Listening In

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

Adds Hager, "The use of intelligence services in these cases had nothing to do with national security, but everything to do with keeping tabs on critics. The British government frequently finds itself in political conflict with Amnesty over countries it is supplying arms to or governments with bad human rights records. ECHELON provides the government with a way to gain advantage over Amnesty by eavesdropping on their operations."

Hager and others also argue that potential for abuse lies in the hierarchical and reciprocal nature of the UKUSA alliance. According to data gathered by congressional committees in the '70s, and accounts of former SIGINT officers like Frost, UKUSA partners have, from time to time, used each other to circumvent prohibitions on spying on their own citizens. Frost, for example, directed Canadian eavesdropping operations against both Americans and Britons--at the request of both countries' intelligence services, to whom the surveillance data was subsequently passed.

And British Members of Parliament have raised concerns for years about the lack of oversight at the NSA's Menwith Hill facility--a base on British soil with access to British communications yet run by the NSA, which works closely with the GCHQ. "Given that both the U.S. and Britain turn their electronic spying systems against many other friendly and allied nations," says Hager, "the British would be naive not to assume it is happening to them."

David Banisar, the electronic privacy advocate, says that apparently just asking about ECHELON, or mentioning anything like it, is considered unreasonable. Since earlier this year, Banisar has been trying to get information on ECHELON from the NSA under the Freedom of Information Act. "They're not exactly forthcoming," he says, explaining that he only recently got a response in which he was in effect told the European Parliament report "didn't provide enough information" for the NSA to locate the requested information. However, Wayne Madsen, co-author with Bamford of the most recent edition of The Puzzle Palace, was more directly discouraged from investigating ECHELON's possibly dubious applications, as the following story makes clear.

On April 21, 1996, Chechnyen rebel leader Dzokhar Dudayev was killed when a Russian fighter fired two missiles into his headquarters. At the time of the attack, Dudayev had been talking on his cellular phone to Russian officials in Moscow about possible peace negotiations. According to electronics experts, getting a lock on Dudayev's cell phone signal would not have been difficult, but as Martin Streetly, editor of Jane's Radar and Electronic Warfare Systems, noted at the time, the Russian military was so under-equipped and poorly maintained, it was doubtful a radar intercept plane could have honed in on the signal without help.

Speaking at a conference on Information Warfare a month later, Madsen, one of the world's leading SIGINT and computer security experts, explained that it was both politically and technically possible that the NSA helped the Russians kill Dudayev. Noting the West's interest in preserving the Yeltsin presidency and in ensuring the safety of an oil consortium's pipeline running through Chechnya, Madsen explained which NSA satellites could have been used to intercept Dudayev's call and directionally locate its signal.

This wasn't exactly a stunning revelation: Not only had reports recently been released in Australia and Switzerland about police tracking suspects by their cell phone signatures, but Reuters and Agence France-Press had written about the Dudayev scenario as technically plausible. Still, after his talk, Madsen was approached by an Air Force officer assigned to the NSA, who tore into him. "Don't you realize that we have people on the ground over there?" Madsen recalled the officer seething. "You're talking about things that could put them in harm's way." Asks Madsen, "If this was how Dudayev died, do you think it's unreasonable the American people know about the technical aspects behind this kind of diplomacy?"

Nicky Hager says that the New Zealand intelligence officers who talked to him did so out of a growing disillusionment with the importance to New Zealand of access to ECHELON information. In some cases, they said, they had been so busy listening in on targets of interest to other countries, they altogether missed opportunities to gather intelligence in New Zealand's national interest. Ross Coulthart, an investigative reporter with Australia's Nine Network, says intelligence sources of his have reported similar feelings. "In the UKUSA intelligence community, there appear, roughly, to be two camps: those who believe that it's best to fall in line behind the U.S., because the U.S. has acted as protector and funder and gives us resources and limited participation in a system we couldn't support ourselves, and those who think the whole thing is somewhat overrated and sometimes contrary to national interests."

In 1995, for example, Australian intelligence officials leaked a story to the Australian Broadcasting Company that was, at first blush, damaging to themselves: Australian intelligence had bugged the Chinese Embassy in Canberra. However, the Australians had no access to the actual transmissions; they had merely planted the bugs at the behest of the NSA, which was getting the raw feed. "Given that both Australian and American companies were bidding for Chinese wheat contracts at the time," says Coulthart, "it didn't seem like Australia was getting anything out of this arrangement, so they put the story out there."

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