International Intelligence Bullying
The central premise of international intelligence cooperation is that states are able to both access valuable partner information to protect their national security, and focus their own resources elsewhere in a mutually beneficial way. But is it really a quid-pro-quo partnership?
As the Intercept recently revealed, German policy-makers certainly have reason to doubt that this would be the case. What Germany has learned, like many others before them, is that dependence on the collection capabilities of foreign partners also leaves you susceptible to substantial risks – including the threat of being cut off from information.
In the international relations of intelligence cooperation, the biggest producers and investors in intelligence bully and extort their 'dependents', those countries that tend to 'import' intelligence. This has detrimental effects on their political sovereignty, as well as the security of their citizens and democratic accountability towards them.
Do as we say... or else
In response to sustained German political resistance to surveillance (for example, investigating US surveillance in Germany; expelling US intelligence staff from its territories and enforcing counter-surveillance measures; phasing out US telecommunications providers; and considering asylum for Edward Snowden) the US threatened to cut off Germany from its intelligence sharing arrangements.
As the Bundestag inquiry into mass surveillance turned its focus to scrutinizing intelligence co-operation with the UK, pressure from Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) also increased, with threats that ties may be cut with their German counterparts if the Bundestag inquiry didn't back off.
At its most extreme, these threats could be seen as a threat that the Five Eyes would not pass on indications of impending terrorist plots on German territory to German security agencies. As one senior German security official made clear, 'Without the information supplied by Anglo-Americans, we will be blind.'
The situation is telling of a wider trend, using denial of intelligence as a means of coercing 'net' importers of intelligence to adapt their security policies, minimise public understanding, and reduce oversight of intelligence agencies, all for the benefit of the net producers.
A History of Bullying
Following the Second World War, the United States began outpacing its partners and allies in its signals intelligence and collection capacity. The National Security Agency (NSA) Director and leader of the US Cyber Command, Adm. Michael Rogers, boasts “[w]e have a level of capability and a reach that literally few, if any, can replicate.” Rogers has also boasted that “the value that NSA provides them in terms of the information that we share to help defend their citizens is almost irreplaceable”. These inequalities have placed the US in a strong position for diplomatic leveraging and coercion. Throughout the history of the partnership, the US has proved itself more than willing to use aggressive threats against its partners to see its policies through.
In the 1950s the UK failed to notify US partners about the impending Suez Crisis. It was swiftly cut off from US intelligence. The situation was repeated as the UK refused the US access to its Cyprus military base during the 1970s Yom Kippur War. The British had to reevaluate their position, allow US investment in the signals capacity of the Cyprus base, and in return they had to secure a budget and sufficient resources to ensure that collection was for US purposes, even to date.
The US also withdrew intelligence: from Australia, as a sign of displeasure with the election of the Whitlam Labour Government; from New Zealand, in response to unwillingness to harbor US nuclear ships in the 1980s; and for Canadian procrastination in deciding to assist the US-led coalition in the Gulf War in the 1990s.
Above the law
In a recent interview, the Director of the NSA stated that he is “always mindful that [the NSA] are part of a bigger team. And so part of our mission at NSA is not only to defend the citizens of the United States but to help ensure the defense of the citizens of our key allies”.
However, it seems when the citizens of those allied countries have concerns about the NSA, or the relationship between their own intelligence communities and the NSA, and they want to democratically scrutinize what is being done in their name, the story changes. These cases of bullying suggest that the NSA's mission to ensure the defense of key allies only extends as long as it is convenient for the NSA.
The dynamics of this diplomacy threatens the domestic accountability and democratic control of the intelligence community, a community that is entrusted with some of the most far-reaching powers in any democratic state.
When intelligence collaborators today appeal to the public interest of secrecy, they are no longer just referring to the public interest of their own citizens, but to agendas of various partners. The UK Intelligence and Security Committee has observed that “to protect the UK our agencies must work with foreign agencies, some of whom do not meet our standards.” They go on to conclude that the situation is “inescapable” and that it is “not possible to eradicate all risk”. As it is, the pursuit of maintaining the flow of information has clearly trumped the pursuit of legal compliance and democratic control.