Listening In

The U.S.-led ECHELON spy network is eavesdropping on the whole world

Suppose, this past weekend, you sent an e-mail to a friend overseas. There's a reasonable possibility your communication was intercepted by a global surveillance system--especially if you happened to discuss last week's bombings in East Africa.

Or suppose you're stuck in traffic and in your road rage you whip out a cell phone and angrily call your congressman's office in Washington. There's a chance the government is listening in on that conversation, too (but only for the purposes of "training" new eavesdroppers).

Or suppose you're on a foreign trip--vacation, business, relief work--and you send off a fax to some folks that Washington doesn't view too keenly. Your message could be taken down and analyzed by the very same system.

That system is called ECHELON and it is controlled by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). In America, it is the Intelligence Network That Dare Not Be Acknowledged. Questions about it at Defense Department briefings are deftly deflected. Requests for information about it under the Freedom of Information Act linger in bureaucratic limbo. Researchers who mention possible uses of it in the presence of intelligence officials are castigated. Members of Congress--theoretically, the people's representatives who provide oversight of the intelligence community--betray no interest in helping anyone find out anything about it. Media outlets (save the award-winning but low-circulation Covert Action Quarterly) ignore it. In the official view of the U.S. Government, it doesn't exist.

But according to current and former intelligence officials, espionage scholars, Australian and British investigative reporters, and a dogged New Zealand researcher, it is all too real. Indeed, a soon-to-be finalized European Parliament report on ECHELON has created quite a stir on the other side of the Atlantic. The report's revelations are so serious that it strongly recommends an intensive investigation of NSA operations.

The facts drawn out by these sources reveal ECHELON as a powerful electronic net--a net that snags from the millions of phone, fax, and modem signals traversing the globe at any moment selected communications of interest to a five-nation intelligence alliance. Once intercepted (based on the use of key words in exchanges), those communiqués are sent in real time to a central computer system run by the NSA; round-the-clock shifts of American, British, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand analysts pour over them in search of . . . what?

Originally a Cold War tool aimed at the Soviets, ECHELON has been redirected at civilian targetsworldwide. In fact, as the European Parliament report noted, political advocacy groups like Amnesty International and Greenpeace were amongst ECHELON's targets. The system's awesome potential (and potential for abuse) has spurred some traditional watchdogs to delve deep in search of its secrets, and even prompted some of its minders within the intelligence community to come forward. "In some ways," says Reg Whittaker, a professor and intelligence scholar at Canada's York University, "it's probably the most useful means of getting at the Cold War intelligence-sharing relationship that still continues."

While the Central Intelligence Agency--responsible for covert operations and human-gathered intelligence, or HUMINT--is the spy agency most people think of, the NSA is, in many respects, the more powerful and important of the U.S. intelligence organizations. Though its most egregious excesses of 20 years ago are believed to have been curbed, in addition to monitoring all foreign communications, it still has the legal authority to intercept any communication that begins or ends in the U.S., as well as use American citizens' private communications as fodder for trainee spies. Charged with the gathering of signals intelligence, or SIGINT--which encompasses all electronic communications transmissions--the NSA is larger, better funded, and infinitely more secretive than the CIA. Indeed, the key document that articulates its international role has never seen the light of day.

That document, known as the UKUSA Agreement, forged an alliance in 1948 among five countries--the U.S., Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand--to geographically divvy up SIGINT-gathering responsibilities, with the U.S. as director and main underwriter. Like the NSA--hardly known until the Pike and Church congressional investigations of the '70s--the other four countries' SIGINT agencies remain largely unknown and practically free of public oversight. While other member nations conduct their own operations, there has "never been any misunderstanding that we're NSA subsidiaries," according to Mike Frost, an ex-officer in Canada's SIGINT service, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). Moreover, all the signatory countries have NSA listening posts within their borders that operate with little or no input from the local agency.

Like nature, however, journalism abhors a vacuum, and the dearth of easily accessible data has inspired a cadre of researchers around the world to monitor the SIGINT community as zealously as possible. It is not, says David Banisar of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), an easy task. Getting raw data is difficult enough. Figuring out what it means even more so, he says, thanks in part to the otherwise conservative NSA's very liberal use of code names--many of which regularly change--for everything from devices to operations. One that appears to have remained constant, however, is ECHELON.

In 1988, Margaret Newsham, a contract employee from Lockheed posted at Menwith Hill, the NSA's enormous listening post in Yorkshire, England, filed a whistleblower suit against Lockheed, charging the company with waste and mismanagement (the case is currently being appealed after an initial dismissal). At the same time, Newsham told Congressional investigators that she had knowledge of illegal eavesdropping on American citizens by NSA personnel. While a committee began investigating, it never released a report. Nonetheless, British investigative reporter Duncan Campbell managed to get hold of some of the committee's findings, including a slew of Menwith Hill operations. Among them was a project described as the latest installment of a system code named ECHELON that would enable the five SIGINT agencies "to monitor and analyze civilian communications into the 21st century."

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