Is all not well with the ‘5 eyes’ intelligence alliance?

Are the recent concerns about the state of the ‘5 eyes’ intelligence alliance justified? Take a breath folks, nothing to see here.

Relationships among nations ebb and flow: the odd hiccup is not the time to panic.

One of the first things you learn when you enter the Canadian intelligence community is that the most important set of sharing relationships we have is something called, rather bizarrely, the 5 eyes. No, this is not some kind of nightmarish creature from the depths of hell but rather a special alliance born out of the ashes of WWII.

Simply put, the 5 eyes club is the greatest platform for the delivery and receipt of intelligence in the history of our planet. The five members are, in alphabetical order, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US. It should be clear from the outset that these nations have a lot in common: English language, Western liberal secular democracy and overlapping pasts (the UK ‘founded’ Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US beginning in the 17th centuries).

The extent of back and forth among this quintet is hard to over-exaggerate. Very sensitive intelligence, including SIGINT (signals), HUMINT (human source), IMINT (satellite imagery) and other forms, is passed among the partners with little restrictions. The benefits to all are beyond measure.

Uneven Contributions

It should also be clear that the relative contributions are uneven. NZ is by far the smallest of the bunch, the US the largest. We in Canada get a lot more than we give, although at times we most definitely punch above our weight (this was particularly true during the Cold War). Nevertheless, this chummy clique has had its problems. NZ was cut out for a while from US intel in the 1980s when that its Labour government announced a decision to ban ships that were nuclear-powered or potentially nuclear-armed. All is well now, to the best of my knowledge.

So here we have another ‘tempest in a teacup‘ among the 5 eyes. A recent decision among Australia, the UK and US to better secure the waters in SE Asia has tongues wagging over why Canada was not at the table. This new ‘club’, AUKUS, struck some as a sign that Canada was on the outs and would suffer for it.

There are several things surrounding this story that bear comment. First and foremost, as already noted, Canada is a relative lightweight when it comes to intelligence. This is likely partly a resource allocation issue as well as a reflection of a poor intelligence culture within the Canadian government (of all stripes: I have no idea of how the last two Trudeau Liberal governments have, or have not, used intelligence but my gut tells me they are not mature consumers). Whether this was a slight, intended or not, is a moot question. Canada can and must do better when it comes to supporting its intelligence agencies.

RELATED: Borealis speaks with Greg Fyffe on Intelligence Analysis in Canada

Secondly, our relationships with the other four ‘eyes’ are solid and still based on the same criteria they were 75 years ago. As an American colleague told me the other day, the US sees Canada as too important an intelligence ally to let temporary glitches affect what is a mutually beneficial arrangement. I would imagine the same goes for Australia, NZ and the UK. No, we have not been shown the door and have one foot already out.

Thirdly, while the 5 eyes is the premiere level of intel it is not the only mechanism for sharing sensitive info in Canada. When I was at CSIS (from 2001 to 2015) I learned of what are called Section 17 relationships (named after the relative portion of the CSIS Act: “For the purpose of performing its duties and functions under this Act, the Service may…enter into an arrangement or otherwise cooperate with the government of a foreign state or an institution thereof or an international organization of states or an institution thereof”). The number of such relationships was, if memory serves me correctly, somewhere north of 200 separate agencies in dozens of nations.

The area I worked in, i.e. counter terrorism, accrued HUGE dividends from such sharing. Yes, the 5 eyes were still important, but I found that some of the best analysis and data came from European, Middle Eastern and Asian partners. None of these were part of the 5 eyes.

Much ado about nothing?

The brouhaha over this ‘new’ AUKUS deal strikes me as a story that only gained attention in a proverbial slow news cycle (although while it is slow in light of COVID and the Taliban re-takeover of Afghanistan beats me!). Friends have their ups and their downs: so do close partners. There really is nothing to see here folks.

Time to move on.

Read More About the Five Eyes

Spying on your allies is normal

Even the best of friends have divergent interests and sometimes compete with one another: that is why intelligence is necessary.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

2 replies on “Is all not well with the ‘5 eyes’ intelligence alliance?”

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Canada’s exclusion (as a member of the Five Eyes) from the Aukus framework did strike a chord. I am certainly not an expert in Canadian politics or history, so this question could be a bit of a long shot…
Question: Could ‘the French connection’ have been a deciding factor in the exclusion of Canada from the Aukus pact? Bear in mind that other aspects of the Aukus deal incorporated the sharing of sensitive information. One should recall that back in the sixties, France (General De Gaulle) unabashedly flirted with the idea of a sovereign Quebec, that is to say, the possibility of an independent French state in North America (Vide: Volume III C’etait de Gaulle.), spurred strong nationalist fervour in Quebec, which has endured.
Just a lingering thought. Would welcome other views.

Hmm, interesting thought Serena. This ‘deal’ does strike me as one over submarines and not strictly intelligence sharing so it is not really about 5 eyes sharing. I doubt that nationalist fervour in Quebec was a factor in all honesty. Thanks for commenting!

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