Time to bring ‘Five Eyes’ in from the cold?
4 May 2018|

A recent article in The New Daily raised the issue of Australia’s role in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. Dr John Blaxland criticised the ‘remarkable amount of ignorance’ about the network. He attributed that ignorance to Australian governments who have ‘not been effective’ at communicating to the public the essential elements of the Five Eyes.

Blaxland also observed, ‘In the intelligence business, the secret of success is in keeping a success a secret.’ No doubt he was drawing on the old CIA proverb ‘the secret of our success is the secret of our success’.

Herein lies the dilemma: how do democratic governments such as Australia communicate to their publics about an intelligence network that by its very nature needs to remain secretive?

In their seminal text, The ties that bind, Professor Desmond Ball and Dr Jeffrey T. Richelson detailed the creation in 1947 of the UKUSA Agreement between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. A treaty, according to Ball and Richelson, that was ‘so secret that nearly 30 years were to pass before any of the participating governments were to acknowledge its existence’. It has been described by the British Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament as the closest international intelligence partnership in the world.

The intrinsic value of Five Eyes is that it gives its members access to a global network of security and intelligence cooperation and sharing. As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently observed in a doorstop interview at the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting in London:

It is vitally important that we work more closely together than ever. No countries work more closely together in intelligence and security matters than the Five Eyes and of course four of the Five Eyes are members of the Commonwealth.

As a former researcher on this subject, I’m convinced of the benefits of Australia’s membership of the intelligence-sharing network. Those are intelligence data, assessments and advance capabilities that would otherwise be unattainable to a middle power such as Australia. It’s an arrangement in which Australia receives far more than it contributes.

That’s not to negate the inherent risks the arrangement presents, or to downplay Australia’s critical role within the network. According to the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review, ‘Australia’s own contribution and capabilities to intelligence-sharing with Five Eyes and non-Five Eyes partners is highly valued by intelligence counterparts in those countries.’ Despite that important role, and through no fault of their own, the Australian public remains largely uninformed about the networks value.

Successive Australian governments have been less than forthcoming when communicating to the public the essential elements of Five Eyes. In announcing the establishment of the new Office of National Intelligence last year, Prime Minister Turnbull gave little in the way of a detailed explanation about the office’s creation except to say that the establishment of an Office of National Intelligence would ensure more effective coordination of Australia’s intelligence effort:

All of our Five Eyes partners have established a single point of coordination for reasons the report makes very clear—Australia doing the same will ensure even better collaboration with our Five Eyes partners.

But in a surprising and welcome development, the 2016 Defence White Paper referred to Australia’s role in Five Eyes for the first time. The paper made specific reference to Five Eyes on three occasions in discussing international defence relationships with the US, the UK and Canada. Its inclusion marked a departure from previous defence white papers.

Like its Defence counterpart, the recent 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper also made direct references to Five Eyes for the first time. It stated:

Our cooperation with Five‑Eyes intelligence partners (the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand) and others will remain critical to our ability to address terrorism and other threats … Building on our investments in capability, Australia’s cooperation with our Five‑Eyes partners magnifies the potency and effectiveness of our security capabilities by providing irreplaceable access to information and cutting edge capabilities.

Even so, these were the only two fleeting references made in a 122‑page document that was touted as the ‘most comprehensive report ever’. Neither the 2003 Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper or the 1997 Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper made any direct reference to Five Eyes.

The government’s reticent communication of Five Eyes is also evident in its reluctance to release historical documents related to the network. A little under two years ago, I requested historical documents from the National Archives of Australia while assisting on an article for the Australian Journal of International Affairs about the Five Eyes network.

The documents were part of a submission to the Hope Royal Commission into Australia’s intelligence community in the 1970s. At the time, I knew to expect significant delays owing to the sensitivity of the documents. However, nearly two years on, and after several inquires, I’m still waiting for the documents to be released.

Some three decades ago Ball and Richelson called for an informed public debate about the Five Eyes security and intelligence arrangements. They concluded that greater public information and debate wouldn’t necessarily harm its operations. Greater openness allows for a more educated and reassured public.

That very same public pays for the Five Eyes to conduct their operations, and it’s that public’s protection that is the network’s primary goal. Indeed, a more informed public could strengthen the link between the public and the intelligence agencies, as well as temper any distrust.

Of course, there’s a difference between publicising the network and publicising specific operations. Traditionally, transparency and secrecy are viewed as diametrically opposed. But transparency and secrecy can coexist in a democracy, especially when there are strong national security oversight institutions. Lines of distinction can be drawn between information suitable for public consumption and information that must remain secret for operational reasons.

However, successive Australian governments—under the shroud of ‘national security’—have been evasive in communicating to the public the essential elements of the Five Eyes. While the recent inclusion in both the defence and foreign policy white papers are welcome additions, more needs to be done to bring Five Eyes into the wider public discourse.

Perhaps, like John le Carre’s secret agent Leamas, it’s time to bring Five Eyes in from the cold.