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NSA Spying Draws Focus To Decades-Old Intelligence Pact


The leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden are still trickling out. The latest reports include allegations that the U.S. is collecting data on millions of citizens in countries such as Spain and France. The steady stream of NSA revelations has drawn attention to an intelligence-sharing agreement known as Five Eyes.

Five Eyes is officially known as UKUSA or the UKUSA Alliance. Actually, it wasn't officially anything for the first 55 years of its existence. Then, in 2010, British intelligence officials declassified its founding documents. That was the first time that any government formally acknowledged Five Eyes existed.

The Five Eyes Alliance is five English-speaking countries, the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They divvy up the globe for surveillance on phone, radio and satellite communications and pledge not to spy on one another. To talk more about that pledge and the history of this intelligence-sharing alliance, we turn to Ambassador John Negroponte, chairman of the board of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.

He also served as the first director of National Intelligence under President George W. Bush. Welcome to the program.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Thank you very much. Happy to be with you.

CORNISH: So first of all, at this point, do all these governments officially acknowledge this information sharing agreement?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I think the agreements to which you refer were declassified a number of years ago. But in any event, during the time that I was director of National Intelligence, we met about once a year, the leadership of the respective intelligence communities, and basically, as you described it, it is two things - one, a commitment not to eavesdrop on each other, and two, there are some collaborative and information-sharing efforts that are also undertaken.

CORNISH: So talk about the founding of the pact. It started between the U.S. and U.K. in 1946 and then the other countries joined in in 1956. What was the original focus and purpose and the benefits?

NEGROPONTE: It's the question of signals intelligence and collection and the fact that there are physical limitations on what any one country can cover over a certain amount of space, and so it turned out to be convenient and useful to be able to share some of these responsibilities. Don't forget, we had come out of World War II working very closely together on many of these kinds of issues.

There was a recent history, a very close collaboration between us that was extended into the future years.

CORNISH: And the focus was on the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc nations?

NEGROPONTE: Well, essentially, yes. It was the Cold War. It was a divided world. It was the Soviet Union, the Eastern bloc nations, and of course the People's Republic of China.

CORNISH: So talk a little bit about this pledge and this alliance not to spy on each other. What does that actually mean? Why agree to it?

NEGROPONTE: Well, first of all, it relieves you. If you're at that level of friendship, it relieves you of worrying about whether people are collecting on you. It's also, frankly, a bit of a waste of valuable resources if you've got these other situations around the world that have to be followed, and it permits you to work with these partners in a focused and coordinated way on priorities outside of your own countries.

CORNISH: What aspects of this alliance do you think could be brought forward into some other conversation today as people talk about the relationship between, say, Germany and France and our intelligence gathering operations?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I think not eavesdropping on each others' leaders might be a good starting point, but it's not only the leaders. It's the question of treating the country as some kind of collection target. You wouldn't - you wouldn't eavesdrop on their leaders. You wouldn't eavesdrop on their diplomatic missions. But I think that the starting point has got to be sitting down and discussing these questions with friendly countries.

And my impression is that this is already underway, and so it's going to be a question of what form this takes, but there are such serious problems out there globally with respect to international terrorism or weapons of mass destruction or the trouble spots around the world, that we probably don't need to be wasting our time tapping Angela Merkel's telephone.

CORNISH: Ambassador John Negroponte, chairman of the board of Intelligence and National Security Alliance, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NEGROPONTE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.