United States Foreign Intelligence Relationships: Background, Policy and Legal Authorities, Risks, Benefits



U.S. intelligence relations with foreign counterparts offer a number of benefits: indications and warning of an attack, expanded geographic coverage, corroboration of national sources, accelerated access to a contingency area, and a diplomatic backchannel. They also present risks of compromise due to poor security, espionage, geopolitical turmoil, manipulation to influence policy, incomplete vetting of foreign sources, over-reliance on a foreign partner’s intelligence capabilities, and concern over a partner’s potentially illegal or unethical tradecraft. Because intelligence failures involving a foreign partner sometimes become public, the risks to the IC of cooperating with a foreign intelligence service are more easily understood. Nevertheless, the persistent cultivation of intelligence relations with foreign partners suggests that the IC remains confident that the benefits outweigh the risks.

These benefits are not always widely recognized due to their sensitivity and the potential for compromising the scope and details of what amounts to intelligence collection. The best known of these intelligence relationships are the decades-long ties to America’s closest allies, who have shared history, values, and similar perspectives on national security threats. Such ties are often one component of a broader security cooperation arrangement. Less well known are liaison relationships with U.S. adversaries over a particular issue of mutual concern, or relations with non-state foreign intelligence organizations such as Kurdish groups.

Regardless of the partner, the U.S. Intelligence Community’s aim is to enhance national intelligence resources and capabilities and to further U.S. national security by better understanding the threat environment and thereby enabling informed strategic planning, better policy decisions, and successful military operations. Thus, U.S. foreign intelligence relationships can be an overlooked component of public discussion of various aspects of international cooperation. Foreign intelligence agencies with ties to U.S. intelligence have often escaped the reach of congressional oversight.

Congress, at various times, has been interested in both the benefits and the risks of foreign intelligence relationships to U.S. national security. While sometimes extolling the value intelligence foreign partners can provide, Congress has also been critical of occasions when the IC has become too dependent on such partners at the expense of IC investment in its own intelligence capabilities. Congress has also been concerned with the IC’s ability to independently assess the credibility of foreign intelligence sources, as well as the vulnerability of a foreign intelligence partner’s telecommunications infrastructure to compromise by a hostile foreign intelligence service. Of particular sensitivity to Congress has been the poor record of human rights by certain foreign intelligence agencies and the potential for foreign intelligence partners to collect and share with the United States information on U.S. persons.