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NSA Paying UK Spy Agency to Surveil Americans

New Guardian exclusive reveals NSA utilizes less-restricted GCHQ in international spy partnership

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

(Photograph: Kieran Doherty/Reuters)The United States government is paying the UK government's spy agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (or GCHQ), to do much of their clandestine "dirty work," a new Guardian report revealed Thursday.

In documents leaked by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and reported on by the Guardian, "top secret payments" of at least £100m (roughly $150m) over the past three years were made to the agency in exchange for the UK agency to "pull its weight" in regards to international surveillance.

According to Guardian reporters Nick Hopkins and Julian Borger:

Ministers have denied that GCHQ does the NSA's "dirty work," but in the documents GCHQ describes Britain's surveillance laws and regulatory regime as a "selling point" for the Americans.

Taking advantage of the UK's more lax surveillance restrictions and their ability to spy on US citizens, this international spy partnership has proved to be mutually beneficial for the two dragnet agencies.

In one cited instance, the GCHQ had "boasted" that it was able to supply "unique contributions" to the NSA during its investigation of an American citizen's attempted car bomb attack in Times Square in 2010.

"No other detail is provided," Hopkins and Borger write, "but it raises the possibility that GCHQ might have been spying on an American living in the US," which US law prohibits the NSA from doing.

Earlier it was revealed that the GCHQ—which Snowden had described as "worse than the NSA"—has amassed an infinite database of metadata through the tapping of transatlantic fiber-optic cables which "carry the world's phone calls and internet traffic."

According to GCHQ's "investment portfolios," the United States paid the agency £17.2m ($26m) for that project in particular.

As the Guardian summarizes, other details revealed in the documents include:

  • GCHQ is pouring money into efforts to gather personal information from mobile phones and apps, and has said it wants to be able to "exploit any phone, anywhere, any time".
  • 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 from internet and mobile traffic has increased by 7,000% in the past five years – but 60% of all Britain's refined intelligence still appears to come from the NSA.
  • GCHQ blames China and Russia for the vast majority of cyber-attacks against the UK and is now working with the NSA to provide the British and US militaries with a cyberwarfare capability.

One significant takeaway, according to the Guardian, is that the "GCHQ seems desperate to please its American benefactor." One of the documents cites the UK's biggest fear: "US perceptions of the … partnership diminish, leading to loss of access, and/or reduction in investment … to the UK."

The report continues:

The overriding necessity to keep on the right side of the US was revealed in a UK government paper that set out the views of GCHQ in the wake of the 2010 strategic defense and security review. The document was called: "GCHQ's international alliances and partnerships: helping to maintain Britain's standing and influence in the world." It said: "Our key partnership is with the US. We need to keep this relationship healthy. The relationship remains strong but is not sentimental. GCHQ must pull its weight and be seen to pull its weight."

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