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In the five eyes of the storm

  • Published at 12:06 am November 23rd, 2019
WEB_Trump
Photo: Reuters

Trump’s attacks on intelligence agencies are a threat to the West’s security

The regular and, by now, almost predictable broadsides of President Trump at his own intelligence agencies -- often followed by the conspiracy theories weaved by his ardent apologists -- are having the (unintended?) consequence of weakening a very important pillar in the West’s security arsenal.

One of the unheralded, yet perhaps one as indispensable as NATO, security organizations of the Anglophone democracies is also an entirely unofficial one, at least in terms of traditional inter-state structures like secretariats, secretary generals, and public summit meetings. 

Colloquially known as the Five Eyes and consisting of major intelligence, counter-intelligence, and signals intelligence agencies of the United States, UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, this consortium has played a frontline role in protecting the interests of its constituent members. 

It has done so even as internal political squabbles in member nations or tensions within formal alliances like Nato and EU have threatened to weaken the liberal democratic order’s security posture against the former Soviet Union (or its successor, Russia), China, revolutionary regimes in Third World countries, Islamist terror organizations, and other trans-national threats like drug and human smuggling cartels.

A key strength of the almost seven-decade-old Five Eyes consortium has been the interpersonal relationship forged between the highly trained professional civil servants that staff the member agencies across several continents and two oceans. These men and women are hardly ordinary government employees; the recruitment standards for these agencies rival those of the top flight multi-nationals, with the CIA and MI6 having over-representation of multilingual Ivy League and Oxbridge graduates in their respective ranks.

Many such operators and their supervisors are transferred over from the officer ranks of the regular armed forces. 

These people -- and I have been privileged to personally know a couple of CIA officers -- form not only the elite of the civil service and national security apparatus, they also, by dint of their background, often represent the cosmopolitan, well educated, cultured, and thoroughly experienced professional cadre that is part of the modern social elite as well. 

In other words, these are people that are instinctively, as a class, disliked by the populist movement that has found its tribune in President Trump and his version of the Republican Party (and their local versions in Britain, continental Europe, and Canada).

In constantly attacking and mocking such intelligence professionals and their agencies, President Trump has done no favours for their morale. He has also gone beyond the usual daily Twitter broadsides against his own security professionals and convinced his deputies, like the Secretary of States Pompeo and Attorney General Bill Barr, to lean on their respective counterparts in Canada, UK, Italy, Australia, and several other places for access to those countries’ intelligence agencies with the openly stated purpose of undermining President Trump’s domestic political adversaries. 

Not surprisingly, the fiercely independent secret services of the UK, Italy, and Canada have balked at this weird turn of events and so far refused to fully cooperate, even when their own political bosses have appeared to dither under the demands of Trump’s proconsuls. 

The concern these professionals have is more than a matter of mere occupational loyalty to their fellow covert warriors across the oceans. There is a much deeper angst that such political meddling in matters as delicate as cross-border intelligence sharing by allies will have a corroding effect on the inter-institutional trust and the personal relationships that have been painstakingly built up over decades, and which serve as a quintessential lubricant of time-sensitive cooperation on security matters amongst the world’s Anglophone democracies.

In this shadowy area of security where agreements are far less likely to be written in long, formal documents and far more honoured as part of a code of professional responsibility and loyalty, any dynamic that politicizes such interpersonal relationships has a dangerously debilitating effect on overall effectiveness. 

If the intelligence agencies of Canada, UK, New Zealand, and Australia are left to wonder whether their American counterparts can be trusted to withstand the bizarre political antics of their current or future bosses, or whether their own prime ministers can be pressured by US cabinet secretaries into divulging sensitive information, the Five Eyes consortium may lose much of its punch as the front line of defense against global threats. 

It is well said that discretion is the better part of valour; the current Republican administration in Washington DC, in pursuit of transient domestic politics, seems to have temporarily forgotten that ancient gem of wisdom. 

Such deliberate and decided forgetfulness should frighten the well-wishers of Anglophone democracy everywhere, if for no other reason than this: Whether it is terrorist attacks, trafficking and human smuggling, or conventional aggression by Russia and rogue states, the first line of defense is prevention, and prevention is the expertise of intelligence consortiums like Five Eyes.

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]