Expand Five Eyes to Nine? That's Four Too Many

The proposed expansion would force the original members to stop spying on the new ones.

The U.S. Senate is expected to take up the must-pass defense authorization bill right after the Thanksgiving break. When they do, they should strip out the very bad idea of expanding the historic “Five Eyes” intelligence agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, to become a “Nine Eyes” partnership that includes India, Germany, Japan, and Korea.

The idea was put forth by Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., the Armed Services Subcommittee for Special Operations and Intelligence chairman. Gallego said earlier this month that including these nations would allow the United States to better confront China, while also opening up the English-speaking club to a wider group of nations. He suggested that there are base cultural factors at play that are “just xenophobic about sharing information with largely Asian, non-Anglo nations.” 

Beyond the fact that the “Nine Eyes” concept was used in 2015’s James Bond movie Spectre, expanding the formal relationship will not actually improve America’s China-focused intelligence. In fact, it might paradoxically undermine a successful, decades-old secret partnership.

Following World War II, looking over a Europe threatened by Stalin’s Red Army, the United States and the UK agreed to share signals intelligence via the UKUSA Agreement. This was later expanded to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and thus “Five Eyes” was born. One of the lesser-known national security successes of the Cold War, it was reportedly so sensitive that the Australia’s Prime Ministers didn’t know about it until the 1970s. The agreement’s particulars were only declassified in 2010.

Five Eyes is not only an intelligence-sharing agreement among five countries, but also an agreement not to spy on each other. It’s hard to overstate how radical a departure this was from the rest of history where it was reasonably assumed that everyone was spying on everyone else.

Five Eyes meant America doesn’t have to worry if the wily British were spying on us, and vice versa. After all, Britain had cracked State Department codes during World War I—that’s how London intercepted the Zimmerman Telegram, where Germany had promised a neutral Mexico to take back U.S. territories if it entered into the war on Berlin’s side. We can therefore deploy finite resources elsewhere. This mutual relationship has paid great dividends, especially when thwarting terrorist mega-plots at home, as I’ve written about in Disruption: Inside the Largest Terrorism Investigation in History. They were able to save thousands of lives in mid-2006—a feat which would have run into difficulty had the U.S. not consistently shared critical intelligence with the British, and they us.

Intelligence cooperation is, as former MI5 Director General Stephen Lander once opined, “…at heart manifestations of individual state power and of national self‐interest.” A nation doesn’t enter one unless it receives something worthwhile. It’s thus unclear what benefit the United States receives from expanding Five Eyes that it doesn’t already generate from pre-existing relationships. America already shares reams of military intelligence with many nations and has done so for decades.

These are generally, but not always, called General Security of Military Information Agreements, or “GSOMIA”. As former Assistant Secretary of Defense Randy Schriver noted, GSOMIA is “an agreement through which [countries] can share information directly — sensitive intelligence information — and do so in a timely way, as fast as technology can move information.” The United States has signed many of these, and maintains a database on them. Even Japan and Korea, despite long-held suspicions and friction over trade and history between the two, have an intelligence-sharing relationship. It is in each nation's best interest to have a formal mechanism to share information on common adversaries, such as North Korea.

Furthermore, do policymakers seriously believe the United States should cease collecting intelligence on India? It’s a nuclear-armed economic powerhouse that has entered into multiple conflicts with its neighbors. The United States already signed an agreement in October 2020 to share geospatial intelligence with Delhi to great fanfare—both the secretaries of state and defense flew to the subcontinent to sign the document.

And what about our close American ally Germany? Wouldn’t the United States ruthlessly want to know what the leader of Europe’s largest economy is thinking, especially during times of political and economic turbulence? Shouldn’t American leaders have access to the best information in order to make the most informed decisions? And by the way—Berlin is likely collecting intelligence on us, too.

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Expanding Five Eyes means greater opportunities for America’s adversaries to gain closely-guarded secrets and methods. The more people know, the more likely someone will steal or leak them. During the Cold War, East Germany had thoroughly penetrated West German intelligence services, recruiting perhaps 6,000 assets by the time the Berlin Wall came down. Providing sensitive intelligence to Germany during that time thus often meant it ended up in the hands of America’s adversaries. The United States should try to avoid the equivalent from happening in the 21st century.

While Gallego’s heart is likely in the right place, expanding Five Eyes will create headaches for limited return.