Listening In

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

To SIGINT watchers, the concept wasn't unfamiliar. In the early '80s, while working on his celebrated study of the NSA, The Puzzle Palace, James Bamford discovered that the agency was developing a system called PLATFORM, which would integrate at least 52 separate SIGINT agency computer systems into one central network run out of Fort Meade, Maryland. Then in 1991, an anonymous British SIGINT officer told the TV media about an ongoing operation that intercepted civilian telexes and ran them through computers loaded with a program called "the Dictionary"--a description that jibed with both Bamford and Campbell's gleanings.

In 1996, however, intelligence watchdogs and scholars got an avalanche of answers about ECHELON, upon the publication of Secret Power: New Zealand's Role in the International Spy Network,written by Nicky Hager. A New Zealand activist turned investigative author, Hager spent 12 years digging into the ties between his country's SIGINT agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), and the NSA. Utilizing leaked material and scores of interviews with GCSB officers, Hager not only presented a revealing look at the previously unknown machinations of the GCSB (even New Zealand's Prime Minister was kept in the dark about its full scope) but also produced a highly detailed description of ECHELON.

According to Hager's information--which leading SIGINT scholar and National Security Archive analyst Jeffrey Richelson calls "excellent"--ECHELON functions as a real-time intercept and processing operation geared toward civilian communications. Its first component targets international phone company telecommunications satellites (or Intelsats) from a series of five ground intercept stations located at Yakima, Washington; Sugar Grove, West Virginia; Morwenstow in Cornwall, England; Waihopai, New Zealand; and Geraldton, Australia.

The next component targets other civilian communications satellites, from a similar array of bases, while the final group of facilities intercept international communications as they're relayed from undersea cables to microwave transmitters. According to Hager's sources, each country devises categories of intercept interest. Then a list of key words or phrases (anything from personal, business, and organization names to e-mail addresses to phone and fax numbers) is devised for each category. The categories and keywords are entered by each country into its "Dictionary" computer, which, after recognizing keywords, intercepts full transmissions, and sends them to the terminals of analysts in each of the UKUSA countries.

To the layperson, ECHELON may sound like something out of the X-Files. But the National Security Archives's Richelson and others maintain that not only is this not the stuff of science fiction, but is, in some respects, old hat. More than 20 years ago, then CIA director William Colby matter-of-factly told congressional investigators that the NSA monitored every overseas call made from the United States. Two years ago, British Telecom accidentally disclosed in a court case that it had provided the Menwith Hill station with equipment potentially allowing it access to hundreds of thousands of European calls a day. "Let me put it this way," says a former NSA officer. "Consider that anyone can type a keyword into a Net search engine and get back tens of thousands of hits in a few seconds." A pause. "Assume that people working on the outer edges have capabilities far in excess of what you do."

Since earlier this year, ECHELON has caused something of a panic in Europe, following the disclosure of an official European Parliament report entitled "In Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control." While the report did draw needed attention to ECHELON, it--and subsequent European press coverage--says Richelson, "built ECHELON up into some super-elaborate system that can listen in on everyone at any time, which goes beyond what Nicky Hager wrote." Richelson, along with other SIGINT experts, emphasizes that, despite ECHELON's apparent considerable capabilities, it isn't omniscient.

EPIC's David Banisar points out that despite the high volume of communications signals relayed by satellite and microwave, a great many fiber-optic communications--both local and domestic long distance--can't be intercepted without a direct wiretap. And, adds Canadian ex-spook Mike Frost, there's a real problem sorting and reading all the data; while ECHELON can potentially intercept millions of communications, there simply aren't enough analysts to sort through everything. "Personally, I'm not losing any sleep over this," says Richelson, "because most of the stuff probably sits stored and unused at [NSA headquarters in] Fort Meade."

Richelson's position is echoed by some in the intelligence business ("Sure, there's potential for abuse," says one insider, "but who would you rather have this--us or Saddam Hussein?"). But others don't take such a benign view. "ECHELON has a huge potential for violating privacy and for abuses of democracy," says Hager. "Because it's so powerful and its operations are so secret that there are no real constraints on agencies using it against any target the government chooses. The excessive secrecy built up in the Cold War removes any threat of accountability."

The only time the public gets anything resembling oversight, Hager contends, is when intelligence officials have a crisis of conscience, as several British spooks did in 1992. In a statement to the London Observer, the spies said they felt they could "no longer remain silent regarding that which we regard to be gross malpractice and negligence within the establishment we operate"--the establishment in question being the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain's version of the NSA. The operatives said that an intercept system based on keyword recognition (sound familiar?) was routinely targeting the communications of Amnesty International and Christian Aid.

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