Does NSA Avoid U.S. Legal Restrictions by Hiring British Intelligence to Gather Information on Americans?
Seeking to evade even the weak limits placed on its spying by U.S. law, the National Security Agency (NSA) has paid at least £100 million ($155 million) to the British spy agency known as GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) over the last three years to conduct operations NSA legally cannot, according to documents leaked by former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden. In light of ongoing revelations regarding NSA domestic spying on Americans, the arrangement suggests that NSA is using GCHQ to break U.S. law.
Although British officials deny that GCHQ does the NSA’s “dirty work,” the documents are replete with references that indicate otherwise. In a key document from 2011, GCHQ states that the UK’s “legal regime” is a “selling point” for the NSA, because “we are less constrained by NSA’s concerns about compliance” with U.S. law. In GCHQ guidelines for NSA use of the former’s databases, GCHQ assured NSA lawyers that “we have a light oversight regime compared with the US.”
The independence of GCHQ—and by extension the UK itself—is implicated by the arrangement and the sometimes obsequious tone of discussions regarding the relationship with NSA. In one document the agency admits that “Our key partnership is with the US … The relationship remains strong but is not sentimental. GCHQ must pull its weight and be seen to pull its weight.” In another, GCHQ expressed fear that a potential error or failure would “diminish NSA’s confidence in GCHQ’s ability to meet minimum NSA requirements.”
In fact, whistleblower Snowden—now living in temporary exile in Russia—warned some time ago that GCHQ “are worse than the US.”
Other important revelations in the documents include:
• GCHQ, which has said it wants to be able to “exploit any phone, anywhere, any time,” has secretly gained access to the network of cables that carry the world’s phone and internet traffic and is processing huge streams of sensitive personal data that it is sharing with the NSA—much of which involves Americans and would be illegal for NSA to gather itself.
• Some GCHQ staff working on one sensitive program expressed concern about “the morality and ethics of their operational work, particularly given the level of deception involved.”
• The amount of personal data available to GCHQ has increased by 7,000% in the past five years – yet 60% of all Britain’s refined intelligence still appears to come from the NSA.
• GCHQ boasted that it had made “unique contributions” to the NSA investigation of Faisal Shahzad, the U.S. citizen responsible for an attempted car bombing in New York City’s Times Square on May 1, 2010, which implies that GCHQ might have been spying on an American living in the US, which NSA is prohibited from doing by US law.
To Learn More:
NSA Pays £100m in Secret Funding for GCHQ (by Nick Hopkins and Julian Borger, The Guardian)
GCHQ Taps Fibre-Optic Cables for Secret Access to World's Communications (by Ewen MacAskill, Julian Borger, Nick Hopkins, Nick Davies and James Ball, The Guardian)
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