about how little conflict there is,” Mr Greenwald says. “They share the mentality of ‘collect it all’.”
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