Intelligence Sharing in a Complicated World: The Future of Five Eyes

High Detailed World Map and All Flags – borders, countries and cities – vector illustration

In the midst of World War II, facing multiple threats in a complicated series of engagements around the world, the US and the UK entered into a highly-secret, trusted agreement to share signals intelligence they gathered on the enemy.  In the decade that followed WWII, the agreement was expanded to include Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  The group that was formed with the purpose of sharing signals intelligence with trusted partners that shared core values,  became known as the ‘Five Eyes’.

Not much was known about the ‘Five Eyes’ publicly until the damaging national security leaks made by Edward Snowden in 2013.  Since then, other countries have been eager to seek a seat at the table, but in a world more complicated than that of 1945, that can be a tall order.  Today, disagreements among the core Five Eyes countries over how to tackle 5G security concerns and how to counter an aggressive China, can make matters even more complicated.


  • The Five Eyes Alliance (FVEY) is an intelligence-sharing alliance that includes the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
  • The alliance grew out of intelligence sharing partnerships forged during World War II and has, until recently, rarely been discussed in public.
  • The alliance is based on an agreement between the US and the UK in 1946, known as the UKUSA Agreement that set forth a treaty for the sharing of signals intelligence (SIGINT).
  • Between 1946 – 1956, additional appendices were introduced that expanded the relationship to include Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

THE BRIEF:  This week, The Cipher Brief’s International Summit is welcoming four national security experts with direct knowledge of the basis, importance and challenges facing the Five Eyes alliance, and as a pre-brief read ahead, we wanted to share their thoughts on the importance of the alliance and what they see as the primary challenges and opportunities ahead for information sharing.

John McLaughlin, Former Acting Director, CIA

Trust is at the core of the Five Eyes relationship.  The strength of this trust derives from the most common source of that quality: a history of doing difficult and dangerous things together and in the process having to rely on each other for information, ingenuity, and courage.  This partnership was forged, of course, in World War II, the largest single event in world history and, in modern times, the most consequential. It was tested during the Cold War when an existential threat presented itself and again during the post-Cold War period when issues such as terrorism threatened us all.  Throughout, it has been characterized by candor and by an ability to put politics aside in favor of our collective interests and a common set of values centered on commitment to democracy and human liberty.

Sir John Scarlett, Former Chief, British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6

It is important to understand the history of the Five Eyes. In formal terms, this now goes back 75 years. Until very recently, it was an intelligence partnership, low profile and rarely discussed in public. The relationships are very deep, based on profound trust and shared values and deployed across the globe. They have been largely protected from changing political moods, policies and tensions.

Dick Fadden, Former Deputy Minister of National Defense, Canada

The Five Eyes intelligence alliance was born in response to a clear threat in WW2 and was sustained throughout the Cold War by another single threat. The challenge today is that its intelligence gathering and sharing must address so many threats that its efforts increasingly permeate governments. While its increased visibility is a shift from past practice, this does not mean it need move in the policy arena. Rather, it should and can represent a mindset appropriate for other areas of government.

David Irvine, Former Director-General of Security, Australia

The Five Eyes is not a formal alliance per se.  It grew as a discrete (and until recently discreet) intelligence-sharing arrangement between five countries with shared values.  It has served us immensely well, adding additional value to the intelligence efforts of any one partner.  It is constantly developing and adapting its scope to address the shared intelligence challenges of the day.

As other countries, threatened by authoritarian regimes, look to broaden their own intelligence capabilities, there has been talk about expanding the alliance.  Expansion and the concept of sharing intelligence information with more partners creates new, unique challenges for FVEYs members.  What other challenges and opportunities exist for FVEYs in the future?

Sir John Scarlett, Former Chief, British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6

In the period ahead, the unique Five Eyes relationship will be challenged, both because of its much higher international profile and the rapidly changing global, geopolitical context. Liberal democracies seem to be on the defensive faced with assertive, apparently self-confident authoritarian regimes. They no longer set the terms for the global economy. But they retain great strengths. How to make the most of these as we move into the future?

John McLaughlin, Former Acting Director, CIA

In this new millennium, the overarching challenge for Five Eyes cooperation is to work for the preservation of common value in the face of challenges to a global order that is based on them. With democracy under pressure and autocracies becoming more aggressive, the imperative of cooperation among our democracies — and with partners who share these values — is ever more urgent. We must be prepared to both peacefully compete with adversaries and to combine our efforts in ways that deter them from provocative acts.

Dick Fadden, Former Deputy Minister of National Defense, Canada

The better course, if the Five Eyes is not to be enlarged, is to continue to replicate its benefits in other areas. For example, in the immigration area there is the Quintet and there is a similar group for border organizations. But underlying everything, is its utility in addressing the evolving threat environment. This should dictate its evolution.

David Irvine, Former Director-General of Security, Australia

Recent moves to convert the Five Eyes concept from its purely intelligence-sharing purpose into a broader policy-devising and policy implementation mechanism raise some important issues.  How will the Five Eyes manage the public differences of view on strategic policy which occasionally arise between participants?  On the major strategic issues of the day, effective policy approaches will need to include alliances and partners who are not part of the English-speaking Five Eyes; is the Five Eyes construct the best vehicle for approaching those necessary broader partnerships?  However, the Five Eyes concept is massaged into new strategic policy directions, it’s primary purpose of intelligence collection and sharing between like-minded and trusted partners must not be diluted.

John MCLaughlin, Former CIA Acting Director

A particularly urgent priority will be enhanced collaboration on emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning– critical to success in competition with adversaries. Moreover, at a moment when intelligence services in many parts of the world are used as instruments of domestic control, we have a responsibility to demonstrate how secret security services function effectively in democratic systems, responsible to elected authorities. And in an age of exploding information volume, it is even more imperative that we use our tradecraft to separate fact from fiction and to deliver to our policymakers the unadulterated truth.

Join the experts for The Cipher Brief’s International Summit:  three days of expert-led sessions on the strategic value of alliances, Intelligence, China, cyber and emerging technologies.  Registration is free for Cipher Brief members.  See how $10/month brings the most experienced national security experts to you.


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