For an institution whose general mandate is to keep a low profile, the intelligence community and its activities have been under a great deal of scrutiny in the past month. Europeans have reacted with shock and concern over the fact that the United States has been spying on some of its closest allies, particularly the recent revelations of American spying on Angela Merkel’s phone. However, not all allies have been the target of US intelligence gathering—select nations, including Canada, are party to privileged information collected by the US as part of the Five Eyes intelligence network.
Five Eyes is a 67 year old partnership that began between the UK and the US when the UKUSA agreement was signed following WWII. Three other nations—Canada, New Zealand and Australia—became members at a later date. The small group uses signal intelligence (sigint) to share information about non-members although these five countries are not permitted to spy on each other.
Since 2010, the group has been slightly more open about its agreement and mission. NATO members are permitted to attend select functions where Five Eyes shares information of benefit to their allies. Whether shared or not, there is little doubt that the information gathered within this partnership benefits those outside the fold as well. A main goal of the network is to collect information that might lead to the identification of potential terrorist suspects. Canada greatly benefits from the availability of intelligence information and the security it affords us. However, many Canadians are conflicted about our role in this agreement, which also indicates our desire to extricate ourselves from controversy and negative publicity, while still using the information to our advantage.
Despite its key role in international security, some non-member states such as France and Germany still believe the group oversteps its boundaries when their activities infringe upon the lives of ordinary citizens. However, given the opportunity, they might be interested in joining the partnership. Membership is appealing to outsiders, especially the benefits that come along with it, such as the assurance of privacy resulting from the no-spy agreement that exists between the UK and United States.
Although more members might mean increased access to information through the greater cooperation of a wider network, the group is understandably reluctant to expand. The open borders and density within the EU make it difficult to contain confidential information and the factors that make the group effective might change if other states were invited to join. What’s more is that parties who are interested as outsiders may be reluctant to participate when they realize the degree to which full disclosure applies. Whether or not the intelligence network decides to open up its doors to other potentially interested member states may have real consequences for the organization’s ability to achieve its mandate in protecting international security.