Editorial Comment: It is surprising to witness the excessive media frenzy surrounding the recent “leaks” from whistleblower, Edward Snowden. The fact that an extensive and advanced global surveillance network has been in place for decades seems to have eluded both the public and media alike.
I thought it would be helpful to republish an article by Patrick Poole that originally appeared in the Covert Action Quarterly in 1999. It highlights the enormity of the crime being perpetrated against all of humanity, not only American citizens. It focuses on the more profound issues at stake that include, but exceed, privacy concerns.
What we are really confronting is a battle for human freedom and sovereignty. Our enemy is a transnational shadow government that seeks total dominion, wielding absolute power over our thoughts, feelings, perceptions and behaviour via propaganda and a vast array of technologies, and they operate with impunity.
As Patrick Poole stated:
“The U.S. NSA – Echelon is now being widely expressed in the mainstream media. However, these propaganda issues are in fact a major cover-up of the real issues that the US National Security Agency are perpetrating against Humanity. This Black Government “Silent Weapons” technology has been developed to monitor the location and manipulate the minds of every citizen – Wherever or Whoever you are!”
Patrick S. Poole
Using a system of satellites and supercomputers that recognize code-words, the US National Security Agency and its UKUSA partners keep governments, corporations and citizens under constant surveillance.
In the greatest surveillance effort ever established, the US National Security Agency (NSA) has created a global spy system, code-named ECHELON, which captures and analyses virtually every phone call, fax, e-mail and telex message sent anywhere in the world.
ECHELON is controlled by the NSA and is operated in conjunction with:
the General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) of the UK
the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) of Canada
the Defense Security Directorate (DSD) of Australia
the General Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) of New Zealand
These organizations are bound together under a secret agreement, the UKUSA Security Agreement of 1948, whose terms and text remain under wraps even today.
The ECHELON system is fairly simple in design: position intercept stations all over the world to capture all satellite, microwave, cellular and fibre-optic communications traffic, and then process this information through the NSA’s massive computer capabilities-including advanced voice recognition and optical character recognition (OCR) programs-and look for code-words or code-phrases (using what’s known as the ECHELON Dictionary) that will prompt the computers to flag the message for recording and transcribing for future analysis. Intelligence analysts at each of the respective “listening stations” maintain separate keyword lists for them to analyze any conversation or document flagged by the system, which is then forwarded to the respective intelligence agency headquarters that requested the intercept.
But apart from directing their ears towards terrorists and rogue states, ECHELON is also being used for purposes well outside its original mission. The regular discovery of domestic surveillance targeted at American civilians for reasons of “unpopular” political affiliation or for no probable cause at all-in violation of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the US Constitution-is consistently impeded by very elaborate and complex legal arguments and privilege claims by the intelligence agencies and the US Government. The guardians and caretakers of our liberties, our duly elected political representatives, give scarce attention to these activities, let alone to the abuses that occur under their watch.
Among the activities that the ECHELON targets are:
Political spying: Since the close of World War II, the US intelligence agencies have developed a consistent record of trampling the rights and liberties of the American people. Even after the investigations into the domestic and political surveillance activities of the agencies that followed in the wake of the Watergate fiasco, the NSA continues to target the political activity of “unpopular” political groups and our duly elected representatives.
One whistleblower charged, in a 1988 Cleveland Plain Dealer interview, that while she was stationed at the Menwith Hill facility in the 1980s she heard real-time intercepts of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. A former Maryland Congressman, Michael Barnes, claimed in a 1995 Baltimore Sun article that under the Reagan Administration his phone calls were regularly intercepted-something he discovered only after reporters had been passed transcripts of his conversations by the White House. One of the most shocking revelations came to light after several GCHQ officials became concerned about the targeting of peaceful political groups, and told the London Observer in 1992 that the ECHELON Dictionaries targeted Amnesty International, Greenpeace and even Christian ministries.
Commercial espionage: Since the demise of communism in Eastern Europe, the intelligence agencies have searched for a new justification for their surveillance capability in order to protect their prominence and their bloated budgets. Their solution was to redefine the notion of “national security” to include economic, commercial and corporate concerns. The Office of Intelligence Liaison was created within the US Department of Commerce to forward intercepted materials to major US corporations. In many cases, the beneficiaries of this commercial espionage effort are the very companies that helped the NSA develop the systems that power the ECHELON network. This incestuous relationship is so strong, that sometimes this intelligence information is sued to push other American manufacturers out of deals in favor of these mammoth US defense and intelligence contractors who frequently are the source of major cash contributions to both political parties.
While signals intelligence technology was helpful in containing and eventually defeating the Soviet empire during the Cold War, what was once designed to target a select list of communist countries and terrorist states is now indiscriminately directed against virtually every citizen in the world. The European Parliament is now asking whether the ECHELON communications interceptions violate the sovereignty and privacy of citizens in other countries. In some cases, such as at the NSA’s Menwith Hill station In England, surveillance is conducted against citizens on their own soil and with the full knowledge and cooperation of their government.
This report suggests that Congress pick up its long-neglected role as watchdog of the constitutional rights and liberties of the American people, instead of play its current role as lap dog to the US intelligence agencies. Congressional hearings, similar to the Church and Rockefeller Committee hearings held in the mid-1970s, ought to be held to find out to what extent ECHELON targets the personal, political, religious and commercial communications of US citizens.
The late US Senator Frank Church warned that the technology and capability embodied in the ECHELON system represent a direct threat to the liberties of the American people. Left unchecked, ECHELON could be used by either the political elite or the intelligence agencies themselves as a tool to subvert the civil protections of the Constitution and to destroy representative government in the United States.
ECHELON AND THE UK USA AGREEMENT
The culmination of the Cold War conflict brought home hard realities for many military and intelligence agencies who were dependent upon the confrontation for massive budgets and little civilian oversight. World War II Allied political and military alliances had quickly become intelligence alliances in the shadow of the Iron Curtain that descended upon eastern Europe after the war.
But for some intelligence agencies, the end of the Cold War just meant a shift in mission and focus, not a loss of manpower or financial resources. One such US governmental organization is the National Security Agency. Despite the disintegration of communism in the former Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe, the secretive NSA continues to grow at an exponential rate in terms of budget, manpower and spying abilities. Other countries have noticed the rapid growth of NSA resources and facilities around the world, and have decried the extensive spying upon their citizens by the United States.
A preliminary report, released by the European Parliament in January 1998, detailed research conducted by independent researchers that uncovered a massive US spy technology network that routinely monitors telephone, fax and e-mail information on citizens all over the world, but particularly in the European Union (EU) and Japan. Titled “An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control”, this report, issued by the Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA) Committee of the European Parliament, caused a tremendous stir in the establishment Press in Europe. At least one major US media outlet, the New York Times also covered the issuance of the report.
The STOA report also exposed a festering sore-spot between the US and its EU allies. The widespread surveillance of citizens in EU countries by the NSA has been known and discussed by European journalists since 1981. The name of the system in question is ECHELON, and it is one of the most secretive spy systems in existence.
ECHELON is actually a vast network of electronic spy stations located around the world and maintained by five countries:
These countries, bound together in a still-secret agreement, UKUSA [pronounced “you-koo-za”], spy on each other’s citizens by intercepting and gathering electronic signals of almost every telephone call, fax and e-mail message transmitted around the world daily. These signals are fed through the NSA’s massive supercomputers that look for certain keywords called the ECHELON Dictionaries.
Most of the details of this mammoth spy system-and the UKUSA agreement that supports it-remain a mystery. What is known of ECHELON is the result of the efforts of journalists and researchers around the world, who have laboured for decades to uncover the operations of our governments’ most secret systems. The 1996 publication of New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager’s book, Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network, provided the most detailed look at the system and inflamed interest in ECHELON as well as the debate regarding its propriety.
This paper examines the expanse of the ECHELON system, along with the intelligence agreements and exchanges that support it. The operation of ECHELON serves the NSA’s goal of spying on the citizens of other countries, while also allowing them to circumvent the prohibition on spying on US citizens. ECHELON is not only a gross violation of the US Constitution, but it violates the goodwill of the United States’ allies and threatens the privacy of innocent civilians around the world. The existence and expansion of ECHELON is a foreboding omen regarding the future of constitutional liberties. If a US Government agency can willingly violate the most basic components of the Bill of Rights without so much as congressional oversight and approval, we have reverted from a republican form of government to tyranny.
THE UKUSA PARTIES
The success of the Allied military effort in World War II was due in no small part to successes in gathering enemy intelligence information and cracking those military and diplomatic messages. In addition, the Allied forces were able to create codes and encryption devices that effectively concealed sensitive information from prying Axis-power eyes. These coordinated signal intelligence (SIGINT) programs kept Allied information secure and left the enemies vulnerable.
But at the close of the conflict, a new, threatening power-the Soviet Union-was beginning to provoke the Cold War by enslaving Eastern Europe. These signal intelligence agencies now had a new enemy towards which to turn their electronic eyes and ears to ensure that the balance of power could be maintained. The folleys of electronic hardware and espionage that would follow for 40 years would be the breeding ground of the ECHELON spy system.
The diplomatic foundation that was the genesis of ECHELON is the UKUSA agreement
The agreement has its roots in the BRUSA COMINT (communications intelligence) alliance formed in the early days of World War II and ratified on 17 May 1943 by the United Kingdom and the United States of America
The Commonwealth SIGINT Organization, formed in 1946-47, brought together the post war intelligence agencies of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand
Forged in 1947 between the US and UK, the still-secret UKUSA agreement defined the relations between the SIGINT departments of those various governments
Direct agreements between the US and these agencies also define the intricate relationships of these organizations
Foremost among those agencies is the US National Security Agency (NSA) which represents the American interest.
The NSA is designated at the “First Party to the [UKUSA] Treaty”
The UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) signed the UKUSA agreement on behalf of the UK and its Commonwealth SIGINIT partners
This brought Australia’s Defense Signals Directorate (DSD), Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) into the arrangement
While these agencies are bound by additional direct agreements with the US and each other, these four countries are considered the “Second Parties to the Treaty”
Third Party members include Germany, Japan, Norway, South Korea and Turkey. There are sources that indicate China may also be included in this group, on a limited basis
THE NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY
The prime movers in the UKUSA arrangement is undeniably the US National Security Agency. The majority of funds for joint projects and facilities (discussed below) as well as the directions for intelligence-gathering operations are issued primarily through the NSA. The participating agencies frequently exchange personnel, divide up intelligence collection tasks and establish common guidelines for classifying and protecting shared information. However, the NSA utilizes its role as the largest spy agency in the world to have its international intelligence partners do its bidding.
President Harry Truman established the NSA in 1952 with a presidential directive that remains classified to this day. The US Government did not acknowledge the existence of the NSA until 1957. Its original mission was to conduct the signal intelligence (SIGINT) and communications security (COMSEC) for the United States. President Ronald Reagan added the tasks of information systems security and operations security training in 1984 and 1988 respectively. A 1986 law charged the NSA with supporting combat operations for the Department of Defense.
Headquartered at Fort George Meade, located between Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Maryland, the NSA boasts the most enviable array of intelligence equipment and personnel in the world. The NSA is the largest global employer of mathematicians, featuring the best teams of codemakers and codebreakers ever assembled. The codebreakers’ job is to crack the encryption codes of foreign and domestic electronic communications, forwarding the revealed messages to their enormous team of skilled linguists who can review and analyze messages in over 100 languages. The NSA is also responsible for creating the encryption codes that protect the US Government’s communications.
In its role as gang leader for UKUSA, the NSA is primarily involved with creating new surveillance and codebreaking technology, directing the other cooperating agencies to their target and providing them with training and tools to intercept, process and analyze enormous amounts of signals intelligence. By possessing what is arguably the most technologically advanced communications, computer and codebreaking equipment of any government agency in the world, the NSA serves as a competent and capable taskmaster for UKUSA.
THE ECHELON NETWORK
The vast network created by the UKUSA community stretched across the globe and into the reaches of space. Land-based intercept stations, intelligence ships sailing the seven seas and top-secret satellites whirling 20,000 miles overhead all combine to empower the NSA and its UKUSA allies with access to the entire global communications network. Very few signals escape its electronic grasp.
Having divided up the world among the UKUSA parties, each agency directs its electronic “vacuum-cleaner” equipment towards the heavens and the ground to search for the most minute communications signals that traverse the system’s immense path.
the NSA facilities in the US cover the communications signals of both American continents
the GCHQ in Britain is responsible for Europe, Africa and Russia (west of the Ural Mountains)
the DSD in Australia assists in SIGINT collection In Southeast Asia, the south-west Pacific Ocean and eastern Indian Ocean areas
the GSCB in New Zealand is responsible for southern Pacific Ocean
the CSE In Canada handles interception of additional northern Russian, northern European and American communications
The backbone of the ECHELON network are the massive listening and reception stations directed at the Intelsat and Inmarsat satellites that are responsible for the vast majority of phone and fax communications traffic within and between countries and continents. The 20 Intelsat satellites follow a geostationary orbit locked onto a particular point on the equator. These satellites carry primarily civilian traffic, but they do additionally carry diplomatic and governmental communications that are of particular interest to the UKUSA parties.
Originally, only two stations were responsible for Intelsat intercepts: Morwenstow in England, and Yakima in the US state of Washington. However, when the Intelsat 5 series was replaced with the Intelsat 701 and 703 satellites-which had much more precise transmission beams that prohibited reception of southern hemisphere signals from the Yakima based in the northern hemisphere-additional facilities were constructed in Australia and New Zealand.
Today, the Morwenstow station directs its ears towards the Intelsats traversing the atmosphere above the Atlantic and Indian oceans and transmitting to Europe, Africa and western parts of Asia. The Yakima station, located in the grounds of the Yakima Firing Station, targets the Far East and Pacific Ocean communications in the northern hemisphere. Another NSA facility at Sugar Grove, West Virginia, covers traffic for the whole of North and South America. A DSD station at Geraldton, WA, Australia, and the GCSB facility at Waihopai, New Zealand, over Asia, the South Pacific countries and the Pacific Ocean. An additional station on Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean between Brazil and Angola is suspected of covering the Atlantic Intelsat’s southern hemisphere communications.
Non-Intelsat satellites are monitored from these same stations, as well as from bases in:
Menwith Hill, England
Shoal Bay, near Darwin, Australia
Bad Aibling, Germany
These satellites typically carry Russian and regional communications. It is known that the Shoal Bay facility targets a series of Indonesian satellites, and that the Leitrim station intercepts communications from Latin American satellites, including the Mexican telephone company’s Morelos satellite.
Several dozen other radio listening posts operated by the UKUSA allies dot the globe as well, located at military bases on foreign soil and in remote locations. These stations played a critical role in the time prior to the development of satellite communications because much of the world’s communications traffic was transmitted on radio-frequency bands.
Particularly in the high-frequency (HF) range, radio communications continue to serve an important purpose, despite the wide-spread use of satellite technology, because their signals can be transmitted to military ships and aircraft across the globe. Shorter range, very high frequencies (VHF) and ultra high frequencies (UHF) are also used for tactical military communications within national borders. Major radio facilities in the UKUSA network include:
Tangimoana, New Zealand
Bamaga, Cape York, Australia
the joint NSA/GCHQ facility at the Indian Ocean atoll, Diego Garcia
A separate high-frequency direction-finding (HFGF) network intercepts communications signals for the unique purpose of locating the position of ships and aircraft. While these stations are not actually involved in the analysis of messages, they play a critical role in monitoring the movements of mobile military targets.
The Canadian CSE figures prominently in the UKUSA HFDF network, code-named CLASSIC BULLSEYE, hosting a major portion of the Atlantic and Pacific stations that monitored Soviet ship and submarine movements during the Cold War. Stations from Kingston and Leitrim in Ontario, to Gander, Newfoundland, on the Atlantic side, from Alert in the Northwest Territories (located at the northernmost tip of Canada on the Arctic Ocean, and able to listen to the Russian submarine bases at Petropavlovsk and Vladivostok) and finally to Masset, British Columbia, in the Pacific, monitor shipping and flight lanes under the direction of the NSA. The CSE also maintains a small contingent at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, which probably monitors Latin American communications targets.
Another major support for the ECHELON system is the US spy satellite network and its corresponding reception bases scattered about the UKUSA empire. These space-based electronic communications “vacuum cleaners” pick up radio, microwave and cellphone traffic on the ground. They were launched by the NSA in cooperation with its sister spy agencies, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Ferret series of satellites in the 1960s, the Canyon, Rhyolite and Aquacade satellites in the 1970s, and the Chalet, Vortex, Magnum, Orion and Jumpseat series of satellites in the 1980s have given way to the new and improved Mercury, Mentor and Trumpet satellites during the 1990s.
Table 1 – US Spy Satellites in Current Use
5-inch resolution spy photographs
LaCrosse Radar Imaging
3 to 10-foot resolution spy photographs
Surveillance of cellular phones
Satellite Data Systems
Defense Support Program
Missile early warning
Defense Meteorological Support Program
Meteorology, nuclear blast detection
These surveillance satellites act as giant scoops, picking up electronic communications, cellphone conversations and various radio transmissions. The downlink stations that control the operations and targeting of these satellites are under the exclusive control of the United States, despite their location on foreign military bases.
The two primary downlink facilities are at Menwith Hill, England, and Pine Gap, central Australia.
THE MENWITH HILL FACILITY
The Menwith Hill facility is located in North Yorkshire, England, near Harrogate.
The important role that Menwith Hill plays in the ECHELON system was recognized by the recent European Parliament STOA report:
Within Europe, all e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by
the United States National Security Agency, transferring all target information from
the European mainland via the strategic hub of London,
then by satellite to Fort Meade in Maryland via the crucial hub
at Menwith Hill in the North Yorks Moors of the UK.
The Menwith Hill facility is located in North Yorkshire, England, near Harrogate. The important role that Menwith Hill plays in the ECHELON system was recognized by the recent European Parliament STOA report:
Within Europe, all e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency, transferring all target information from the European mainland via the strategic hub of London, then by satellite to Fort Meade in Maryland via the crucial hub at Menwith Hill in the North Yorks Moors of the UK.
The existence and importance of the facility was first brought to light by British journalist/researcher Duncan Campbell in 1980. Today, it is the largest spy station in the world, with over 25 satellite receiving stations and 1,400 American NSA personnel working with 350 UK Ministry of Defense staff on site.
After revelations that the facility coordinates surveillance for the vast majority of the European continent, the base has become a target for regular protests organized by local peace activists. It has also become a target for regular protests organized by local peace activists. It has also become the target of intense criticism by European government officials who are concerned about the vast network of civilian surveillance and economic espionage conducted from the station by the United States.
The beginnings of Menwith Hill go back to December 1951, when the US Air Force and British War Office signed a lease for land that had been purchased by the British Government. The NSA took over the lease of the base in 1966 and has continued to build up the facility ever since.
Up until the mid-1970s, Menwith Hill was used for intercepting international leased carrier (ILC) communications and non-diplomatic communications (NDC). Having received one of the first sophisticated IBM computers in the early 1960s, Menwith Hill was also used to sort through the voluminous unenciphered telex communications, which consisted of international messages, telegrams and telephone calls from the government, business and civilian sectors, in the search for anything of political, military or economic value.
STEEPLEBUSH-Completed in 1984, this $160 million system expanded the satellite surveillance capability and mission of the spy station beyond the bounds of the installation that began in 1974.
RUNWAY– Running east and west across the facility, this system receives signals from the second-generation geosynchronous Vortex satellites and gathers miscellaneous communications traffic from Europe, Asia and the former Soviet Union. The information is then forwarded to the Menwith Hill computer systems for processing. RUNWAY may have recently been replaced or complemented by another system, RUTLEY.
PUSHER– This is an HFDF system that covers the HF frequency range between 3 MHz and 30 MHz-radio transmissions from CB radios, walkie-talkies and other radio devices. Military, embassy, maritime and air flight communications are the main targets of PUSHER.
MOONPENNY – Uncovered by British journalist Duncan Campbell in the 1980s, this system is targeted at the communication relay satellites belonging to other countries, as well as the main targets of PUSHER.
KNOBSTICKS I AND II – The purpose of these antennae arrays is unknown, but they probably target military and diplomatic traffic throughout Europe.
GT-6 – A new system installed at the end of 1996, GT-6 is believed to be the receiver for the third generation of geosynchronous satellites termed Advanced Orion or Advanced Vortex. A new polar orbit satellite called Advanced Jumpseat may be monitored from here as well.
STEEPLEBUSH II – An expansion of the 1984 STEEPLEBUSH system, this computer system processes information collected from the RUNWAY receivers that gather traffic from the Vortex satellites.
SILKWORTH – Constructed by Lockheed Corporation, the main computer system for Menwith Hill processes most of the information received by the various reception systems.
One shocking revelation about Menwith Hill came to light in 1997 during the trial of two women peace campaigners appealing their convictions for trespassing at the facility. In documents and testimony submitted by British Telecom in the case, Mr. R.G. Morris, BT’s head of Emergency Planning, revealed that at least three major domestic fibre-optic telephone trunk lines-each capable of carrying 100,000 calls simultaneously were wired through Menwith Hill, allowing the NSA to tap into the very heart of the British Telecom network. Judge Jonathan Crabtree rebuked British Telecom over his revelations and prohibited Mr. Morris from giving any further testimony in the case for “national security” reasons.
According to Duncan Campbell, the secret spying alliance between Menwith Hill and British Telecom began in 1975 with a coaxial connection to the British Telecom microwave facility at Hunter’s Stone, four miles away from Menwith Hill – a connection maintained even today.
Additional systems-TROUTMAN, ULTRAPURE, TOTALISER, SILVERWEED, RUCKUS et al.-complete the monumental SIGINT collection efforts at Menwith Hill.
Directing its electronic vacuum-cleaners towards unsuspecting communications satellites in the skies, receiving signals gathered by satellites that scoop up the most minute signals on the ground, listening in on the radio communications throughout the air or plugging into the ground-based telecommunications network, Menwith Hill – alongside its sister stations at Pine Gap, Australia, and Bad Aibling, Germany-represents the comprehensive effort of the NSA, with its UKUSA allies, to make sure that no communications signal escapes its electronic net.
THE ECHELON DICTIONARIES
The extraordinary ability of ECHELON to intercept most of the communications trafficking in the world is breathtaking in its scope. And yet the power of ECHELON resides in its ability to decrypt, filter, examine and codify these messages into selective categories for further analysis by intelligence agents from the various UKUSA agencies.
As the electronic signals are brought into the station, they are fed through the massive computer systems, such as Menwith Hill’s SILKWORTH, where voice recognition, optical character recognition (OCR) and data information engines get to work on the messages. These programs and computers transcend state-of-the-art; in many cases, they are well into the future.
MAGISTRAND is part of the Menwith Hill SILKWORTH supercomputer system that drives the powerful keyword search programs. One tool used to sort through the text of messages, PATHFINDER (manufactured by the UK company, MEMEX), sifts through large databases of text-based documents and messages looking for keywords and key phrases based on complex algorithmic criteria. Voice recognition programs convert conversations into text messages for further analysis. One highly advanced system, VOICECAST, can target an individual’s voice pattern so that every call that person makes is transcribed for future analysis.
Processing millions of messages every hour, the ECHELON systems churn away 24 hours a day, seven days a week, looking for targeted keyword series, phone and fax numbers, and specified voice prints. It is important to note that very few messages and phone calls are actually transcribed and recorded by the system. The vast majority are filtered out after they are read or listened to by the system. Only those messages that produce keyword “hits” are tagged for future analysis. Again, it is not just the ability to collect the electronic signals that gives ECHELON its power; it is the tools and technology that are able to whittle down the messages to only those that are important to the intelligence agencies.
Each station maintains a list of keywords (the Dictionary) designated by each of the participating intelligence agencies. A Dictionary Manager from each of the respective agencies is responsible for adding, deleting or changing the keyword search criteria for their Dictionaries at each of the stations. Each station Dictionary is given a code-word, as COWBOY for the Yakima facility and FLINTLOCK for the Waihopai facility. These code-words play a crucial identification role for the analysts who eventually look at the intercepted messages.
Each message flagged by the ECHELON Dictionaries as meeting the specified criteria is sorted by a four-digit code representing the source or subject of the message (such as 5535 for Japanese diplomatic traffic, or 8812 for communications about distribution of encryption technology) as well as the date, time and station code-word. Also included in the message headers are the code-names for the intended agency:
ALPHA-ALPHA (GCHQ) – UK
ECHO-ECHO (DSD) – Australia
INDIA-INDIA (GCSB) – New Zeland
UNIFORM-UNIFORM (CSE) – Canada
OSCAR-OSCAR (NSA) – USA
These messages are then transmitted to each agency’s headquarters via a global computer system, PLATFORM, that acts as the information nervous system for the UKUSA stations and agencies.
Every day, analysts located at the various intelligence agencies review the previous day’s product. As it is analyzed, decrypted and translated, it can be compiled into the different types of analysis: reports, which are direct and complete translations of intercepted messaged, “gists”, which give basic information on a series of messages within a given category; and summaries, which are compilations from both reports and gists. These are then given classifications:
SPOKE (more secret than MORAY)
UMBRA (top secret)
GAMMA (Russian intercepts)
DRUID (intelligence forwarded to non-UKUSA parties)
This analysis product is the raison d’être of the entire ECHELON system. It is also the lifeblood of the UKUSA alliance.
NATIONAL SECURITY & SURVEILLANCE OF CITIZENS
The ECHELON system is the product of the Cold War conflict-an extended battle replete with heightened tensions that teetered on the brink of annihilation, and the diminished hostilities of détente and glasnost. Vicious cycles of mistrust and paranoia between the United States and the Soviet empire fed the intelligence agencies to the point that, with the fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe, the intelligence establishment began to grasp for a mission that justified its bloated existence.
But the rise of post-modern warfare-terrorism-gave the establishment all the justification it needed to develop an even greater ability to spy on its enemies, its allies and its own citizens. ECHELON is the result of those efforts. The satellites that fly thousands of miles overhead and yet can spy out the most minute details on the ground; the secret submarines that troll the ocean floors and tap into undersea communications cables-all power the efficient UKUSA signals intelligence machine.
In the United States there is a concerted effort by intelligence agency heads, federal law enforcement officials and congressional representatives to defend the capabilities of ECHELON. Their persuasive arguments point to the tragedies seen in the bombings in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center in New York City. The vulnerability of Americans abroad, as recently seen in the bombing of the American Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and in Nairobi, Kenya, emphasizes the necessity of monitoring those forces around the world that would use senseless violence and terror as political weapons against the US and its allies.
Intelligence victories add credibility to the arguments that defend such a pervasive surveillance system. The discovery of missile sites in Cuba in 1962, the capture of the Achille Lauro terrorists in 1995, the discovery of alleged Libyan involvement in the bombing of a Berlin discotheque that killed one American (resulting in the 1996 bombing of Tripoli), and countless other incidents that have been averted (which are now covered by the silence of indoctrination vows and top-secret classifications), all for the national security of the United States.
But despite the real threats and dangers to the peace and protection of American citizens at home and abroad, the US Constitution is quite explicit in limiting the scope and powers of government.
THE NSA’S GLOBAL SPYING NETWORK
The US National Security Agency uses
the ECHELON system not only for surveillance of civilians and politicians,
but also for spying on behalf of US corporations.
A fundamental foundation of free societies is that when controversies arise over the assumption of power by the state, power never defaults to the government, nor are powers granted without an extraordinary, explicit and compelling public interest.
As the late United States Supreme Court Justice William Brennan pointed out:
The concept of military necessity is seductively broad and has a dangerous plasticity. Because they invariably have the visage of overriding importance, there is always a temptation to invoke security “necessities” to justify an encroachment upon civil liberties.
For that reason, the military-security argument must be approached with a healthy skepticism: its very gravity counsels that courts be cautious when military necessity is invoked by the Government to justify a trespass on [Constitutional] rights.
Despite the necessity of confronting terrorism and the many benefits that are provided by the massive surveillance efforts embodied by ECHELON, there is a dark and dangerous side of these activities that is concealed by the cloak of secrecy surrounding the intelligence operations of the United States.
The discovery of domestic surveillance targeting American civilians for reasons of “unpopular” political affiliation or for no probable cause at all – in violation of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution – is regularly impeded by very elaborate and complex legal arguments and privilege claims by the intelligence agencies and the US Government.
The guardians and caretakers of our liberties – our duly elected political representatives – give scarce attention to the activities, let alone the abuses, that occur under their watch. As pointed out below, our elected officials frequently become targets of ECHELON themselves, chilling any effort to check this unbridled power.
In addition, the shift in priorities resulting from the demise of the Soviet Empire, and the necessity to justify intelligence capabilities, resulted in a redefinition of “national security interests” to include espionage committed on behalf of powerful American companies.
This quiet collusion between political and private interests typically involves the very same companies that are involved in developing the technology that empowers ECHELON and the intelligence agencies.
DOMESTIC AND POLITICAL SPYING
When considering the use of ECHELON on American soil, the pathetic historical record of NSA and CIA domestic activities in regard to the Constitutional liberties and privacy rights of American citizens provides an excellent guidepost for what may occur now with the ECHELON system.
Since the creation of the NSA by President Truman, its spying capability has frequently been used to monitor the activities of an unsuspecting public.
In 1945, Project SHAMROCK was initiated to obtain copies of all telegraphic information exiting or entering the United States. With the full cooperation of RCA, ITT and Western Union (representing almost all of the telegraphic traffic in the US at the time), the NSA’s predecessor and later the NSA itself were provided with daily microfilm copies of all incoming, outgoing and transiting telegraphs.
This system changed dramatically when the cable companies began providing magnetic computer tapes to the agency, which enabled the agency to run all the messages through its HARVEST computer to look for particular keywords, locations, senders or addresses.
Project SHAMROCK became so successful that in 1966 the NSA and CIA set up a front company in lower Manhattan (where the offices of the telegraph companies were located) under the code-name LPMEDLEY. At the height of Project SHAMROCK, 150,000 messages a month were printed and analyzed by NSA agents.
NSA Director Lew Allen brought Project SHAMROCK to a crashing halt in May 1975 as congressional critics began to rip open the program’s shroud of secrecy.
The testimony of both the representatives from the cable companies and Director Allen at the hearings prompted Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Senator Frank Church to conclude that Project SHAMROCK was “probably the largest government interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken”.
A sister project to Project SHAMROCK, Project MINARET involved the creation of “watch lists”, by each of the intelligence agencies and the FBI, of those accused of “subversive” domestic activities. The watch lists included such notables as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jane Fonda, Joan Baez and Dr. Benjamin Spock.
After the Supreme Court handed down its 1972 Keith decision – which held that, while the President could act to protect the country from unlawful and subversive activity designed to overthrow the government, that same power did not extend to include warrantless electronic surveillance of domestic organizations – pressure came to bear on Project MINARET.
Attorney General Elliot Petersen shut down Project MINARET as soon as its activities were revealed to the Justice Department, despite the fact that the FBI (an agency under the Justice Department’s authority) was actively involved with the NSA and other intelligence agencies in creating the watch lists.
Operating between 1967 and 1973, over 5,925 foreigners and 1,690 organizations and US citizens were included on the Project MINARET watch lists. Despite extensive efforts to conceal the NSA’s involvement in Project MINARET, NSA Director Lew Allen testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1975 that the NSA had issued over 3,900 reports on the watch-listed Americans.
Additionally, the NSA Office of Security Services maintained reports on at least 75,000 Americans between 1952 and 1974. This list included the names of anyone who was mentioned in an NSA message intercept.
While the NSA was busy snooping on US citizens through Projects SHAMROCK and MINARET, the CIA got into the domestic spying act by initiating Operation CHAOS. President Lyndon Johnson authorized the creation of the CIA’s Domestic Operations Division (DOD), whose purpose was to “exercise centralized responsibility for direction, support and coordination of clandestine cooperation activities within the United States”.
When Johnson ordered CIA Director John McCone to use the DOD to analyze the growing college student protests against the Administration’s policy towards Vietnam, two new units were set up to target anti-war protesters and organizations: Project RESISTANCE, which worked with college administrators, campus security and local police to identify anti-war activists and political dissidents; and Project MERRIMAC, which monitored any demonstrations being conducted in the Washington, DC, area.
The CIA then began monitoring student activists and infiltrating anti-war organizations by working with local police departments to pull-off burglaries, illegal entries (black bag jobs), interrogations and electronic surveillance. After President Nixon came to office in 1969, all of these domestic surveillance activities were consolidated into Operation CHAOS.
After the revelation of two former CIA agents’ involvement in the Watergate break-in, the publication of an article about CHAOS in the New York Times and the growing concern about distancing itself from illegal domestic spying activities, the CIA shut down Operation CHAOS.
But during the life of the project, the Church Committee and the Commission on CIA Activities within the United States (the Rockefeller Commission) revealed that the CIA had compiled files on over 13,000 individuals, including 7,000 US citizens and 1,000 domestic organizations.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)
In response to the discovery of such a comprehensive effort by previous administrations and the intelligence agencies, Congress passed legislation (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978) that created a top-secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), to hear applications for electronic surveillance from the FBI and NSA to provide some check on the domestic activities of the agencies. In 1995, Congress granted the court additional power to authorize surreptitious entries. In all of these actions, congressional intent was to provide a check on the domestic surveillance abuses mentioned above.
The seven-member court, comprised of Federal District Court judges appointed by the Supreme Court Chief Justice, sits in secret in a sealed room on the top floor of the Department of Justice building. Public information about the FISC’s hearings is scarce, but each year the Attorney-General is required by law to transmit to Congress a report detailing the number of applications each year and the number granted.
With over 10,000 applications submitted to the FISC during the past 20 years, the court has only rejected one application (and that rejection was at the request of the Reagan Administration, which had submitted the application).
While the FISC was established to be the watchdog for the Constitutional rights of the American people against domestic surveillance, it quickly became the lap dog of the intelligence agencies. Surveillance requests that would never receive a hearing in a state or federal court are routinely approved by the FISC. This has allowed the FBI to use the process to conduct surveillance to obtain evidence in circumvention of the US Constitution, the evidence then being used in subsequent criminal trials.
But the process established by Congress and the courts ensures that information regarding the cause or extent of the surveillance order is withheld from defense attorneys because of the classified nature of the court.
Despite Congress’s initial intent for the FISC, it is doubtful that domestic surveillance by means of ECHELON comes under any scrutiny by the court.
POLITICAL USES OF ECHELON AND UKUSA
Several incidents of domestic spying involving ECHELON have emerged from the secrecy of the UKUSA relationship. What these brief glimpses inside the intelligence world reveal is that, despite the best of intentions by elected representatives, presidents and prime ministers, the temptation to use ECHELON as a tool of political advancement and repression proves too strong.
Former Canadian spy Mike Frost recounts how former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a request in February 1983 to have two ministers from her own government monitored when she suspected them of disloyalty.
In an effort to avoid the legal difficulties involved with domestic spying on high-level governmental officials, the GCHQ liaison in Ottawa made a request to CSE for them to conduct the three-week-long surveillance mission at British taxpayer expense. Frost’s CSE boss, Frank Bowman, traveled to London to do the job himself. After the mission was over, Bowman was instructed to hand over the tapes to a GCHQ official at head office.
Using the UKUSA alliance as legal cover is seductively easy.
As Spyworld co-author Michel Gratton puts it:
“The Thatcher episode certainly shows that GCHQ, like NSA, found ways to put itself above the law and did not hesitate to get directly involved in helping a specific politician for her personal political benefit…
“[T]he decision to proceed with the London caper was probably not put forward for approval to many people up the bureaucratic ladder. It was something CSE figured they would get away with easily, so checking with the higher-ups would only complicate things unnecessarily.”
Frost also told of how he was asked in 1975 to spy on an unlikely target: Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s wife, Margaret Trudeau.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) Security service division was concerned that the Prime Minister’s wife was buying and using marijuana, so they contacted the CSE to do the dirty work. Months of surveillance in cooperation with the Security Service turned up nothing of note. Frost was concerned that there were political motivations behind the RCMP’s request:
“She was in no way suspected of espionage. Why was the RCMP so adamant about this? Were they trying to get at Pierre Trudeau for some reason or just protect him? Or were they working under orders from their political masters?”
The NSA frequently gets into the political spying act as well. Nixon presidential aide John Ehrlichman revealed in his published memoirs, Witness to Power: The Nixon Years, that Henry Kissinger used the NSA to intercept the messages of then Secretary of State William P. Rogers, which Kissinger used to convince President Nixon of Rogers’ incompetence.
Kissinger also found himself on the receiving end of the NSA’s global net. Word of Kissinger’s secret diplomatic dealings with foreign governments would reach the ears of other Nixon administration officials, incensing Kissinger.
As former NSA Deputy Director William Colby pointed out:
“Kissinger would get sore as hell…because he wanted to keep it politically secret until it was ready to launch.”
However, elected representatives have also become targets of spying by the intelligence agencies. In 1988, Margaret Newsham, a former Lockheed software manager who was responsible for a dozen VAX computers that powered the ECHELON computers at Menwith Hill, came forth with the stunning revelation that she had actually heard the NSA’s real-time interception of phone conversations involving South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond.
Newsham was fired from Lockheed after she filed a whistle-blower lawsuit alleging that the company was engaged in flagrant waste and abuse. After a top-secret meeting in April 1988 with then Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Louis Stokes, Capitol Hill staffers familiar with the meeting leaked the story to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. While Sen.
Thurmond was reluctant to pressure for a thorough investigation into the matter, his office revealed at the time that it had previously received reports that the Senator was a target of the NSA. After the news reports, an investigation into the matter discovered that there were no controls or questioning over who could enter target names into the Menwith Hill system.
The NSA, under orders from the Reagan Administration, also targeted Maryland Congressman Michael Barnes. Phone calls he placed to Nicaraguan officials were intercepted and recorded, including a conversation he had with the Foreign Minister of Nicaragua, protesting the implementation of martial law in that country. Barnes found out about the NSA’s spying after White House officials leaked transcripts of his conversations to reporters.
CIA Director William Casey, later implicated in the Iran-Contra affair, showed Barnes a Nicaraguan Embassy cable that reported a meeting between embassy staff and one of Barnes’ aides. The aide had been there on a professional call regarding an international affairs issue, and Casey asked for Barnes to fire the aide. Barnes replied that it was perfectly legal and legitimate for his staff to meet with foreign diplomats.
“I was aware that NSA monitored international calls, that it was a standard part of intelligence gathering. But to use it for domestic political purposes is absolutely outrageous and probably illegal.”
Another former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee has also expressed his concerns about the NSA’s domestic targeting.
“It has always worried me. What if that is used on American citizens?” queried former Arizona Senator Dennis DeConcini. “It is chilling. Are they listening to my private conversations on my telephone?”
Seemingly non-controversial organizations have ended up in the fixed gaze of ECHELON, as several former GCHQ officials confidentially told the London Observer in June 1992. Among the targeted organizations they named were Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and Christian Aid – an American missionary organization that works with indigenous pastors engaged in ministry work in countries closed to Western, Christian workers.
In another story published by the London Observer, a former employee of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, Robin Robison, admitted that Margaret Thatcher had personally ordered the communications interception of Lonrho, the parent company of the Observer, after the Observer had published a 1989 exposé charging that bribes had been paid to Thatcher’s son, Mark, in a multibillion-dollar British arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Despite facing severe penalties for violating his indoctrination vows, Robison admitted that he had personally delivered intercepted Lonrho messages to Mrs Thatcher’s office.
It should hardly be surprising that ECHELON ends up being used by elected and bureaucratic officials to their political advantage or by the intelligence agencies themselves for the purpose of sustaining their privileged surveillance powers and bloated budgets. The availability of such invasive technology practically begs for abuse, although it does not justify its use to those ends. But what is most frightening is the targeting of such “subversives” as those who expose corrupt government activity, protect human rights from government encroachments, challenge corporate polluters or promote the Gospel of Christ.
That the vast intelligence powers of the United States should be arrayed against legitimate and peaceful organizations is demonstrative not of the desire to monitor, but of the desire to control.
With the rapid erosion of the Soviet Empire in the early 1990s, Western intelligence agencies were anxious to redefine their mission to justify the scope of their global surveillance system. Some of the agencies’ closest corporate friends quickly gave them an option: commercial espionage. By redefining the term “national security” to include spying on foreign competitors of prominent US corporations, the signals intelligence game has got uglier. And this may very well have prompted the recent scrutiny by the European Union that ECHELON has endured.
While UKUSA agencies have pursued economic and commercial information on behalf of their countries with renewed vigor after the passing of communism in Eastern Europe, the NSA practice of spying on behalf of US companies has a long history.
Gerald Burke, who served as Executive Director of President Nixon’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, notes commercial espionage was endorsed by the US Government as early as 1970:
“By and large, we recommended that, henceforth, economic intelligence be considered a function of the national security, enjoying a priority equivalent to diplomatic, military and technological intelligence.”
To accommodate the need for information regarding international commercial deals, the intelligence agencies set up a small, unpublicized department within the Department of Commerce: the Office of Intelligence Liaison. This office receives intelligence reports from the US intelligence agencies about pending international deals that it discreetly forwards to companies that request it or may have an interest in the information.
Immediately after coming to office in January 1993, President Clinton added to the corporate espionage machine by creating the National Economic Council, which feeds intelligence to “select” companies to enhance US competitiveness. The capabilities of ECHELON to spy on foreign companies is nothing new, but the Clinton Administration has raised its use to an art.
In 1990, the German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that the NSA had intercepted messages about an impending $200 million deal between Indonesia and the Japanese satellite manufacturer NEC Corp. After President Bush intervened in the negotiations on behalf of American manufacturers, the contract was split between NEC and AT&T.
In 1994, the CIA and NSA intercepted phone calls between Brazilian officials and the French firm Thomson-CSF about a radar system that the Brazilians wanted to purchase. The US firm Raytheon was a competitor as well, and was forwarded reports prepared from intercepts.
In September 1993, President Clinton asked the CIA to spy on Japanese auto manufacturers that were designing zero-emission cars and to forward that information to the Big Three US car manufacturers: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.
In 1995, the New York Times reported that the NSA and the CIA’s Tokyo station were involved in providing detailed information to US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor’s team of negotiators in Geneva, facing Japanese car companies in a trade dispute. Recently, the Japanese newspaper Mainichi accused the NSA of continuing to monitor the communications of Japanese companies on behalf of American companies.
Insight magazine reported in a series of articles in 1997 that President Clinton ordered the NSA and FBI to mount a massive surveillance operation at the 1993 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference, held in Seattle. One intelligence source for the story related that over 300 hotel rooms had been bugged for the event – a move which was designed to obtain information regarding oil and hydro-electric deals pending in Vietnam, that was passed on to high-level Democratic Party contributors competing for the contracts.
But foreign companies were not the only losers. When Vietnam expressed interest in purchasing two used 737 freighter aircraft from an American businessman, the deal was scuttled after Commerce Secretary Ron Brown arranged favourable financing for two new 737s from Boeing.
But the US is not the only partner of the UKUSA relationship which engages in such activity. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered the GCHQ to monitor the activities of international media mogul Robert Maxwell on behalf of the Bank of England.
Former CSE linguist and analyst Jane Shorten claimed that she had seen intercepts from Mexican trade representatives during the 1992-1993 NAFTA trade negotiations, as well as 1991 South Korean Foreign Ministry intercepts dealing with the construction of three Canadian CANDU nuclear reactors for the Koreans in a US$6 billion deal. Shorten’s revelation prompted Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps to launch a probe into the allegations after the Mexicans lodged a protest.
But every spy agency eventually gets beat at its own game. Mike Frost related in Spyworld how an accidental cellphone intercept in 1981, of the American Ambassador to Canada discussing a pending grain deal that the US was about to sign with China, provided Canada with the American negotiating strategy for the deal. The information was used to outbid the US, resulting in a three-year, $2.5 billion contract for the Canadian Wheat Board. CSE out-spooked the NSA again a year later when Canada snagged a $50-million wheat sale to Mexico.
Another disturbing trend regarding the present commercial use of ECHELON is the incestuous relationship that exists between the intelligence agencies and the US corporations that develop the technology that fuels their spy systems. Many of the companies that receive the most important commercial intercepts – Lockheed, Boeing, Loral, TRW and Raytheon – are actively involved in the manufacturing and operation of many of the spy systems that comprise ECHELON.
The collusion between intelligence agencies and their contractors is frightening in the chilling effect it has on creating any foreign or even domestic competition. But just as important is that it is a gross misuse of taxpayer-financed resources.
While the UKUSA relationship is a product of Cold War political and military tensions, ECHELON is purely a product of the 20th century – the century of “statism”.
The modern drive toward the assumption of state power has turned legitimate national security agencies and apparati into pawns in a manipulative game, where the stakes are no less than the survival of the Constitution. The systems developed prior to ECHELON were designed to confront the expansionist goals of the Soviet Empire – something the West was forced out of necessity to do.
But as Glyn Ford, European Parliament representative for Manchester, England, and the driving force behind the European investigation of ECHELON, has pointed out:
“The difficulty is that the technology has now become so elaborate that what was originally a small client list has become the whole world.”
What began as a noble alliance to contain and defeat the forces of communism has turned into a carte blanche to disregard the rights and liberties of the American people and the population of the free world.
As has been demonstrated time and again, the NSA has been persistent in subverting not just the intent of the law in regard to the prohibition of domestic spying, but the letter as well. The laws that were created to constrain the intelligence agencies from infringing on our liberties are frequently flaunted, re-interpreted and revised according to the bidding and wishes of political spymasters in Washington, DC. Old habits die hard, it seems.
As stated above, there is a need for such sophisticated surveillance technology. Unfortunately, the world is filled with criminals, drug lords, terrorists and dictators who threaten the peace and security of many nations.
The thought that ECHELON can be used to eliminate or control these international thugs is heartening. But defenders of ECHELON argue that the rare intelligence victories over these forces of darkness and death give wholesale justification to indiscriminate surveillance of the entire world and every member of it. But more complicated issues than that remain.
The shameless and illegal targeting of political opponents, business competitors, dissidents and even Christian ministries stands as a testament that if we are to remain free, we must bind these intelligence systems and those that operate them with the heavy chains of transparency and accountability to our elected officials. But the fact that the ECHELON apparatus can be quickly turned around on those same officials in order to maintain some advantage for the intelligence agencies indicates that these agencies are not presently under the control of our elected representatives.
That Congress is not aware of or able to curtail these abuses of power is a frightening harbinger of what may come here in the United States. The European Parliament has begun the debate over what ECHELON is, how it is being used and how free countries should use such a system.
The US Congress should join that same debate with the understanding that the consequences of ignoring or failing to address these issues could foster the demise of our republican form of government.
Such is the threat, as Senator Frank Church warned the American people over twenty years ago: At the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such [is] the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.
There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology…
I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss.
That is the abyss from which there is no return.
Since this author’s ECHELON report was first sent to the US Congress in November 1998, increased attention has been directed at the spy system by international media outlets and governmental representatives. As news of the system’s sweeping technological capability comes to light, questions continue to be raised concerning the possible illicit uses of the system to circumvent domestic civil liberties protections.
The May 1999 publication of British investigator Duncan Campbell’s detailed report, “Interception Capabilities 2000“, for the European Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment Panel (STOA) continued to expose the scope of ECHELON’s supporting facilities and the reach of its surveillance technology.
Among the report’s key findings:
· While “word spotting” search systems have been previously thought to be widespread throughout the system, evidence indicates that this nascent technology is currently ineffective. However, ECHELON utilizes speaker recognition system “voice-prints” to recognize the speech patterns of targeted individuals making international telephone calls.
· US law enforcement agencies are working with their European counterparts under the auspices of a previously secret organization, ILETS (International Law Enforcement Telecommunications Seminar), to incorporate backdoor wiretapping capabilities into all existing forms of communications systems. In addition, the US Government is continuing to pursue diplomatic initiatives to convince other governments to adopt “key escrow” legislation requiring computer users to provide law enforcement agencies with encryption keys.
· The NSA continues to work with US software manufacturers to weaken the cryptographic capability of popular software programs, such as Lotus Notes and Internet browsers, to assist the intelligence agency in gaining access to a user’s personal information.
· Intelligence sources reveal the increasing use of signals intelligence facilities to provide commercial advantages to domestic companies involved in international trade deals.
· The report provides original, new documentation about the ECHELON system and its role in the interception of communications satellites. This includes details concerning how intelligence agencies are able to intercept Internet traffic and digital communications, including screen shots of traffic analysis from NSA computer systems.
Official UKUSA Confirmation
Privacy researchers were surprised in May when an Australian intelligence official confirmed the existence of the UKUSA intelligence-sharing treaty, in response to a formal information request by Channel 9 Sunday reporter Ross Coulthart.
Martin Brady, director of the Defense Signals Directorate (DSD), admitted in a letter dated 16 March that his agency “does cooperate with counterpart signals intelligence organizations overseas under the UKUSA relationship”.
Parliamentary and Congressional Inquiries
The growing concern about the use of ECHELON has finally extended to capitals and elected representatives around the world. Pressure from the international business community has been brought to bear on government officials in response to mounting evidence that industrial espionage by the US is costing European firms billions of dollars each year.
Germany also followed the French example in June, when the cabinet issued a policy statement encouraging its companies and citizens to utilize encryption programs without restrictions. German business leaders were alerted to the extent of US commercial spying after an anonymous NSA employee admitted on German television in August 1998 that he had participated in stealing industrial secrets from the wind generator manufacturer, Enercon, which were passed on to its main US competitor, Kenetech.
Perhaps the most important governmental development is the growing interest of members of the US Congress regarding ECHELON and its surveillance capabilities. Since the NSA is the prime mover in the UKUSA intelligence partnership, any hope of reining-in the activities of the US intelligence agencies will require the involvement of congressional oversight committees.
3 and 16 March 1998: Link to original sources on Echelon
2 February 1998
Thanks to IB
EXPOSING THE GLOBAL SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM
by Nicky Hager
This article is reprinted with the permission of CAQ [to Ham Radio Online] (CovertAction Quarterly). CAQ subscription information follows the article.
This article appears in CAQ with the following sidebar articles:
- NSA’S BUSINESS PLAN: GLOBAL ACCESS by Duncan Campbell
- GREENPEACE WARRIOR: WHY NO WARNING? by Nicky Hager
- NZ’s PM Kept in the Dark by Nicky Hager
- Nicky Hager’s book Secret Power is available from CAQ for $33.
IN THE LATE 1980’S, IN A DECISION IT PROBABLY REGRETS, THE U.S. PROMPTED NEW ZEALAND TO JOIN A NEW AND HIGHLY SECRET GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE SYSTEM. HAGER’S INVESTIGATION INTO IT AND HIS DISCOVERY OF THE ECHELON DICTIONARY HAS REVEALED ONE OF THE WORLD’S BIGGEST, MOST CLOSELY HELD INTELLIGENCE PROJECTS. THE SYSTEM ALLOWS SPY AGENCIES TO MONITOR MOST OF THE WORLD’S TELEPHONE, E-MAIL, AND TELEX COMMUNICATIONS.
For 40 years, New Zealand’s largest intelligence agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) the nation’s equivalent of the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been helping its Western allies to spy on countries throughout the Pacific region, without the knowledge of the New Zealand public or many of its highest elected officials. What the NSA did not know is that by the late 1980s, various intelligence staff had decided these activities had been too secret for too long, and were providing me with interviews and documents exposing New Zealand’s intelligence activities. Eventually, more than 50 people who work or have worked in intelligence and related fields agreed to be interviewed.
The activities they described made it possible to document, from the South Pacific, some alliance-wide systems and projects which have been kept secret elsewhere. Of these, by far the most important is ECHELON.
Designed and coordinated by NSA, the ECHELON system is used to intercept ordinary e-mail, fax, telex, and telephone communications carried over the world’s telecommunications networks. Unlike many of the electronic spy systems developed during the Cold War, ECHELON is designed primarily for non-military targets: governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals in virtually every country. It potentially affects every person communicating between (and sometimes within) countries anywhere in the world.
It is, of course, not a new idea that intelligence organizations tap into e-mail and other public telecommunications networks. What was new in the material leaked by the New Zealand intelligence staff was precise information on where the spying is done, how the system works, its capabilities and shortcomings, and many details such as the codenames.
The ECHELON system is not designed to eavesdrop on a particular individual’s e-mail or fax link. Rather, the system works by indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communications and using computers to identify and extract messages of interest from the mass of unwanted ones. A chain of secret interception facilities has been established around the world to tap into all the major components of the international telecommunications networks. Some monitor communications satellites, others land-based communications networks, and others radio communications. ECHELON links together all these facilities, providing the US and its allies with the ability to intercept a large proportion of the communications on the planet.
The computers at each station in the ECHELON network automatically search through the millions of messages intercepted for ones containing pre-programmed keywords. Keywords include all the names, localities, subjects, and so on that might be mentioned. Every word of every message intercepted at each station gets automatically searched whether or not a specific telephone number or e-mail address is on the list.
The thousands of simultaneous messages are read in “real time” as they pour into the station, hour after hour, day after day, as the computer finds intelligence needles in telecommunications haystacks.
SOMEONE IS LISTENING: The computers in stations around the globe are known, within the network, as the ECHELON Dictionaries. Computers that can automatically search through traffic for keywords have existed since at least the 1970s, but the ECHELON system was designed by NSA to interconnect all these computers and allow the stations to function as components of an integrated whole. The NSA and GCSB are bound together under the five-nation UKUSA signals intelligence agreement. The other three partners all with equally obscure names are the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Britain, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) in Canada, and the Defense Signals Directorate (DSD) in Australia.
The alliance, which grew from cooperative efforts during World War II to intercept radio transmissions, was formalized into the UKUSA agreement in 1948 and aimed primarily against the USSR. The five UKUSA agencies are today the largest intelligence organizations in their respective countries. With much of the world’s business occurring by fax, e-mail, and phone, spying on these communications receives the bulk of intelligence resources. For decades before the introduction of the ECHELON system, the UKUSA allies did intelligence collection operations for each other, but each agency usually processed and analyzed the intercept from its own stations.
Under ECHELON, a particular station’s Dictionary computer contains not only its parent agency’s chosen keywords, but also has lists entered in for other agencies. In New Zealand’s satellite interception station at Waihopai (in the South Island), for example, the computer has separate search lists for the NSA, GCHQ, DSD, and CSE in addition to its own. Whenever the Dictionary encounters a message containing one of the agencies’ keywords, it automatically picks it and sends it directly to the headquarters of the agency concerned. No one in New Zealand screens, or even sees, the intelligence collected by the New Zealand station for the foreign agencies. Thus, the stations of the junior UKUSA allies function for the NSA no differently than if they were overtly NSA-run bases located on their soil.
The first component of the ECHELON network are stations specifically targeted on the international telecommunications satellites (Intelsats) used by the telephone companies of most countries. A ring of Intelsats is positioned around the world, stationary above the equator, each serving as a relay station for tens of thousands of simultaneous phone calls, fax, and e-mail. Five UKUSA stations have been established to intercept the communications carried by the Intelsats.
The British GCHQ station is located at the top of high cliffs above the sea at Morwenstow in Cornwall. Satellite dishes beside sprawling operations buildings point toward Intelsats above the Atlantic, Europe, and, inclined almost to the horizon, the Indian Ocean. An NSA station at Sugar Grove, located 250 kilometers southwest of Washington, DC, in the mountains of West Virginia, covers Atlantic Intelsats transmitting down toward North and South America. Another NSA station is in Washington State, 200 kilometers southwest of Seattle, inside the Army’s Yakima Firing Center. Its satellite dishes point out toward the Pacific Intelsats and to the east.
The job of intercepting Pacific Intelsat communications that cannot be intercepted at Yakima went to New Zealand and Australia. Their South Pacific location helps to ensure global interception. New Zealand provides the station at Waihopai and Australia supplies the Geraldton station in West Australia (which targets both Pacific and Indian Ocean Intelsats).
Each of the five stations’ Dictionary computers has a codename to distinguish it from others in the network. The Yakima station, for instance, located in desert country between the Saddle Mountains and Rattlesnake Hills, has the COWBOY Dictionary, while the Waihopai station has the FLINTLOCK Dictionary. These codenames are recorded at the beginning of every intercepted message, before it is transmitted around the ECHELON network, allowing analysts to recognize at which station the interception occurred.
New Zealand intelligence staff has been closely involved with the NSA’s Yakima station since 1981, when NSA pushed the GCSB to contribute to a project targeting Japanese embassy communications. Since then, all five UKUSA agencies have been responsible for monitoring diplomatic cables from all Japanese posts within the same segments of the globe they are assigned for general UKUSA monitoring. Until New Zealand’s integration into ECHELON with the opening of the Waihopai station in 1989, its share of the Japanese communications was intercepted at Yakima and sent unprocessed to the GCSB headquarters in Wellington for decryption, translation, and writing into UKUSA-format intelligence reports (the NSA provides the codebreaking programs).
“COMMUNICATION” THROUGH SATELLITES: The next component of the ECHELON system intercepts a range of satellite communications not carried by Intelsat.In addition to the UKUSA stations targeting Intelsat satellites, there are another five or more stations homing in on Russian and other regional communications satellites. These stations are Menwith Hill in northern England; Shoal Bay, outside Darwin in northern Australia (which targets Indonesian satellites); Leitrim, just south of Ottawa in Canada (which appears to intercept Latin American satellites); Bad Aibling in Germany; and Misawa in northern Japan.
A group of facilities that tap directly into land-based telecommunications systems is the final element of the ECHELON system. Besides satellite and radio, the other main method of transmitting large quantities of public, business, and government communications is a combination of water cables under the oceans and microwave networks over land. Heavy cables, laid across seabeds between countries, account for much of the world’s international communications. After they come out of the water and join land-based microwave networks they are very vulnerable to interception. The microwave networks are made up of chains of microwave towers relaying messages from hilltop to hilltop (always in line of sight) across the countryside. These networks shunt large quantities of communications across a country. Interception of them gives access to international undersea communications (once they surface) and to international communication trunk lines across continents. They are also an obvious target for large-scale interception of domestic communications.
Because the facilities required to intercept radio and satellite communications use large aerials and dishes that are difficult to hide for too long, that network is reasonably well documented. But all that is required to intercept land-based communication networks is a building situated along the microwave route or a hidden cable running underground from the legitimate network into some anonymous building, possibly far removed. Although it sounds technically very difficult, microwave interception from space by United States spy satellites also occurs.4 The worldwide network of facilities to intercept these communications is largely undocumented, and because New Zealand’s GCSB does not participate in this type of interception, my inside sources could not help either.
NO ONE IS SAFE FROM A MICROWAVE: A 1994 expos of the Canadian UKUSA agency, Spyworld, co-authored by one of its former staff, Mike Frost, gave the first insights into how a lot of foreign microwave interception is done (see p. 18). It described UKUSA “embassy collection” operations, where sophisticated receivers and processors are secretly transported to their countries’ overseas embassies in diplomatic bags and used to monitor various communications in foreign capitals.
Since most countries’ microwave networks converge on the capital city, embassy buildings can be an ideal site. Protected by diplomatic privilege, they allow interception in the heart of the target country. *6 The Canadian embassy collection was requested by the NSA to fill gaps in the American and British embassy collection operations, which were still occurring in many capitals around the world when Frost left the CSE in 1990. Separate sources in Australia have revealed that the DSD also engages in embassy collection. On the territory of UKUSA nations, the interception of land-based telecommunications appears to be done at special secret intelligence facilities. The US, UK, and Canada are geographically well placed to intercept the large amounts of the world’s communications that cross their territories.
The only public reference to the Dictionary system anywhere in the world was in relation to one of these facilities, run by the GCHQ in central London. In 1991, a former British GCHQ official spoke anonymously to Granada Television’s World in Action about the agency’s abuses of power. He told the program about an anonymous red brick building at 8 Palmer Street where GCHQ secretly intercepts every telex which passes into, out of, or through London, feeding them into powerful computers with a program known as “Dictionary.” The operation, he explained, is staffed by carefully vetted British Telecom people: “It’s nothing to do with national security. It’s because it’s not legal to take every single telex. And they take everything: the embassies, all the business deals, even the birthday greetings, they take everything. They feed it into the Dictionary.” What the documentary did not reveal is that Dictionary is not just a British system; it is UKUSA-wide.
Similarly, British researcher Duncan Campbell has described how the US Menwith Hill station in Britain taps directly into the British Telecom microwave network, which has actually been designed with several major microwave links converging on an isolated tower connected underground into the station.
The NSA Menwith Hill station, with 22 satellite terminals and more than 4.9 acres of buildings, is undoubtedly the largest and most powerful in the UKUSA network. Located in northern England, several thousand kilometers from the Persian Gulf, it was awarded the NSA’s “Station of the Year” prize for 1991 after its role in the Gulf War. Menwith Hill assists in the interception of microwave communications in another way as well, by serving as a ground station for US electronic spy satellites. These intercept microwave trunk lines and short range communications such as military radios and walkie talkies. Other ground stations where the satellites’ information is fed into the global network are Pine Gap, run by the CIA near Alice Springs in central Australia and the Bad Aibling station in Germany. Among them, the various stations and operations making up the ECHELON network tap into all the main components of the world’s telecommunications networks. All of them, including a separate network of stations that intercepts long distance radio communications, have their own Dictionary computers connected into ECHELON.
In the early 1990s, opponents of the Menwith Hill station obtained large quantities of internal documents from the facility. Among the papers was a reference to an NSA computer system called Platform. The integration of all the UKUSA station computers into ECHELON probably occurred with the introduction of this system in the early 1980s. James Bamford wrote at that time about a new worldwide NSA computer network codenamed Platform “which will tie together 52 separate computer systems used throughout the world. Focal point, or `host environment,’ for the massive network will be the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade. Among those included in Platform will be the British SIGINT organization, GCHQ.”
LOOKING IN THE DICTIONARY: The Dictionary computers are connected via highly encrypted UKUSA communications that link back to computer data bases in the five agency headquarters. This is where all the intercepted messages selected by the Dictionaries end up. Each morning the specially “indoctrinated” signals intelligence analysts in Washington, Ottawa, Cheltenham, Canberra, and Wellington log on at their computer terminals and enter the Dictionary system. After keying in their security passwords, they reach a directory that lists the different categories of intercept available in the data bases, each with a four-digit code. For instance, 1911 might be Japanese diplomatic cables from Latin America (handled by the Canadian CSE), 3848 might be political communications from and about Nigeria, and 8182 might be any messages about distribution of encryption technology.
They select their subject category, get a “search result” showing how many messages have been caught in the ECHELON net on that subject, and then the day’s work begins. Analysts scroll through screen after screen of intercepted faxes, e-mail messages, etc. and, whenever a message appears worth reporting on, they select it from the rest to work on. If it is not in English, it is translated and then written into the standard format of intelligence reports produced anywhere within the UKUSA network either in entirety as a “report,” or as a summary or “gist.”
INFORMATION CONTROL: A highly organized system has been developed to control what is being searched for by each station and who can have access to it. This is at the heart of ECHELON operations and works as follows.
The individual station’s Dictionary computers do not simply have a long list of keywords to search for. And they do not send all the information into some huge database that participating agencies can dip into as they wish. It is much more controlled.
The search lists are organized into the same categories, referred to by the four digit numbers. Each agency decides its own categories according to its responsibilities for producing intelligence for the network. For GCSB, this means South Pacific governments, Japanese diplomatic, Russian Antarctic activities, and so on.
The agency then works out about 10 to 50 keywords for selection in each category. The keywords include such things as names of people, ships, organizations, country names, and subject names. They also include the known telex and fax numbers and Internet addresses of any individuals, businesses, organizations, and government offices that are targets. These are generally written as part of the message text and so are easily recognized by the Dictionary computers.
The agencies also specify combinations of keywords to help sift out communications of interest. For example, they might search for diplomatic cables containing both the words “Santiago” and “aid,” or cables containing the word “Santiago” but not “consul” (to avoid the masses of routine consular communications). It is these sets of words and numbers (and combinations), under a particular category, that get placed in the Dictionary computers. (Staff in the five agencies called Dictionary Managers enter and update the keyword search lists for each agency.)
The whole system, devised by the NSA, has been adopted completely by the other agencies. The Dictionary computers search through all the incoming messages and, whenever they encounter one with any of the agencies’ keywords, they select it. At the same time, the computer automatically notes technical details such as the time and place of interception on the piece of intercept so that analysts reading it, in whichever agency it is going to, know where it came from, and what it is. Finally, the computer writes the four-digit code (for the category with the keywords in that message) at the bottom of the message’s text. This is important. It means that when all the intercepted messages end up together in the database at one of the agency headquarters, the messages on a particular subject can be located again. Later, when the analyst using the Dictionary system selects the four- digit code for the category he or she wants, the computer simply searches through all the messages in the database for the ones which have been tagged with that number.
This system is very effective for controlling which agencies can get what from the global network because each agency only gets the intelligence out of the ECHELON system from its own numbers. It does not have any access to the raw intelligence coming out of the system to the other agencies. For example, although most of the GCSB’s intelligence production is primarily to serve the UKUSA alliance, New Zealand does not have access to the whole ECHELON network. The access it does have is strictly controlled. A New Zealand intelligence officer explained: “The agencies can all apply for numbers on each other’s Dictionaries. The hardest to deal with are the Americans. … [There are] more hoops to jump through, unless it is in their interest, in which case they’ll do it for you.”
There is only one agency which, by virtue of its size and role within the alliance, will have access to the full potential of the ECHELON system the agency that set it up. What is the system used for? Anyone listening to official “discussion” of intelligence could be forgiven for thinking that, since the end of the Cold War, the key targets of the massive UKUSA intelligence machine are terrorism, weapons proliferation, and economic intelligence. The idea that economic intelligence has become very important, in particular, has been carefully cultivated by intelligence agencies intent on preserving their post-Cold War budgets. It has become an article of faith in much discussion of intelligence. However, I have found no evidence that these are now the primary concerns of organizations such as NSA.
QUICKER INTELLIGENCE, SAME MISSION: A different story emerges after examining very detailed information I have been given about the intelligence New Zealand collects for the UKUSA allies and detailed descriptions of what is in the yards-deep intelligence reports New Zealand receives from its four allies each week. There is quite a lot of intelligence collected about potential terrorists, and there is quite a lot of economic intelligence, notably intensive monitoring of all the countries participating in GATT negotiations. But by far, the main priorities of the intelligence alliance continue to be political and military intelligence to assist the larger allies to pursue their interests around the world. Anyone and anything the particular governments are concerned about can become a target.
With capabilities so secret and so powerful, almost anything goes. For example, in June 1992, a group of current “highly placed intelligence operatives” from the British GCHQ spoke to the London Observer: “We feel we can no longer remain silent regarding that which we regard to be gross malpractice and negligence within the establishment in which we operate.” They gave as examples GCHQ interception of three charitable organizations, including Amnesty International and Christian Aid. As the Observer reported: “At any time GCHQ is able to home in on their communications for a routine target request,” the GCHQ source said. In the case of phone taps the procedure is known as Mantis. With telexes it is called Mayfly. By keying in a code relating to Third World aid, the source was able to demonstrate telex “fixes” on the three organizations. “It is then possible to key in a trigger word which enables us to home in on the telex communications whenever that word appears,” he said. “And we can read a pre-determined number of characters either side of the keyword.” Without actually naming it, this was a fairly precise description of how the ECHELON Dictionary system works. Again, what was not revealed in the publicity was that this is a UKUSA-wide system. The design of ECHELON means that the interception of these organizations could have occurred anywhere in the network, at any station where the GCHQ had requested that the four-digit code covering Third World aid be placed.
Note that these GCHQ officers mentioned that the system was being used for telephone calls. In New Zealand, ECHELON is used only to intercept written communications: fax, e-mail, and telex. The reason, according to intelligence staff, is that the agency does not have the staff to analyze large quantities of telephone conversations.
Mike Frost’s expos of Canadian “embassy collection” operations described the NSA computers they used, called Oratory, that can “listen” to telephone calls and recognize when keywords are spoken. Just as we can recognize words spoken in all the different tones and accents we encounter, so too, according to Frost, can these computers. Telephone calls containing keywords are automatically extracted from the masses of other calls and recorded digitally on magnetic tapes for analysts back at agency headquarters. However, high volume voice recognition computers will be technically difficult to perfect, and my New Zealand-based sources could not confirm that this capability exists. But, if or when it is perfected, the implications would be immense. It would mean that the UKUSA agencies could use machines to search through all the international telephone calls in the world, in the same way that they do written messages. If this equipment exists for use in embassy collection, it will presumably be used in all the stations throughout the ECHELON network. It is yet to be confirmed how extensively telephone communications are being targeted by the ECHELON stations for the other agencies.
The easiest pickings for the ECHELON system are the individuals, organizations, and governments that do not use encryption. In New Zealand’s area, for example, it has proved especially useful against already vulnerable South Pacific nations which do not use any coding, even for government communications (all these communications of New Zealand’s neighbors are supplied, unscreened, to its UKUSA allies). As a result of the revelations in my book, there is currently a project under way in the Pacific to promote and supply publicly available encryption software to vulnerable organizations such as democracy movements in countries with repressive governments. This is one practical way of curbing illegitimate uses of the ECHELON capabilities.
One final comment. All the newspapers, commentators, and “well placed sources” told the public that New Zealand was cut off from US intelligence in the mid-1980s. That was entirely untrue. The intelligence supply to New Zealand did not stop, and instead, the decade since has been a period of increased integration of New Zealand into the US system. Virtually everything the equipment, manuals, ways of operating, jargon, codes, and so on, used in the GCSB continues to be imported entirely from the larger allies (in practice, usually the NSA). As with the Australian and Canadian agencies, most of the priorities continue to come from the US, too.
The main thing that protects these agencies from change is their secrecy. On the day my book arrived in the book shops, without prior publicity, there was an all-day meeting of the intelligence bureaucrats in the prime minister’s department trying to decide if they could prevent it from being distributed. They eventually concluded, sensibly, that the political costs were too high. It is understandable that they were so agitated.
Throughout my research, I have faced official denials or governments refusing to comment on publicity about intelligence activities. Given the pervasive atmosphere of secrecy and stonewalling, it is always hard for the public to judge what is fact, what is speculation, and what is paranoia. Thus, in uncovering New Zealand’s role in the NSA-led alliance, my aim was to provide so much detail about the operations the technical systems, the daily work of individual staff members, and even the rooms in which they work inside intelligence facilities that readers could feel confident that they were getting close to the truth. I hope the information leaked by intelligence staff in New Zealand about UKUSA and its systems such as ECHELON will help lead to change.
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