LONDON—The protection of highly classified secrets is one of the golden rules of the most exclusive intelligence club on the planet.
There are only five member nations in this club, sharing, on a daily basis, a treasure-trove of covertly acquired secret information about foreign governments, terrorist organizations and targeted individuals which provides an unrivaled insight into developing security, economic and political threats around the world.
“The Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing organization, whose members are the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is unique. They depend on each other’s absolute trustworthiness.
One of its members, Australia, broke the golden rule this week—in comical fashion—by leaving a pile of top secret government documents in two locked filing cabinets which were sold for 20 Australian dollars in a second-hand furniture store in Canberra. While the revelations broadcast by the Australian national TV station ABC, which acquired the papers, are unlikely to cause long-term damage to Australia’s national security, the lapse is the latest blow to the Five Eyes club.
Indeed, the conditions of membership were under serious strain this week. Not because of the Australian blunder, but because of a political decision by U.S. President Donald Trump.
The infamous House Intelligence Committee memo alleging that the FBI misused its surveillance powers against a Trump aide during the election campaign raised concerns that British as well as U.S. operational methods might be exposed because of the president’s willingness to publish it.
Congressional sources told The Daily Telegraph that Britain’s intelligence services, which work so closely with their U.S. counterparts, would be worried that their spying techniques could also be compromised by the memo’s publication.
Sir David Omand, former director of GCHQ, Britain’s signals intelligence center, told The Daily Beast he thought this was “unlikely.” But he warned that allegations had already emerged in the public domain that GCHQ had tipped off the U.S. that there had been communications between Trump campaign people and the Russians before the election.
While monitoring the Russians, GCHQ operators found themselves listening to senior figures in the Trump election team. “So that could be potentially damaging if it [the publication of the memo] allowed the Russians to infer how these communications were obtained,” Sir David said.
He noted that it was “unusual” for a political directive to be issued for the release of intelligence.
Whether it compromises British techniques or not, the political context surrounding the House Intelligence Committee memo raises serious issues for the Five Eyes organization.
The club has experienced its fair share of embarrassing episodes in the last few years, the most devastating of which was the exposure by Edward Snowden of thousands of top secret files copied and removed from the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) where he had been working as a contractor.
Snowden, traitor or whistleblower, depending on your point of view, did more damage to the sacred Five Eyes agreement than anything any member of the club has ever done since it was founded.
The Five Eyes members have clung to each like lovers despite a rapidly changing world in which intelligence-sharing between nations can make the difference between life and death, so grave is the threat from international terrorists and rogue states.
Why then is Five Eyes still so exclusively limited to the English-speaking powers? Is there not a case for the club to invite in more members from Europe and from trusted nations in the Middle East? Would the world be a safer place if Five Eyes was now Ten Eyes or Twenty Eyes?
The answer is complex.
There are already numerous arrangements under which “third-party” countries can benefit from intelligence acquired by the Five Eyes partners. Countries such as France, Norway, The Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Sweden have all at some point been allowed into the club as unofficial members when their national security interests are at stake. But only for intelligence relevant to their concerns.
Cooperation between the Five Eyes members and other intelligence services has increased markedly since 9/11. European intelligence agencies are also more coordinated than ever, and NATO’s intelligence-gathering set-up has improved.
Trust is the absolute gold standard for intelligence sharing. Most people in the intelligence community would say that the more countries you share intelligence with on a regular basis the greater the risk of a leak or a security breach.
So, the Five Eyes is likely to remain Five Eyes for that very reason.
The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House was met with some trepidation, although never openly or officially. He had railed against the CIA in his election campaign and he openly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin.
To the British government’s dismay, he also appeared to back an American media commentator’s accusation that GCHQ had been asked by President Barack Obama to eavesdrop on his suite of rooms at Trump Tower in New York. The allegation was dismissed by GCHQ as “utterly ridiculous”.
One of the tenets of the Five Eyes is that intelligence gleaned within the club can never be shared to third parties without the approval of the nation which specifically collected the information. It’s a general rule for most intelligence services.
Trump seemed to have broken that rule when he revealed details of an Islamic State terrorist plot when talking to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, during a meeting in the White House in May last year. It was later reported that the intelligence had come from the Israelis, and had not even been passed to U.S. allies.
British Prime Minister Theresa May had to intervene with President Trump when secret operational details about the Manchester bombing in May last year were leaked to the U.S. media. The bomber was identified before the Manchester police were ready to publish that information, and pictures appeared of the bomb remains. The police were so angry they temporarily suspended sharing information with U.S. counterparts.
The Obama administration was also involved in a breach of the intelligence-sharing rules. In 2012, details of a plot by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate an explosive device in his underwear on a passenger plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit were released to the American press.
It exposed the involvement of a British intelligence source who played a vital role in foiling the plot. It caused outrage in the British intelligence community.
With the latest intelligence spat over the Russia collusion memo, what expectation can there be that the historic Five Eyes arrangement, which lies at the heart of the so-called “special relationship” between the U.S. and U.K., can survive in its current format?
The answer lies in the unbreakable bond that exists between the intelligence services of the five countries. Irrespective of who is in government, the operational heads of the agencies themselves work so closely together that they can maintain the flow of intelligence whatever is going on in the political world.
The trust between them is built on decades of cooperation and the forging of personal relationships.
“I wouldn’t expect this to rock the boat. The Five Eyes agreement is based on day-to-day cooperation which makes it much more important than any of these individual instances [such as the publication of the memo],” Sir David said.
The Five Eyes club is principally based around signals intelligence, the most exotic of all secrets-gathering methods. The giant NSA at Fort Meade in Maryland is inextricably linked— and not just by fiber-optic cabling—to GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Staff from each organization are seconded to the other.
Each of the Five Eyes members have their different roles. GCHQ’s listening station outpost in Cyprus, for example, monitors electronic signals traffic in and out of the Middle East. Australia’s signals intelligence station at Pine Gap, southwest of Alice Springs, monitors traffic in South and East Asia. New Zealand has two listening stations that focus on the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. Canada is known to monitor Russia, China and Latin America.
The dominant signals intelligence provider, of course, is the US. American spy satellites, some of which are controlled from Australia’s Pine Gap station, scoop up millions of electronic communications 24 hours a day.
The intelligence-sharing partnership was originally just between the U.S. and Britain. The UKUSA Agreement, signed in March 1946, was aimed at continuing the extraordinarily successful code-breaking partnership of the Second World War. Canada joined in 1948, and Australia and New Zealand made up the Five Eyes club in 1956.
Part of the agreement was that none of them would spy on each other. And not all intelligence would be shared. Some material would always be U.S. Eyes Only. The Snowden revelations disclosed that the NSA had been spying on Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. Presumably that was not shared around the Five Eyes members.
When the U.S. and U.K. started out on this unprecedented intelligence venture, the two allies began eavesdropping on life in the Soviet Union.
According to declassified files released by Britain’s National Archives in 2010, the bulk of the signals intelligence intercepts was comprised of individual communications about military capability, mobilisation plans, weapons development and morale among the Soviet troops in the early days of the Cold War.
However, there were also some gems picked up from ordinary Russians trying to live their lives under constant fear of war. One Russian mother was heard saying: “I am afraid of leaving the kids here. What about a war, all of a sudden?”
Today, U.S. spy satellites are undoubtedly back listening to the Russians to check on morale and military readiness. But not everyone outside the Five Eyes family is going to hear about it.