But whom do you share information with? You could share with your traditional military allies, but they might not be spying on the countries you’re most worried about. Or they might not be spying on enough of the planet to make sharing worthwhile. It makes the best sense to join the most extensive spying network around. And that’s the United States.
This is what’s happening right now. U.S. intelligence agencies partner with many countries as part of an extremely close relationship of wealthy, English-speaking nations called the Five Eyes: the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Other partnerships include the Nine Eyes, which adds Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Norway; and the Fourteen Eyes, which adds Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. And the United States partners with countries that have traditionally been much more standoffish, like India, and even with brutally repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia’s.
All of this gives the NSA access to almost everything. In testimony to the European Parliament in 2014, Snowden said, “The result is a European bazaar, where an EU member state like Denmark may give the NSA access to a tapping center on the (unenforceable) condition that NSA doesn’t search it for Danes, and Germany may give the NSA access to another on the condition that it doesn’t search for Germans. Yet the two tapping sites may be two points on the same cable, so the NSA simply captures the communications of the German citizens as they transit Denmark, and the Danish citizens as they transit Germany, all the while considering it entirely in accordance with their agreements.”
In 2014, we learned that the NSA spies on the Turkish government, and at the same time partners with the Turkish government to spy on the Kurdish separatists within Turkey. We also learned that the NSA spies on the government of one of its much closer surveillance partners: Germany. Presumably the United States spies on all of its partners, with the possible exception of the other Five Eyes countries. Even when the NSA touts its counterterrorism successes, most of them are foreign threats against foreign countries and have nothing to do with the United States.
It should come as no surprise that the U.S. shares intelligence data with Israel. Normally, identities of Americans are removed before this data is shared with another country to protect our privacy, but Israel seems to be an exception. The NSA gives Israel’s secretive Unit 8200 “raw SIGINT”—that’s signals intelligence.
Even historical enemies are sharing intelligence with the United States., if only on a limited basis. After 9/11, Russia rebranded the Chechen separatists as terrorists, and persuaded the United States to help by sharing information. In 2011, Russia warned the United States about Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The United States returned the favor, watching out for threats at the Sochi Olympics.