Foreign Policy Blogs

Is The Five Eyes Network Still Relevant Today?

By Fred Johnston

In April, a clandestine meeting took place in New Zealand that included attendees from representatives of the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency plus the United Kingdom’s MI5 and MI6, amongst others. They were brought together to discuss and facilitate intelligence sharing between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, colloquially known as the Five Eyes network.

These nations have been coming together since an alliance was established in 1946 through the UKUSA agreement, with the other three countries joining the collective over the following ten years. The partnership was established on mutual trust and potential advantages for each country, coming at a time when the looming threat of communism from the Soviet Union swept through sections of Asia during the Cold War.

During said period, the alliance paid dividends. In the 1970s, Anglo-American operations were essential in tracking Soviet submarines using a variety of means, while the United States relied heavily for decades on listening posts lying in former British imperial territories. Half the cost of running the Cypriot site was paid for by the US, demonstrating its significance in acquiring intelligence from the Middle East with this post.

The merits of a shared surveillance alliance are plain to see, though one could argue the future of Five Eyes could be jeopardy. In March, former CIA analyst Larry C. Johnson claimed Britain’s intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had intercepted communications within Trump Tower during the 2016 Presidential election.

His evidence for such sensational claims? GCHQ Director Robert Hannigan had resigned three days after Trump’s inauguration. Hannigan said he was to care for his ill wife and elderly parents, but Johnson declared he “doesn’t believe in coincidences”. The real reason for the resignation, he surmised, was clear: The British government had been gathering intelligence on the Trump administration, and once Trump was made aware of this, Hannigan was forced to step down.

Unfortunately, this unproven claim became tangled in the echo chamber of the media—Johnson’s theory were soon picked up by Andrew Napolitano, a Trump confidant and pundit for Fox News. Two days later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer cited Napolitano’s comments at a briefing, which evoked a forceful denial from their British allies.

One would think maintaining a positive relationship with like-minded, democratic allies with whom intelligence information has being shared for decades would be seen as a priority for the United States. Yet with the Trump administration demonstrating distrust for the UK in recent months, doubts grow around whether such arrangements will continue in the future.

Ties with traditional US allies have not only grown fractured with Britain. At the conclusion of bruising meetings with NATO and G7 countries, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel remarked at an election rally, “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over. I’ve experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans truly have to take fate into our own hands.”

A not-so subtle commentary on the degeneration of Germany-US relations, which really began to slide with George W. Bush and Gerhard Schroeder’s split decision on the Iraq war in 2003. It also signals the level of diplomatic success experienced by Trump during these meetings—if the head of state of arguably Europe’s biggest economy is losing faith, it does not bode well for the US.

While Trump’s actions are a cause for concern on the diplomacy front, he has also made strong accusations against the intelligence community—his own, that is. In February, Trump took to Twitter with the following claim, “Information is being illegally given to the failing NY Times and Washington Post by the intelligence community (NSA & FBI). Just like Russia.”

This was in response to the resignation of national security advisor Michael Flynn over potentially illegal contacts with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 Presidential campaign. Whether or not the contact took place is a different matter of debate—Trump’s public comments toward the intelligence community undermines the work this industry has performed for many decades (in a Tweet, no less). If Trump treats his own reconnaissance agencies with such disregard, it would be understandable for other nations to be weary of sharing sensitive information with Donald at the helm.

When examining the US approach towards shared intelligence, one may assume there are doubts on the legitimacy and significance of such agreements. After all, this agreement was sought at the beginning of the Cold War; we no longer exist in a bipolar world of “us and them”, where the threat to Western society lying on the other side of the wall. Does Western society still require joint intelligence and security arrangements, like the Five Eyes network, or are such agreements obsolete?

Firstly, the current manifestations of Five Eyes’ traditional threats, demonstrating their prioritization of military and defense, is a worrying trend. Throughout history, access to the Mediterranean Sea had been crucial to Russia.

Earlier this year, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said the “Mediterranean region was the core of all essential dangers to Russia’s national interest”, which shows a reigniting of interest from Moscow. Along with Russia’s intervention in Syria, Five Eyes member countries must be concerned with Moscow’s military expansion intentions.

Meanwhile, China’s provocative military build-up, its assertive behavior in the South China Sea and its power of persuasion to garner political influence from states within the region should also be under close attention from Five Eyes.

A study by the RAND Corporation, titled “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable” found that, “improvements in Chinese military capabilities mean that a war would not necessarily go the way US war planners plan it. Whereas a clear U.S. victory once seemed probable, it is increasingly likely that a conflict could involve inconclusive fighting with steep loses on both sides.”

Secondly, the alliance faces an ever-evolving threat from terrorism. Through groups such as al-Qaeda and more recently Islamic State, extremism has become harder to monitor and is increasingly prevalent in the societies of the Five Eyes and their partners. One study has found that ISIS publishes 38 unique pieces of content per day. This, along with the advent of social media to inspire and influence citizens in the West, has shown the pressure to disrupt would-be attackers has never been greater.

Finally, the recent Wannacry attacks shone a light on a growing problem in the technology sector—cyber crime. In the attacks, over 160,000 internet-connected computer systems were infected and forced the user to pay a $300 U.S. “ransom” in order to retrieve information from the affected system. Although reports showed the hackers made less than $100,000, a paltry sum when one considers the hysteria it caused, the cost of cyber crime on society is growing.

One study showed that by 2021, the damage of data, stolen money, theft of personal and financial data, amongst other acts, would cost up to $6 trillion. An eye-watering figure such as this should be the impetus for the majority of world leaders to take action on cyber crime, let alone the Five Eyes collective.

The Five Eyes surveillance network has served a great benefit to its member countries since its inception 70 years ago. With an inexperienced politician as Head of State in the U.S., the status quo of diplomacy and how to approach intelligence gathering have dramatically altered with his presence. His actions prove to undermine the intelligence community, not just in the US but also multilaterally.

In this day and age however, do we really need such integrated surveillance and intelligence operations? In one word—yes.

Fred is a Central Australian who works as a schoolteacher in Bogota, Colombia by day and aspiring social commentator by night. His interests mainly lay in social injustices carried out by those who have misplaced their moral compass—usually politicians and big business. You can follow him on Twitter @FreddyKuma.