Commentary | 12 January 2019

We need the Five Eyes spy network, but with oversight

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

After Canadian authorities seized a top Chinese executive from the telecommunications giant Huawei at Vancouver Airport last month on a US arrest warrant, Beijing immediately set about retaliating.

A couple of Canadians who, until then, had been working openly in China, were detained. Top-level meetings for Canadian diplomats dried up. And Beijing made clear more was to come, threatening “grave consequences” unless the Huawei executive was released.

Amid this furore, one prominent Chinese media outlet suggested another target to turn the screws on Ottawa. “In this complicated game,” said the Global Times, “China should focus on the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, especially Australia, New Zealand and Canada, who actively follow the US against China.”

The Global Times doesn’t speak for Beijing, but it has an outsized voice in China nonetheless, courtesy of its owner, the People’s Daily, itself the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party. As one Chinese journalist told me, the Global Times “is sort of like Fox News under a Republican administration”.

That the Chinese might be looking at multiple avenues for hitting back after the Huawei detention is hardly surprising. The arrest, after all, came in the middle of a high-stakes geopolitical fight involving Huawei, with the US, Australia and New Zealand pushing the global Chinese company out of next-generation mobile networks, for fear Beijing would use them for spying.

The fact that the warrant had been issued by a grand jury in the US for bank fraud, and reviewed independently by a Canadian judge, carried little weight with Beijing, which sees US law as little more than a political weapon.

The focus on the "Five Eyes" by the Global Times and other Chinese commentators, however, is acutely revealing, not least because it displays how Beijing sees itself hemmed by the West, particularly the old Anglosphere.

Equally instructive is how the Chinese media came to focus on the Five Eyes in the first place. Put another way, how did a once little-known intelligence pact become such a blazing target for China’s nationalist tabloid?

The answer to that question lies much closer to home. The Five Eyes grew out of a UK-US agreement to share signals intelligence after World War II, a partnership which later expanded to include Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The members have since extended co-operation to include exchanging personnel and strategic assessments.

Like an omnivorous, 24-hour news organisation, the Five Eyes’ operations and facilities cover all time zones and continents, from listening stations at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, to naval ships off Iran and satellite ground stations in the UK countryside, on top of the partnership’s hub, the National Security Agency, near Washington.

The Five Eyes has given America’s deep state a phenomenal reach and an unmatched level of integration with its allies that the West’s geopolitical rivals, notably China and Russia, cannot replicate. It also provides an intelligence windfall for its smaller members, like Australia.

The partnership has one core rule, that the members agree not to spy on each other. Or, as Admiral Dennis Blair, Barack Obama’s first director of national intelligence, said in Australia in 2013: “We do not spy on each other. We just ask.”

For decades, the intelligence partnership was never acknowledged by respective governments, let alone talked about in public. Duncan Campbell, a longtime investigative reporter in the UK, thinks the first time the Five Eyes name was mentioned in public was barely a decade ago, in the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald.

That secrecy has now been dispensed with, nowhere more so than in Australia. It has been strange to move back to Australia, as I did last year, and confront constant references in the media to “Five Eyes ministers” and “Five Eyes meetings”, as though the pact is so embedded in daily politics that it needs no explanation.

When Peter Dutton, the Home Affairs Minister, hosted his Five Eyes counterparts on the Gold Coast in August, he didn’t just announce the meeting. He also ensured the ministers were photographed together for the newspapers. In July, in Nova Scotia, the Canadians convened the partnership’s intelligence chiefs’ annual get together, a meeting which also received an unusual amount of publicity, right down to the lobster served at dinner.

Edward Snowden played a key role in elevating the partnership’s visibility as well. The mass of documents leaked by the NSA contractor in 2013 before he fled to Russia drove home the centrality of the Five Eyes to Western intelligence, and perhaps, in turn, prompted the agencies to try to restore trust by promoting their case more publicly.

It’s little wonder, then, that the Chinese are talking about the need to target the Five Eyes, when we have been shouting its virtues from the rooftops ourselves.

The rise in the profile and power of the intelligence services is a direct result of the two seismic events in global politics this century: the 9/11 attacks and the so-called “war on terror” that followed, and more recently, the challenge from China. Both have galvanised Western politics, and resulted in expanded duties for the agencies and fatter budgets, vastly outpacing spending on Australia’s diplomats.

Running in parallel to the expansion of intelligence agencies in Australia is the little-noticed phenomenon of how their role in domestic politics has changed as well. You only have to listen to the pervasive and almost casual way that ministers pepper their statements with reference to intelligence when batting back reporters. The I-know-and-you-don’t form of statement can be very effective in shutting down questions, most recently in the debate over enhanced powers to compel access to encrypted messaging services.

The other reason that ministers and their staff talk more about intelligence is that, compared with the recent past, their offices are awash in it. They are not shy in demanding the material, by all accounts. The green-marked briefs, indicating the material comes from ASIS, Australia’s mini-CIA, have apparently gained particular popularity.

The agencies and their consumers in government were once strictly divided into collectors, assessors and policymakers. Those divisions are disappearing, with the result that the collection agencies are gaining a greater say in policy.

“It used to be a basic rule that raw intelligence did not go anywhere near ministers,” said a former senior national security official. “Now it is open slather.”

On top of that, the major agencies have a seat at the table in the national security meetings, where in the past, they generally attended on a needs basis. The creation of the super-agency, in the form of the Home Affairs Department, has accentuated all these trends.

With such encouragement from political leaders, it’s not surprising that, in the words of the former national security official, the Australian agencies want to be “like the big boys” – that is, like the Americans, but with one huge difference.

With special courts to oversee wiretap warrants and powerful congressional committees which can grill spy chiefs, in public as well as in private, the US system is subject to multiple forms of oversight. In Australia, the system has expanded, but meaningful oversight has not, a recipe for disaster when public trust is at stake.

None of which gainsays the value of a professional intelligence service, nor its worth in a hardnosed management of relations with China. Combating the threat of terrorist attacks demands immense resources. Likewise, officials admit privately they are a decade behind the counter-espionage capabilities to handle China.

If nothing else, the revitalisation of the Five Eyes is an acknowledgement that the member governments benefit from pooling resources in the face of a rising challenge. There is safety in numbers for smaller countries too.

Beijing remains furious at Australia for being out front in the campaign against Huawei but, for the moment, has refrained from retaliating, in large part because other democracies are watching on.
Beijing knows that the intelligence alliance ranged against it could grow, to include Japan and Germany, now having their own Huawei debate.

In the past, Berlin and Tokyo’s efforts to join the Five Eyes have been rebuffed, partly over issues of trust, but also at the urging of the smaller group nations, which didn’t welcome latecomers from outside the Anglosphere into the club.

The issue, however, is being revisited. If the headlines start to talk about the Seven Eyes rather than a mere five, then the Global Times will really have something to be angry about.