The Secret History of the Five Eyes: The Untold Story of the Shadowy International Spy Network, through Its Targets, Traitors and Spies 
by Richard Kerbaj.
John Blake, 416 pp., £25, September 2022, 978 1 78946 503 7
Show More
Sub-Imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena 
by Clinton Fernandes.
Melbourne, 176 pp., £35.95, October 2022, 978 0 522 87926 1
Show More
Show More

The existence​ of the Five Eyes wasn’t officially acknowledged until 2010, but accounts of its activities have been circulating for years. The sheer extent of the global surveillance system overseen by the US and its allies made it difficult to hide. The physical infrastructure alone operates at a Promethean scale: a network of satellite monitoring facilities shielded by radomes stretching from Point Barrow on the Arctic coast of Alaska to the Rideau River in eastern Ontario to the Hartland Peninsula on the north coast of Devon to Kojarena in Western Australia to the Waihopai Valley on New Zealand’s South Island. An NSA analyst sitting in an office in Fort Meade, Maryland, receives signals from radio interception antennae in Tangimoana and taps on subsea internet cables on the bed of the Sea of Okhotsk. The system collects a massive volume of information: phone calls, satellite communications, emails, internet traffic, webcam images, billions of mobile phone location records and tens of billions of text messages every day. This global data collection wouldn’t be possible without the collaboration of the state intelligence agencies of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Five Eyes members share listening posts and much of the signals intelligence they collect. A reader of a Five Eyes brief may not know which state has collected the information they’re looking at without consulting the technical data. The NSA is by far the most powerful signals intelligence agency in the world, but global surveillance is a shared effort of the Anglosphere.

The birth of the Five Eyes is usually dated to 1941, when US military intelligence officers visited Bletchley Park, bringing with them a ‘Purple Machine’ used to break encrypted Japanese communications. British cryptanalysts had already broken Enigma (though not yet the more sophisticated naval version). The Bletchley meeting became the basis for a wartime agreement between the US and UK to share codebreaking methods. In his history of the Five Eyes system, Richard Kerbaj goes back to 1938, when an MI5 officer decided to tip off the US embassy in London about a minor German plot to steal secrets from an American colonel in New York. After the culprit was arrested, another MI5 officer, Guy Liddell, travelled to the US to discuss the case with American officials and to push for more co-operation between British security services and the FBI. But as Kerbaj’s account shows, he didn’t get very far. It was the Bletchley meeting that led to the BRUSA agreement, which codified the ‘exchange and dissemination of all special intelligence derived by cryptanalysis of the communications of the military and air forces of the Axis powers’.

Many of the early efforts at transatlantic co-operation were less about intelligence-sharing than about drawing the US into the war. MI6 tried to improve links with American security officials with the help of the Canadian-born pilot turned industrialist William Samuel Stephenson. The plan was for American and British intelligence agencies to share the burden of monitoring the world by drawing up zones of influence – a version of the principle still applies today. In 1940, William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, the head of the OSS, the wartime intelligence agency that preceded the CIA, visited Britain. The British wanted American money, radios and boats. Donovan’s visit led to the ‘destroyers for bases’ deal, under which Britain received American ships in return for the leases to some imperial outposts. The deal was celebrated in the UK because American support was critical to the war effort, but the US didn’t do badly out of the arrangement. Given the speed at which American naval yards were churning out ships, fifty old destroyers was a price the US could easily pay. And the land it received in return came with benefits. The bases in various outposts were later used for tracking Soviet submarines, as stations for Strategic Air Command’s nuclear weapons and for launching reconnaissance flights during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Neither Washington nor London saw any reason to end intelligence co-operation at the end of the war. Besides, the US had bigger plans. The UKUSA Agreement – the official name of the Five Eyes founding document – was drafted as a permanent replacement for BRUSA in November 1945. It became an important part of the postwar security architecture established by the US at the height of its power. What the US needed was territorial reach. Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the three colonial territories granted dominion status by Britain in 1907, were to play a significant role. In the 19th century the British Empire had compensated for the loss of most of its American colonies by expanding eastwards. Capital from London had been poured into the Anglo-settler projects in the Antipodes (and what remained of its North American possessions: in the 1840s Toronto tripled in size). As James Belich showed in Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World (2009), more British investment went to the Australian colonies in the 1870s and 1880s than anywhere else in the world. In 1835, Melbourne had no permanent residents; fifty years later its population was almost half a million. Within two generations, Sydney grew from a village to a city of 400,000. In the 1880s, Victoria was richer and more populous than California. The settlers were building Gladstone’s ‘many happy Englands’ at a furious pace. The Anglo colonies were imagined as a transcontinental cultural system, much like the one the Mongols had built on the steppe, with the connections supplied by steamship instead of by horse. As British primacy faded, the US put these connections to use in the postwar architecture of surveillance.

Signals intelligence is supposed to be shared seamlessly among the Five Eyes members, but that’s not the way it always works in practice. The NSA automatically receives the feed from other stations, but sometimes withholds what it knows. On occasion it takes in intelligence from another Five Eyes country and then reclassifies it as NOFORN, revoking the access of the ally that originally collected it. The greatest hits of Anglo-American intelligence work are well known: the NSA’s monitoring of Egypt and Syria, the 1953 coup in Iran, a failed attempt at a redux in Syria in 1957, the Anglo-American operation to tunnel under East Berlin and tap its telephone lines, covert support for the mujahedin in Afghanistan, the false claim about the existence of Iraqi WMD. Kerbaj adds little to the histories of these cases. But his account contains useful information on some of the ruptures in the alliance.

In 1973, Henry Kissinger was infuriated by the Heath government’s public stance against US actions in the Arab-Israeli war. He responded by temporarily cutting off British access to the Five Eyes feed. But US leaders rarely found it hard to keep the British in line. The more difficult question was whether the bogans in the dominions were really to be trusted. In 1942, the US had helped establish Australia’s signals intelligence agency, the Central Bureau, in order to decrypt Japanese communications. But after Soviet spies were discovered in Canberra in 1948, the US downgraded Australia’s access to intelligence as a disciplinary measure. In order to keep its place in the club, the Australian government was effectively forced to set up a professional intelligence apparatus – the agencies that would become the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the Australian Secret Information Service (ASIS). These institutions nurtured a generation of Australian Cold Warriors.

The general direction of US policy in Oceania was set with the signing of the ANZUS agreement, a deal between the US, Australia and New Zealand in which the junior signatories received no security guarantees. In 1956, Australia and New Zealand were made full parties to UKUSA, completing the Five Eyes set. Australia was tasked with monitoring East Asian communications; New Zealand’s agencies were trained on South Asia and the south-west Pacific. Seven years later, the US opened a jointly operated naval communications base on the North West Cape peninsula in Western Australia for messaging its ballistic nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean. In 1966, the most important satellite facility in the region was established at Pine Gap, just south of Alice Springs. In 1969, Australia assisted with the construction of the Nurrungar listening station north of Adelaide, intended to help the US detect missile launches. At first Australian intelligence agencies were enthusiastic assistants, even supporting the CIA by running agents in Chile. But in 1972 the matter was again put in doubt when Gough Whitlam, a principled opponent of the Vietnam War, became prime minister. Nixon despised him, and there were serious concerns in Maryland and Virginia that Whitlam might try to close Pine Gap. Fortunately for the Americans, in 1975 Whitlam was removed from office on flimsy grounds by the governor-general, John Kerr, and intelligence co-operation resumed. Kerbaj refrains from judgment on whether the CIA had a hand in the matter.

In New Zealand, there was a more sustained challenge to the country’s position as a far-flung auxiliary in the US-led military and intelligence system. The detonation of British and French nuclear weapons on Pacific atolls had contributed to a widespread scepticism about the bomb. In 1984, the new prime minister, David Lange, announced that he would make the country a nuclear-free zone – a policy hated by the US but popular, then as now, in New Zealand. When New Zealand began to refuse permission for nuclear-powered ships to enter its ports, the US suspended New Zealand from ANZUS and downgraded its access to Five Eyes intelligence. In theory, all intelligence flows to the New Zealand agencies were stopped. The official story was that intelligence-sharing was only reinstated after New Zealand agreed to participate in military operations in Somalia in the early 1990s. But in fact the NSA quietly continued to exchange intelligence because it wanted to maintain intercept facilities in New Zealand. The main Five Eyes facility at Waihopai opened in 1989. The balance of power among the Five Eyes countries was always clear, but on both sides the exigencies of global surveillance proved more significant than principles. New Zealand got to keep its nuclear-free policy and the listening stations remained.

On 12 September 2001, the heads of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ were flown to Langley to discuss how they could contribute to the war against al-Qaida. Kerbaj says that British intelligence agencies had expertise to offer from their work in Northern Ireland that was thought valuable to American efforts. That was certainly the belief in the UK, though questionable in reality. What was more important to Washington was that the already substantial resources the US devoted to its own intelligence agencies should be increased. By 2013, the NSA’s budget had doubled and thousands of new staff had been hired. Many of the revelations in the papers leaked by Edward Snowden (which Kerbaj refers to as ‘stolen documents’) had to do with systems brought in for the new era of mass surveillance. The general scope of the established programmes had already been revealed by the brilliant work of the investigative journalist Nicky Hager in the late 1990s. But the Snowden leaks exposed the workings of the system – PRISM, XKEYSCORE, ECHELON, Stellar Wind, DISHFIRE, Tempora, MYSTIC and others – in remarkable detail. Kerbaj seems uninterested in the physical and computational architecture of global surveillance. He describes the NSA-funded satellite interception base at Morwenstow in Cornwall, which is jointly operated by the NSA and GCHQ, but doesn’t really dwell on its function. He seems to prefer the thrills of stolen papers and vignettes about defectors and hairdressers turned spies. This leads to some unintentional comedy. ‘As the world was preoccupied with the US nuclear attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which had killed more than 200,000 people,’ Kerbaj writes, ‘a young cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa was fighting for his own survival.’

Secrets tucked into trench coats miss the point of the Five Eyes and obscure its political implications. The history of Anglo-American surveillance matters, from its late imperial beginnings to the contemporary needs of American power. The idea that the existence of a vast system of global surveillance might be problematic doesn’t have much purchase in any of the Five Eyes countries. Kerbaj includes a brief discussion of British and Canadian involvement in the CIA’s post-9/11 rendition programme, which involved fifty countries and torture sites from Poland to Tashkent. In the British case the collusion went as far as tracking people who were to be rendered by the CIA. But the advantages of Five Eyes membership are supposed to outweigh other considerations. What are they? According to Kerbaj, the achievements of American-led signals intelligence include ‘the defeat of the Soviet Union, combating Islamist terrorism and exposing Russian interference in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign’. It is bad enough to equate a world historical event like the fall of the Soviet Union with the non-achievement of ‘combating’ terrorism. But it’s ludicrous to suggest that Russian interference is of any significance in the history of mass surveillance. It’s revealing of Kerbaj’s political allegiances that he makes no mention of the US’s continuing global assassination programme, which makes use of drone and missile strikes, and is fully dependent on the Five Eyes system. After all, ‘the Five Eyes is equivalent to a band of brothers and sisters drawn together by common values, language and cause.’

Clinton Fernandes’s​ approach is different. He points out that the foreign policy of states – his focus is Australia – is often bound up in liberal technocratic euphemisms about the ‘rules-based international order’. But such rules, he suggests, are also ‘instruments of control and exclusion’. His argument is that Australia has taken on the role of a ‘sub-imperial’ power within the US-dominated system. As a former Australian military intelligence officer, he knows that US congressmen have easier access to information about Australian intelligence facilities like Pine Gap than members of the Australian Parliament do, thanks to some autocratic laws about secret operations. As in Britain, to which Fernandes ascribes the more senior rank of ‘lieutenant with nuclear weapons’, military operations in Australia can be approved by the executive without parliamentary approval. Unlike New Zealand and Canada, Australia was an enthusiastic participant in the invasion of Iraq. It also signed up for duty in Afghanistan, with Pine Gap providing tactical intelligence. When Australian forces withdrew from the country in the summer of 2021, the head of the army, General Angus Campbell, said they had helped to improve security for millions of Afghans. Fernandes argues that their mission was really the ‘pursuit of relevance to the United States’. A generation earlier, Australia sent sixty thousand troops to Vietnam. Australian strategic documents include some awareness of the more cynical side of American power, but there has been little attempt to change the trajectory.

Unusually for a developed country, the Australian economy is powered to a significant extent by the export of basic commodities – in particular, iron, coal, gold and wheat. Most of these raw materials are sold to China, Japan and South Korea. This might seem to offer the opportunity to establish a foreign policy that isn’t US-facing. But Australia’s corporate economy is firmly integrated into American financial institutions. The major mining companies are for the most part US-owned. This led, for example, to Australia denying India access to its uranium until the US changed its policy on the Indian nuclear programme and then began building nuclear reactors in India in 2016. Fernandes argues that instead of developing Australian mineral deposits with a broader national development goal in mind, the state has preferred openness to private investment, ‘to make Australia a better quarry’.

When it comes to their country’s involvement in international affairs, Australian politicians have tended to stress lofty principles and the protection of human rights. But in the region where Australia has most influence, East Timor and the south-west Pacific, there has been little evidence of either. Fernandes writes about Australia’s support for the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, its collusion in the invasion and destruction of East Timor and its opposition to West Papuan demands for self-determination. The Australian contingent in the Five Eyes put considerable resources into intelligence operations in East Timor in the early 2000s, and successive governments have refused to negotiate a maritime boundary there, wanting to continue to reap the benefits of oil and gas in the Timor Sea. According to the terms of a treaty signed in 2018, Australia is not required to pay compensation for its past exploitation of hydrocarbons. And despite Australia’s economic interest in pursuing links with China, the signs are that here, too, the state will continue to follow the US’s lead. Fernandes quotes a former Australian minister of defence, Peter Dutton, to the effect that Australian participation in any potential conflict between the US and China is seen as preordained.

Australia’s future military plans put considerable emphasis on submarine warfare. The AUKUS deal, signed between Australia, the UK and the US in September 2021, includes an arrangement to provide Australia with the technology for nuclear submarines. An existing submarine deal with France, signed in an outbreak of simple-minded commercial logic, has been unceremoniously jettisoned – the US is more interested in having nuclear-powered boats armed with Tomahawk missiles patrolling the South and East China Seas. This is the first time the US has agreed to share nuclear technology with a non-nuclear state. As the US Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments noted, ‘US defence strategy depends in large part on America’s advantage in undersea warfare. Quiet submarines are one of the US military’s most viable means of gathering intelligence and projecting power.’ The AUKUS deal enables Australia to host US submarines in Western Australia until its own submarines arrive sometime before 2040. In its 2022 National Security Strategy, the US said the deal would contribute to ‘iron-clad commitments’ in the Indo-Pacific. China perceived the deal as just another example of America marshalling its forces around their territory. In Australia, it has been justified on the basis that an island nation has to protect its seaborne trade. But, as Fernandes notes, there is an irony here. Since China is Australia’s major trading partner, Australia is in effect claiming to be ‘protecting trade with China from China’.

But there is also a more general project: making Australia as useful as possible to American power. The head of the US army in the Pacific, General Charles Flynn, has declared his aim to make Australian armed forces interoperable or even interchangeable with those of their allies. Like its British counterpart, the Australian army is part of Project Convergence, which aims to ‘merge joint capabilities’ with US forces. In April 2021, Australia expanded four of its military bases to enable military exercises with the US, and that same year hosted Exercise Pitch Black, a joint drill in the Northern Territory. It has signed arms deals for billions of dollars’ worth of US helicopters and HIMARS rocket launchers. The current Australian government has also spoken of a desire to acquire hypersonic missiles, and for guided missiles to be constructed in Australia in partnership with Lockheed and Raytheon. As the defence minister, Pat Conroy, put it, ‘quite frankly we need more missiles in Australia.’

For the US, there has been political value in co-opting the former Anglo-settler societies. When the Biden administration stepped up sanctions on Nicaragua it helped that the UK and Canada followed suit. When the US pressed its allies to ban Huawei from involvement in their communications infrastructure, Australia, New Zealand and Canada readily agreed, and the UK capitulated after some rough diplomacy. Obedience is usually guaranteed in the end. In 2005, Canada opted out of the US homeland missile defence programme, but the Trudeau government is now revisiting that decision. In November, the US threatened that if Australia were to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons its security arrangements would be at risk. Only Jacinda Ardern’s government in New Zealand has shown any resistance to lining up behind America’s increasingly aggressive policy on China.

Talk of historical ties and fraternal co-operation is the standard vocabulary of diplomacy. But how much of it is sincere and how much merely jockeying for position among subordinate nations in the Anglosphere? In Britain’s case, keeping up appearances has come to seem essential now that the former Anglo-settler societies are in most respects wealthier than the UK – all have higher GDP per capita, in Australia’s case considerably higher. It’s a competition, dressed up in the language of intimacy. The former Australian prime minister John Howard spoke of the ‘cultural affinity’ between the Five Eyes countries based on ‘the commonality of values among Anglosphere countries’. But what are these values? For those in favour of constant global surveillance, the answer is often a willingness to allow the erosion of democratic principles.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 45 No. 4 · 16 February 2023

Tom Stevenson uses the Australian vernacular term bogan (LRB, 19 January), slang for a person whose speech, clothing, attitude and behaviour are considered unrefined or unsophisticated. It was popularised in the late 1980s by Kylie Mole, Mary-Anne Fahey’s schoolgirl character on the TV sketch show The Comedy Company. I doubt whether members of the Australian intelligence establishment could correctly be called bogans, but many Australians would be proud to be called a bogan by a pommie.

Ronald Brown
Newcastle, New South Wales

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences