The Deceit of Five Eyes

On recent Spies of London walking tours, I have found Five Eyes coming up more often as a topic of interest. It proves to be a subject that many of you know something about already, and there is increasing media coverage over the moral hazard represented by the system. So let’s properly investigate it now.

Five Eyes is a multilateral agreement between the following five nations: the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. On the face of it, this is a very odd set of countries. There are some very good reasons, however. Canada is a strong ally of both the USA and the UK, and a member of the British Commonwealth, now known simply as the Commonwealth of Nations. And that helps to explain why Australia and New Zealand are also members, as they are also Commonwealth countries and very strong allies of the UK.

Why do the Five Eyes need to be such close allies? Because they are actively, and demonstrably, engaged in quasi-illegal activities. There can be no prospect or possibility of a scandal. Which rules out all of Europe, even France, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

These five countries are anglophone allies going back centuries. They have been carefully selected. The choice of countries is also partly due to the history of the Five Eyes treaties. They came about around 1941, and have been strengthened and formalised since then. All five nations were strong allies during the second world war, at a time when France was occupied by Germany. The agreements were only made public in 2005.

Nowadays, it seems that the main purpose of Five Eyes is to circumvent domestic laws in each of the five nations. This is false. Yes, the agreements are sometimes used to bypass increasingly strict laws, but that is not the primary purpose. Most famously, and most recently, it is the Five Eyes system that many people believe caused Britain’s GCHQ to ‘spy’ on Donald Trump, persons surrounding him, and the Russian connection to his election campaign. This story develops on a daily basis, but it can be no surprise that GCHQ roundly denied tapping any phones earlier this summer.

For one thing, the notion of tapping a phone is obsolete. And for another, you should assume that for all practical purposes, GCHQ has been closely involved in surveilling members of the Trump camp, and likely Trump himself, ever since Trump became a candidate for President.

One thing that is illegal in all of these countries is the surveillance of their own people, except in very specific circumstances. However it is not illegal, for example, for the UK to spy on US citizens. What Five Eyes does is provide a mechanism for the UK to pass such information to the US. This is how they technically obey the law, whilst breaking the spirit of the law.

This kind of deceitful law-breaking is how extraordinary rendition worked. Given that aggressive interrogation, sometimes known as torture, is illegal in the West, it was a simple matter to take subjects to third countries where torture is not illegal. Again, the rule of law is maintained, but the law is broken in spririt. And as any good lawyer will tell you, a law broken in spirit alone is not a law broken at all. If the law is not strict enough for you, then you must pressure your elected representatives into changing it.

And so it goes. Five Eyes will be a very powerful tool in breaking current terror networks, but it is controversial and likely to return to the news headlines many times in the next year.

Those of you who have been on one of our tours will know that we always try to go far beyond what is widely available on the internet, but in this case, the Wikipedia article is very good.