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The Five Eyes in the Trump era: dominant or diminished?


The Five Eyes in the Trump era: dominant or diminished?

Five Eyes


Last week’s Five Eyes ministerial dialogue gave US officials the opportunity to allay concerns from allies over a series of intelligence leaks from Washington.


– US intelligence leaks have damaged the foundations of trust critical to its myriad intelligence sharing arrangements.

– The Five Eyes’ reliance on US intelligence gathering capabilities will ensure that Washington escapes sanction.

– The leaks will hinder the shift away from a ‘need to know’ paradigm of intelligence sharing and may cause Five Eyes members to alter their intelligence sharing protocols to help safeguard –
Excessive changes to protocol would likely see a reduction in the effectiveness of joint operations and inhibit the achievement of shared goals.

Last week, security ministers and attorneys general from Australia, Britain, New Zealand, Canada and the United States gathered for a closed meeting of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. Officially, delegates met to discuss shared concerns surrounding migration, violent extremism and the use of encryption by terrorists. However, as the first high level dialogue between Five Eyes nations following a series of US intelligence leaks in May, the summit’s agenda was overshadowed.

While the nature of the two leaks were very different, they have heightened frustrations in the Anglosphere regarding President Donald Trump’s leadership and have shaken the foundations of trust between the Five Eyes members. The dialogue will no doubt have provided American officials the opportunity to address these issues and persuade allies that intelligence shared with the US is secure.


In a May 10 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, President Trump reportedly disclosed highly classified information concerning ISIS shared with the United States by a close partner. Trump revealed this intelligence—reportedly collected and delivered to Washington by Israel—despite not having received approval to do so by Tel Aviv.

Less than two weeks later, classified details of the investigation into the May 22 Manchester bombing shared with US security agencies by British police were leaked to the media. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was forced to make a snap visit to the UK after British law enforcement agencies responded by suspending intelligence sharing with their US counterparts. In a rare display of dissatisfaction with her transatlantic partner, British Prime Minister Theresa May publicly raised concerns about the leaks with Trump at a NATO summit in late May.

From an intelligence sharing perspective, these leaks are problematic. The unauthorised disclosure of shared information violates the cornerstone of any intelligence sharing arrangement—the control principle. This principle maintains that only the country producing the original intelligence can determine whether it’s shared outside the initial arrangement. Ignoring this jeopardises the trust that underpins these relationships.

Trump’s disclosure of Israeli intelligence is instructive. While Israel and Russia share a broad goal of combating ISIS, the primary reason for Russia’s commitment to engaging the militant group in Syria is to help strengthen the Assad regime—a goal shared by Iran. Israel has previously expressed concern that privileged information shared with the Trump administration could end up, via Russia, in the hands of Iran. This would be problematic for Tel Aviv because it could be used to reveal Israeli sources and intelligence methods. That this concern has merit could potentially damage both the US-Israel intelligence sharing relationship and also the Five Eyes alliance which operates on the same assumption that shared information will not end up in the hands of potential enemies.


Washington’s intelligence leaks are not innocuous gaffes that will be forgotten quickly, but nor are they an existential challenge to the Five Eyes arrangement. The likelihood of reactionary sanctions or membership cancellations are almost non-existent because the alliance members are far too reliant on the unrivalled US intelligence apparatus. Indeed, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada are all net importers of intelligence and rely on the massive US investments needed to intercept electronic communications and remotely gather information about the militaries of adversaries.

Britain’s larger intelligence apparatus means it’s better positioned to weather a prolonged severing of ties with Washington. But the uncertainties of Brexit mean that the country may not come away from negotiations with access to databases like the Schengen Information System used by EU law enforcement to search for criminals and terrorists. If this occurs, Britain’s intelligence partnerships with EU nations will be less fruitful, increasing its reliance on the US.

But the Five Eyes alliance won’t emerge completely unscathed. The leaks will likely justify a step back toward the ‘need-to-know’ approach to information sharing, which was predominant in the US intelligence community and elsewhere prior to the September 11 attacks in 2001. A less restrictive ‘need-to-share’ paradigm has slowly replaced this mindset both within the US intelligence community and between the US and its Five Eyes partners. But the evolution is not without its detractors and Washington’s mishandling of sensitive information will only hinder this cultural shift.

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Although there is a sweet spot between sharing and protecting the security of information, overzealous efforts to guard information have in the past obstructed the efficacy of intelligence sharing. The leaks from Washington could very well justify changes to the processes of intelligence sharing between the Five Eyes members in the same way that Trump’s disclosure of sensitive information gathered by Israel caused the country to ‘tweak’ its intelligence sharing protocols with the US.

Such changes could manifest in a variety of ways. Additional layers of scrutiny could be introduced before intelligence is shared, or restrictive conditions on the dissemination of privileged information could be implemented. What is clear is that any procedural changes designed to increase the security of information shared between the Five Eyes nations risks an overreaction that could hinder what the alliance was set up to do.

This could have myriad consequences. Excessive procedure could compromise joint efforts to disrupt terror groups and thwart attacks against civilian targets. Coordination on tracking persons of interest in migration flows into the West could be made more complex. It could also embolden non-Western powers such as China and Russia to increase their cyber intrusions into the networks of government agencies and private organisations in Five Eyes countries, in the knowledge that their activities are less likely to be detected.

For now, the Five Eyes alliance will continue on more or less undiminished. While recent leaks will likely trigger reviews of the security of information passed between allies, foundational changes to the intelligence sharing arrangement will be avoided. As long as regular dialogues such as the Five Country Ministerial on national security continue to provide opportunities for its members to work through complications, the alliances status as the world’s foremost intelligence sharing arrangement is unlikely to be challenged.

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