September 12, 2019

A document about the UKUSA partnership with unknown classification compartments

(Updated: September 13, 2019)

A highly sensitive document about the intelligence sharing relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom reveals the existence of three classification compartments that were previously unknown.

The assessment was declassified in September 2018 after a FOIA request by Privacy International and Yale Law School's Media Freedom & Information Access Clinic (MFIA). The document has no date, but must be from somewhere before the NSA's internal reorganization in the year 2000.

First page of the assessment of the UKUSA relationship
(click to enlarge)

Classification markings

The classification marking at the top of the document reads:


This rather long and complex marking consists of three separate parts. First there's the actual classification level:

This is the highest level of classified information, which would cause "exceptionally grave damage" to US national security if it were disclosed unauthorized.

Then there are several Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) control systems and compartments which further restrict the access to particularly sensitive information:

- VRK11
VRK stands for Very Restricted Knowledge and was a sub-control system to limit access to uniquely sensitive COMINT activities and programs. It contained compartments or categories which had an identifier of one to three alpha numeric characters, so in this case the document contains information from VRK compartment 11.
Shortly before 2004, VRK was succeeded by a new system called Exceptionally Controlled Information (ECI).

- TK
TK stands for TALENT KEYHOLE, which is a combined control system for products of overhead collection systems, such as spy satellites and reconnaissance aircraft.

- AG

- DC

- MC
Unknown. (Update: On Twitter, Bill Robinson said that MC is the abbreviation for MERCURY, a series of satellites for COMINT, SIGINT and ELINT collection, which were operated from Menwith Hill in the UK)

Finally, there's a dissemination marking which adds additional restrictions:

This stands for No Foreign Nationals and is applied to any information that may not be released to any non-US citizen.

The classification of the document is remarkable and interesting in various ways. Not only because it contains VRK11 and TK information - this applies to some other declassified documents - but because it has three additional markings (AG, MC and DC), which seem to show up here for the first time.

These markings clearly look like abbreviations of code words, but that's also a bit strange because in an overall classification line, code words should be written in full. And if we assume that these markings stand for additional control systems or compartments, it's remarkable to see three that were not known before.

Benefits for the US

Although the term UKUSA is often used for the 5-Eyes partnership between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, this documents uses the term in its original sense, being the relationship between the signals intelligence agencies of the United States (NSA) and the United Kingdom (GCHQ).

As this is a highly sensitive issue, the document is almost entirely redacted: 11 out of 14 pages are witheld in full, while of the remaining 3 pages also large portions have been redacted. The remaining portions are still interesting however, also because they confirm things we learned from the Snowden-revelations.

The text starts with saying that the UKUSA relationship is of "inestimable value to NSA and cannot be abandoned". But there are some weaknesses and understanding them would make NSA better able to "make some hard decisions about the future of the relationship." These weaknesses are of course redacted, but the main benefits for NSA are still readable:

- A "unique collection from GCHQ conventional sites, freeing US resources". This seems to be about data collection from undersee fiber-optic cables, which NSA also uses and therefore hasn't to invest in its own accesses to these kinds of data streams.

- NSA can also use something from the UK "where the US has none", but what exactly this is, is redacted. However, another declassified document says: "The UK has sites at strategic locations for collection that otherwise would be unavailable to the US." Some GCHQ accesses even exist "solely to satisfy NSA tasking".

- The "compatibility and interoperability of US & UK SIGINT systems" which makes it faster and easier to exchange content data, metadata and end products.

- A "strong analytic workforce, with a capability for independent interpretation of events" which saves US resources by division of efforts.

- An "especially competent cryptanalytic workforce". Another declassified document adds: "GCHQ is NSA's only peer in the field of cryptomathematics and virtually all major advances within the field of cryptography have occurred as a result of our mutual sharing."

- The "pooling of resources on key technical projects during austere fiscal periods" - again financial reasons, showing how much NSA is apparently bothered with money issues despite their annual budget of over 10 billion US dollar in 2013.

- And finally, as the perhaps most important benefit the document says that the UK has "a record of supporting the US as an ally in confronting world problems".

According to another unredacted part of the document, NSA worried about the large numbers of integrees that NSA and GHCQ exchanged, who took on more and more tasks and responsibilities. GCHQ for example wished to place an integree in G2/SA (a unit in the former NSA division responsible for non-communist countries), but this was rejected "as it would give GCHQ insight into certain sensitive operations we do not share."

Another unredacted part makes clear that the Americans were also concerned about the increasing number of electronic communications interfaces between NSA and GCHQ, which had been established "based on a myriad of decisions at various levels within NSA". The question was asked: "Should there be a common NSA position on the number and kind of electronic interfaces between NSA and GCHQ? Should the number be driven by NSA design or by GCHQ needs?"

The UKUSA partnership

The same FOIA request by Privacy International and MFIA also resulted in the declassification of a larger batch of documents related to the US-UK relationship, including ones that date back to the early 1950s and recall the origins of this unique intelligence partnership.

It began with the UKUSA Agreement, which was signed on March 5, 1946 by Col. Patrick Marr-Johnson, British Army General Staff, for and in behalf of the London Signal Intelligence Board (LSIB), and by Lt. Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, GSC, Senior Member, for and in behalf of the State-Army-Navy Communications Board (STANCIB).

Canada had hoped to be a third signatory of the UKUSA Agreement but that didn't happen. Eventually a separate CANUSA agreement between Canada and the United States was "presumably signed in 1949" after the British LSIB saw no objection.*

After a first tripartite conference was held with the Australian Defence Signals Branch (DSB) in September 1953, Appendix J (about the "collaboration with commonwealth countries other than the U.K.") and Annexure J1 of the UKUSA Agreement were revised and these were signed by New Zealand in January 1956 and by Australia in May 1956.

The relationship between these five partner agencies continued to be governed by the original UKUSA agreement from 1946, supplemented by a range of appendices and an array of Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) and Divisions of Effort (DoE). However, NSA was apparently not able to locate, let alone produce, most of these additional documents.

The various kinds of data and intelligence that NSA and GCHQ exchange under the UKUSA partnership are listed in yet another declassified document:

Exchange of intelligence between NSA and GCHQ
(click to enlarge)

In November 1993, the NSA's Deputy Director of Operations (DDO) initiated a review of the UKUSA Exchange Agreement "to include a list of what is not currently exchanged with the British, what we should not exchange in the future, and new things that should be exchanged in the future".

Finally, a document from the Snowden trove says that in the same year, the original bilateral relationships between the US and the individual Second Party countries were turned into a "group (5-EYES) partnership" which in 1998 got a coordinating body called the Joint Executive for SIGINT Operability (JESI).

- Lawfare: Newly Disclosed NSA Documents Shed Further Light on Five Eyes Alliance (March 2019)
- Privacy International: Privacy International v. NSA et al. (US 5EY FOIA)


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