Amidst ongoing criticism of President Donald Trump’s attitude towards Russia, a fear has reportedly emerged in some segments of the US intelligence community that America’s longstanding intelligence sharing relationships with other countries could suffer. Recent events seem to indicate, however, that this is unlikely.
Historically, America has had its strongest intelligence sharing relationships with its English-speaking partners in the group known as the “Five Eyes”: Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K.
“Despite rumours of a ‘no-spy pact’, there is no prohibition on intelligence-gathering by Five Eyes States on the citizens or residents of other Five Eyes States,” according to the UK-based group Privacy International, “although there is a general understanding that citizens will not be directly targeted and where communications are incidentally intercepted there will be an effort to minimize the use and analysis of such communications by the intercepting State.”
Yet given Trump’s stance on Russia, some career spies are now questioning the durability of those and other intelligence sharing relationships. A recent Politico report quoted a former director of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Hayden, as well as John Brennan, who just resigned as CIA director last week, both questioning whether other countries might change their policies now that Trump is in office.
Some diplomatic relationships, though, are apparently more special than others. “There is huge implicit trust between U.S. and British agencies, for example, that will not be easily undermined even by the arrival of a new president with unknown qualities,” the article quoted an anonymous “senior European security official” as saying.
In the wake of Britain’s vote last summer to leave the European Union, talk of a new post-Brexit US-UK trade deal began even before Trump won the election. Following Trump’s win, there was concern in some quarters as to whether Trump could do enough to “make the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom more special” in order to further the shared “Anglosphere” goals of “maintenance and spreading of the world capitalist order.”
Another recent change to UK policy, meanwhile — this one regarding surveillance law — perhaps offers Trump another attractive reason to maintain or even strengthen the specialness of the existing US-UK partnership. The new Investigatory Powers Act, a.k.a. the “Snooper’s Charter,” gives sweeping new domestic surveillance capabilities and legal justification to Britain’s spy agencies, including allowing the UK government to require companies to build encryption “backdoors” into their products and services.
The issue of mandating backdoors allowing law enforcement or intelligence agencies to access devices notably became a subject of debate following the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Trump called for a boycott of Apple at the time due to the company’s public refusal to help the FBI crack the encryption on its own phone — although other critics of the Apple-FBI episode pointed out another set of issues with that particular debate as it was presented in the media. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, for example, called the FBI’s claims that it couldn’t unlock the shooter’s phone “bullshit.”
President Trump comes into office just weeks after the outgoing Obama administration signed off on rule changes that allow for expanded inter-agency “raw intelligence” sharing within the US intelligence community, and the UK’s “Snooper’s Charter” doesn’t help in setting a good example internationally for domestic surveillance law. “If the Trump administration wants to expand its surveillance powers, or seek sanction for more aggressive use of its existing powers,” Privacy International’s legal officer Camilla Graham Wood told MIT Technology Review, “it could unfortunately point to the U.K.’s new law as precedent.”
As the Trump era begins, Americans concerned with maintaining their privacy rights, as well as their fellow residents of the far-flung “Anglosphere” and other parts of the world, may soon face some of their most serious challenges yet in fighting back against state surveillance.