Surveillance in New York City’s financial district
Since the early 1990s, things have not always been easy for the Five Eyes. The international intelligence-sharing alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — created during the Cold War — has come under increased fire in the Internet age for curtailing its citizens privacy. In an era of relative peace, many question whether it is still necessary.
But in 2016, the alliance has a unique opportunity to re-focus and regain the relevance it lost on Christmas Day 1992, when the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist. The increasingly erratic and covert operations of the so-called Islamic State (hereafter referred to as Daesh) and other radical terrorist groups like them allow the Five Eyes a new raison d’être. But the group must first transform into an intelligence collective fit for the 21st century.
To regain the social license that is so vital to the success of covert intelligence, several steps must be taken immediately to breathe new life into these agencies. The Five Eyes need to behave differently, both internationally and domestically, and must be overseen more seriously by their respective parliaments. Doing so will allow the Five Eyes to carry out the fight against Daesh and other terrorist networks effectively.
Agencies like the NSA and MI6 cannot continue breaking international law. Spying on citizens via the Internet must be stopped entirely. So, too, must any sort of spying on world leaders that are even loosely considered allies. There is no reason for the NSA to track François Hollande’s phone. Moreover, the media circus that ensues in any high-profile espionage case undermines relations with other nations and promotes misunderstanding of the real purpose the Five Eyes serve in today’s world.
Rather than spying on citizens without judicial warrant or tracking call logs of G20 leaders, the NSA, MI6, ASIO and CSIS should redouble their efforts to monitor groups working to wreak havoc on their soil. To make the process less intrusive, intelligence agencies need to begin partnering with law-enforcement to ensure their espionage doesn’t circumvent the law. Oversight by police agencies is a good start, but full-on coordination must also take place, integrating public safety from start to end.
Perhaps even more importantly, the agencies that comprise the Five Eyes must put in place reforms to meet the standards set by their nations’ populations. In the age of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear warfare loomed large and the Internet had yet to be invented, citizens allowed intelligence-gathering agencies more leeway.
Today, by contrast, public outrage over in-depth snooping continues to puzzle the leadership of security organizations. After Edward Snowden exposed NSA wiretapping, the general public flew into outrage. Meanwhile, NSA leadership thought they were just offering public service. In Canada, the former Conservative government’s proposal to greatly expand the powers of CSIS, giving them arrest and investigative powers traditionally reserved for the police was met with near-universal public anger.
Parliamentary oversight is the final piece of the puzzle toward the Five Eyes regaining relevance. With the exception of New Zealand’s NZSIS, most Five Eyes agencies have relatively free reign to act as they wish without fear of parliamentary or legal scrutiny. Agents and officials from groups like the CIA, NSA, CSIS, MI6 or ASIO frequently refuse to appear before parliamentary or congressional hearings into their own conduct. Incremental progress is being made to bring Five Eyes agencies back into line, but the work is difficult and slow. Canada in particular is making strong steps to reign in their intelligence agency, CSIS. Leadership in the other four Five Eyes nations, particularly the US and UK, should take note.
The time has come for the Five Eyes to have both societal relevance and bona fide accountability again. They can do what they do best – protect nearly 500 million lives in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada – but they have to do it in a way that is responsible, efficient, and, perhaps most importantly, legal. Otherwise, the alliance may soon go creeping down the path of the Soviet Union they were once founded to spy on.
Benson Cook is a first-year student at McGill University, studying Political Science.