King George's Revenge: Is Britain Using Our Tax Money to Spy on Us?

Compelling reasons to worry that the NSA is outsourcing Big Brother to the Mother Country -- or will one day
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Weeks ago, I worried that surveillance officials in allied countries might conspire with one another to spy on one another's citizens. The NSA is restricted in the spying it can do on Americans. But it can spy on the British all it wants. And there's no law that prevents the Brits from spying on Americans. What if spy agencies in the U.S., Britain, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia were all in cahoots? Today there is even greater reason to be worried about that possibility.

The Guardian reports in its latest Edward Snowden-enabled scoop:

The US government has paid at least £100m to the UK spy agency GCHQ over the last three years to secure access to and influence over Britain's intelligence gathering programmes. The top secret payments are set out in documents which make clear that the Americans expect a return on the investment, and that GCHQ has to work hard to meet their demands. "GCHQ must pull its weight and be seen to pull its weight," a GCHQ strategy briefing said.

The funding underlines the closeness of the relationship between GCHQ and its US equivalent, the National Security Agency. But it will raise fears about the hold Washington has over the UK's biggest and most important intelligence agency, and whether Britain's dependency on the NSA has become too great.

Skipping down in the story, there's this:

The leaked papers reveal that the UK's biggest fear is that "US perceptions of the ... partnership diminish, leading to loss of access, and/or reduction in investment ... to the UK". When GCHQ does supply the US with valuable intelligence, the agency boasts about it.

In one review, GCHQ boasted that it had supplied "unique contributions" to the NSA during its investigation of the American citizen responsible for an attempted car bomb attack in Times Square in 2010. No other detail is provided -- but it raises the possibility that GCHQ might have been spying on an American living in the U.S. The NSA is prohibited from doing this by U.S. law. 

And still later:

Another pitch to keep the US happy involves reminding Washington that the UK is less regulated than the US. The British agency described this as one of its key "selling points". This was made explicit two years ago when GCHQ set out its priorities for the coming years.

"We both accept and accommodate NSA's different way of working," the document said. "We are less constrained by NSA's concerns about compliance."

I trust I'm not alone in thinking that Congress ought to press the Obama Administration for answers. Are there any instances in which the NSA requests data on U.S. citizens from foreign governments? Would the Obama Administration regard it as legal to get that sort of data from, say, Britain?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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