Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Five Eyes SIGINT governance: Meetings galore

The relationship among the Five Eyes SIGINT agencies is extraordinarily close. It is not that uncommon for intelligence agencies to cooperate with their foreign counterparts in limited ways on specific topics of mutual interest, but the depth and breadth of cooperation among the "Second Parties" to the UKUSA Agreement is truly remarkable.

Each of the five agencies that participate—NSA, GCHQ, CSE, ASD, and GCSB—remains an independent entity under national control and responding to national intelligence priorities, but in many respects they also work as a single, supranational entity, setting common goals, building interoperable systems, and sharing technology, people, and, to an extraordinarily large degree, raw and assessed intelligence.

Born in the darkest days of the Second World War and institutionalized for the post-war era by the BRUSA Agreement (subsequently renamed UKUSA) of 5 March 1946, the UKUSA community has only grown closer and more tightly integrated in the decades up to the present. In addition to the UKUSA Agreement and other, subsidiary agreements (notably the CANUSA Agreement), the allies jointly set common Strategic Directions, adopt Resolutions at consultative meetings, and sign memoranda of understanding on common projects and programs. Personnel serve on exchange inside allied collection, processing, and analysis sites, take training courses at allied facilities, and work in permanent liaison offices established at each other's agencies to ensure continued close cooperation. The agencies are even able to task some of the collection systems operated by their allies. Much of the metadata and in some cases raw content of the SIGINT the agencies collect is made accessible to the partners, and most of the SIGINT reports issued by the agencies—some 500 per day—are shared among the partners.

Senior executives of the agencies consult among themselves whenever major issues arise, hold regular monthly, in some cases weekly, teleconferences, attend annual meetings as a group, and also hold frequent bilateral meetings. Lower-level committees meet regularly to work out specific problems, facilitate specific areas of cooperation, or run shared programs, and regular conferences are held to share information or tradecraft. In the wake of 9/11, as the allies sought to extend their intelligence cooperation even further and move from the traditional ethos of "need to know" to a new one of "need to share", the number and nature of these meetings and conferences proliferated.

The internal newsletter of NSA's Signals Intelligence Division, SID Today, leaked by Edward Snowden, provides some insight into this aspect of UKUSA cooperation. I did a review of the SID Today articles written over the two-year period between June 2003 and May 2005 and found references to 49 conferences or other meetings involving the participation of two or more Five Eyes members. (The source articles can be found here.)

Note that this list contains only those meetings mentioned in SID Today. Thus, in addition to those NSA-related SIGINT meetings that may have gone unmentioned, it excludes all meetings pertaining to the cybersecurity activities of the agencies and most of the bilateral SIGINT meetings in which NSA was not a participant.

Several of the meetings listed (those marked with an asterisk) were described as the first in an ongoing annual series on that topic, demonstrating the extent to which consultation and sharing was expanding at this time. Many of the other meetings listed were already annual.

Broader Five Eyes relationship

The Five Eyes cooperative relationship is no longer merely an arrangement among cryptologic agencies. The partnership may have begun with SIGINT, but extensive intelligence-sharing has also long occurred among the Five Eyes' security-intelligence, human-intelligence, and military-intelligence agencies, both at the operations level and at the level of multi-source assessed intelligence, up to and sometimes including National Intelligence Estimates and equivalent documents. More recently, formal Five Eyes fora have also been created in such areas as law enforcement cooperation and critical infrastructure protection.

Sometimes these fora have also been extended, at least for limited purposes, to include other countries. The SIGINT Seniors Europe and SIGINT Seniors Pacific groupings are example of this development in the signals intelligence sphere.

I imagine the recent report that France has become part of a "Five Eyes plus France" group that meets one or more times a year in Washington (Pierre Tran, "French official details intelligence-sharing relationship with Five Eyes," Defense News, 5 February 2018) is an example of that trend with respect to broader intelligence cooperation. What I do not think it heralds, however, is anything remotely like the deep, wide-ranging, and day-to-day integration of activities that characterizes the unique SIGINT relationship among the UKUSA five.


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