(Updated: September 16, 2017)
On December 11, the Swedish public television channel SVT published a range of new NSA-documents from the Snowden-collection. One is a text which for the first time proves that intelligence agencies of nine European countries are 3rd Party partners of NSA.
These countries are: France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Earlier, these nations were identified as forming the 14-Eyes group, for which we now also have a real name: SIGINT Seniors Europe or SSEUR.
Unfortunately only this very small excerpt was published, so we don't know what the rest of the document is about. But as small as it is, it reveals some interesting new things, which will be explained in this article:
- The 3rd Party status of a number of European countries
- The existance of a group called SIGINT Seniors Europe
- More clarity about the mysterious 14-Eyes
3rd Party countries
This is probably the first time that an official NSA document is published in which several 3rd Party countries are named. Until now, we only had documents proving this status for only a few separate countries, and we had a range of countries that were suggested to be 3rd Party partners by intelligence experts.
From the countries mentioned in the fragment published by Swedish television, only France, Germany, Norway, Italy, Belgium and probably Spain were supposed to be 3rd Party partners. Sweden, Denmark and especially The Netherlands were not listed as such, so with this new disclosure, we now know for sure that the intelligence agencies of all these nations have the 3rd Party status.
Being a 3rd Party means that there's a formal bilateral agreement between NSA and a foreign (signals) intelligence agency. Probably the main thing that distinguishes this from other, less formal ways of cooperating, is that among 3rd party partners, there's also exchange of raw data, and not just of finished intelligence reports or other kinds of support. Also both parties have a Special Liaison Officer (SLO) assigned at each others agency.
It's not quite clear what the initial 3rd Party agreements are called, but we know that later on specific points are often laid down in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). An example is the Memorandum of Understanding between NSA and the Israeli signals intelligence unit, which was published by The Guardian on September 11, 2013.
SIGINT Seniors Europe
As the newly published fragment starts with an asterisk, it seems to be a footnote in a document about intelligence training, explaining which countries are "SSEUR members": the Five Eyes (United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and nine other European countries: France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
The abbreviation SSEUR is seen here for the first time, and luckily Swedish television also published another document which says that SSEUR stands for SIGINT Seniors Europe (SIGINT is an acronym for Signals Intelligence):
Fragment of an NSA document mentioning SIGINT Seniors Europe (SSEUR)
(Names whited out are replaced by black bars for better readability)
Apart from this, we have no further information about the SIGINT Seniors Europe. But there's an explanation, provided to this weblog by our French counterpart Zone d'Intérêt, which probably comes very close to what this group could be:
The term "SIGINT Senior" may designate the highest ranking SIGINT officer of a foreign (signals) intelligence agency, rather than a country as a whole. For example, in France, the Directeur Technique (DT) inside the foreign intelligence agency DGSE is called "le Senior SIGINT" exactly.
Intelligence agencies aren't organized the same way in each country. Some countries have intelligence agencies inside police forces, military intelligence in the field, defense agencies which collect both for military operations and counterterrorism, etc. Also the laws aren't the same in every country.
Therefore, it's obviously more convenient to have one single point of contact in each country, to discuss SIGINT-related issues, or even for actually passing signals intelligence, with maybe some pre-processing already done, instead of having to do this with different people from different agencies and units in each country.
This explanation fits the fact that the document mentions SSEUR together with the NATO Advisory Committee on Special Intelligence (NACSI), which is also a platform for discussing SIGINT-related issues.
From the nine European countries of SSEUR, only Sweden is not a member of NATO, but as mentioned earlier, Sweden is often cooperating with NATO countries. More interesting is that Belgium is part of this group too. Belgium is a small country and reportedly has hardly any SIGINT capabilities. That is to say: domestically, but maybe there's some more substantial SIGINT collection by Belgian troops participating in military operations abroad.
With SSEUR containing European 3rd Party partners, it's very well possible that there are also similar groups of partner agencies in other parts of the world, with the East-Asian/Pacific Rim region being the most likely.
The SIGINT Seniors Europe comprise 14 countries, and when we look at their names, we see that they are identical to the nations of which The Guardian in November said they form a group called 14-Eyes.
As this latter group was also never heard of, we looked for some possible explanations in an article on this weblog last month. But by then we didn't know exactly and for sure which countries were 3rd Party partners, so it was hard to get things clarified.
Now that we know that all nine European countries, including Sweden, Denmark and The Netherlands, have 3rd Party status, it's clear that our option "A" came closest: 14-Eyes stands for a number of 3rd Party countries who have something in common - likely having a 'SIGINT Senior' officer as single point of contact for NSA and the Five Eyes.
As explained in our earlier article, an 'Eyes' designation is most often used as a handling instruction for restricting dissemination of sensitive information among a certain group of countries. In this case, 14-Eyes apparently serves as dissemination marking for information authorized for release to the 14 members of the SIGINT Seniors Europe group.
An article from 2001 about the history of Dutch signals intelligence clarifies that SIGINT Senior Meetings (SSMs) are attended by the heads of agencies responsible for signals intelligence, like NSA, GCHQ, the German BND, the French DGSE, the Italian SISMI, and the military intelligence services of Norway, Denmark, Belgium and other countries.
The SIGINT Senior Meetings coordinate the military intelligence needs for the participating countries, resulting in the actual exchange of data and information through the Signals Intelligence Data System (SIGDASYS). Originally this was some kind of computer system that acted as a back-up in case one of the countries lost its own SIGINT capacity.
Later, SIGDASYS became a database in which all participating nations poured military SIGINT and other information, and, on a quid pro quo basis, could get out the intelligence they needed themselves. In this way, SIGDASYS decreased the overlap in data collection and played an important role during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The system is managed by the multinational SIGDASYS Committee which reports to the SIGINT Seniors meeting.
Update: an internal NSA SIDtoday newsletter from June 14, 2005, says that work was started for standardizing formats to facilitate the exchange of call chaining diagrams via SIGDASYS too.
The article says that for the Netherlands, it was the head of the former military intelligence agency MID (1988-2002) who participated in the SIGINT Seniors meetings, often accompanied by the director of TIVC, a unit which processed Dutch signals intelligence.
On Twitter, a Dutch journalist working on the Snowden-papers added that initially it was the head of the former Dutch navy intelligence agency MARID who attended the SIGINT Seniors meetings and nowadays it's a senior official of the Military Intelligence and Security Agency MIVD. He also said that membership of this 14-Eyes group is not fixed and can change over time.
According to the book 'The NSA Complex', which was published by Der Spiegel in March 2014, the Sigint Seniors Europe (SSEUR) group was established in 1982 for more efficiently monitoring the Soviet Union.*
All this makes clear that 14-Eyes is the designator for information that is restricted to the 14 nations participating in a group called SIGINT Seniors Europe (SSEUR), which apparently exists for some 30 years. SSEUR meetings are attended by the heads or senior officials of the signals intelligence agencies of the 14 countries, who coordinate the sharing of military intelligence. The actual data and information exchange takes place through a regional database of the Signals Intelligence Data System (SIGDASYS).
Links and Sources
- Cees Wiebes, "Dutch Sigint during the Cold War, 1945-94", in: Matthew M. Aid & Cees Wiebes, "Secrets of Signals Intelligence during the Cold War and Beyond", London, 2001, p. 276-277.
- DeCorrespondent.nl: Over Five Eyes en Third Parties - Met wie werkt de NSA samen (2013)
- SVT.se: Läs dokumenten om Sverige från Edward Snowden (2013)
- Heise.de: Paper 1: Echelon and its role in COMINT (2001)