With three of their partners’ signal intelligence collection programs revealed, it’s only a matter of time before all eyes turn to two of the most seemingly innocuous members of the world stage: Canada and New Zealand.
As former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s cache of documents apprehended from the National Security Agency continues to trickle out, the attention has shifted from damaging information about the scope of the Obama administration’s surveillance programs towards what kind of surveillance the United States is conducting overseas, especially on its allies. The New York Times on Wednesday, however, used a recent claim from Snowden that Germany is “in bed” with the NSA to highlight that Western intelligence agencies actually have a lengthy history of passing information among themselves.
Snowden’s claim about Germany comes on the heels of the revelation that the U.S. has engaged in spying against the European Union broadly and Germany in particular. This has lead in recent weeks to France and Germany loudly condemning the U.S.’ surveillance practices and threatening retaliation — only to have their own foreign spying programs profiled soon thereafter.
The fact that the United States spies on other countries shouldn’t come as a surprise. Nor should the fact that it in turn cooperates on gathering electronic intelligence with many of these same countries, a detail many of Snowden’s other recent leaks have focused on. Soon after the initial revelation that the U.S. intelligence community is widely collecting metadata from its own citizens communications and the actual content of foreign online exchanges, the exploits of U.K.’s own General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) came to light as a by-product. Both GCHQ’s receipt of information the NSA collects on British citizens and its own alleged tapping of fiber-optic cables to gather data have been brought before the public’s judgment since then.
Australia has recently found itself the most recent target of Snowden’s cache of documents. Just days ago, the land down under’s participation in the NSA’s intelligence gathering was splashed across headlines. In the pages of Brazil’s O Globo newspaper, Glenn Greenwald — one journalist who originally received the NSA documents from Snowden — catalogued the existence of a series of four NSA listening stations throughout Australia.
What the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia all have in common is joint membership in an organization known colloquially as “The Five Eyes.” In a 1943 agreement — not even officially acknowledged until 2005 and declassified in 2010 — the U.S. and Britain agreed to share signal intelligence between themselves and the Dominions of Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Under the terms of the pact, formally known as the UKUSA Agreement, electronic information collected in the course of espionage can be passed freely among themselves, circumventing the normal controls against foreign sharing that intelligence usually possesses.
For those keeping track, that still leaves two of the Five Eyes’ participation remaining relatively concealed or at least not the focus of a leak. Thus far, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) and New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau have managed to avoid major scrutiny or revelations about the programs that they operate. Given the new interest in revealing legal cooperation in intelligence sharing, however, it’s not hard to guess that they might be next.
The two haven’t managed to go completely without scrutiny in recent weeks, though. The CSEC, the Huffington Post speculates, may well be operating its own program similar to the the NSA’s on Canadian soil, though confirmation is difficult to come across. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has likewise denied that his government uses the NSA’s programs to spy illegally on his own citizens, with little information about the programs that they themselves run in the public at this time. What has been made public, however, is that the NSA reportedly used the friendly nations of the Five Eyes — including New Zealand — to test run a data-gathering program known as ThinThread.
Snowden himself has mentioned the partnership when giving interviews to media outlets. While talking to Germany’s Der Speigel magazine, Snowden said, “In some cases, the so-called Five Eye Partners go beyond what NSA itself does.” With a large collection of documents still claimed to be in his possession, it’s likely only a matter of time before the Kiwis and Canucks are thrust into the spotlight of this ongoing affair.