OPSEC Warning: Terrorism hits the Five Eyes in an unlikely place
The terrorist threat to Five Eyes personnel has become real and dangerous, as evidenced in a spa town in southwestern England
It was easier to protect the Five Eyes intelligence alliance and its personnel from harm when the National Security Agency and its global partners lived in the “No Such Agency” era. Until the Cold War’s end, the Intelligence Community was vague about even the existence of NSA, much less what it was up to. Notwithstanding that NSA’s sprawling headquarters complex in central Maryland, with its outsized buildings and mysterious-looking “golf balls” (actually masked antennas) strewn across the compound, was visible from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, for decades the Pentagon played dumb regarding what it was all about.
If anything, some of NSA’s Anglosphere Five Eyes partners were even more tight-lipped than “the Fort,” particularly its British partner agency, Government Communications Headquarters, since the Official Secrets Act enabled GCHQ to evade public awareness until surprisingly recently. All that began to change in the 1990s, when NSA and its close friends slowly entered public consciousness, between Russian intelligence Active Measures aimed at smearing the Five Eyes alliance, plus ridiculous Hollywood movies which posited that NSA was spying on average Americans, and sometimes assassinating them.
That changed in mid-2013 when the NSA contractor-turned-defector Edward Snowden made off for Moscow, via Hong Kong, with more than a million classified IC and Pentagon documents in tow. Some of those purloined secrets were shared with media outlets, in a curated fashion designed to generate clicks and outrage. For the first time, the Western public learned a lot about NSA and its closest partners, particularly how the Five Eyes signals intelligence alliance, which traces its roots back to the ULTRA secret which helped defeat the Nazis in World War Two, managed to develop cutting-edge global eavesdropping capabilities.
This provoked anger in Western citizens who believed, mistakenly, that the Five Eyes was spying on average people rather than foreign spies, leaders, criminals, and terrorists. The Snowden Operation, which was authored by the Kremlin, did a masterful job at filling in the blanks regarding what NSA and the Five Eyes were up to. Those Top Secret answers were spun and edited to depict Western governments in the worst possible light, as Moscow wished, but the difficult truth is that NSA and its partners had never told the public much about what they were really doing, so it was painfully easy for Russian intelligence to use Snowden’s secrets for maximum media effect.