A Most Unusual Collection Agency

How the U.S. undid UNSCOM through its empire of electronic ears

There are good reasons, explains an old NSA hand, for havingelectronic ears on terra firma in addition to satellites. "If you're listening to something from thousands of miles up, the footprint to sort through is so huge, and finding what you are looking for is not a simple chore. If you know more or less specifically what you want, it's easier to get it in close proximity. And if it happens to be a low-powered signal, it may not travel far enough."

According to two sources familiar with intelligence activity in Iraq, the U.S. may have been aided by information delivered either to UNSCOM or SCS from Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications firm. It's not an unreasonable assumption; though Ericsson brushes off questions about it, in 1996 a Middle Eastern businessman filed suit against the company, claiming, among other things, that it had stiffed him on his commission for brokering a deal between the Iraqis and Ericsson for sensitive defense communications equipment, which, reportedly, included encrypted cell phones.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a veteran intelligence official confirmed that the NSA has "arrangements" with other communications firms that allow NSA to access supposedly secure communications, but cooperation from Ericsson would be "a breakthrough— despite our best efforts, they always kept their distance. But it's not beyond the realm of possibility." (This is not without precedent; though hardly covered in the American press, it has been reported that Switzerland's Crypto AG— long the supplier of cipher equipment to many of the world's neutral and "rogue" states— enjoyed such an "arrangement" with the NSA for decades. Crypto AG denies this.)

There is, however, another possible scenario regarding participation by Ericsson in an intelligence venture. According to FAS analyst Pike, it's much more likely that anyone doing intelligence work in Iraq would want a schematic of Baghdad's telephone system— which Ericsson installed in the late '60s and has subsequently updated. "I would find it to be far more plausible that the U.S. intelligence community would be interested in acquiring, and Ericsson would be interested in supplying, the wiring diagram for Baghdad's telephone exchange than encryption algorithms for cell phones," he says.

Also, he explains, finding ways to tap into a whole phone system or pull short-range signals out of the air without being obvious is clearly SCS's portfolio. "This type of risky close surveillance is what SCS was formed to do," he says. "When you think of NSA, you think satellites. When you think CIA, you think James Bond and microfilm. But you don't really think of an agency whose sole purpose is to get up real close and use the best technology there is to listen and transmit. That's SCS."

Regarding any possible collaboration in Iraq with SCS or UNSCOM, Kathy Egan, Ericsson spokesperson, said she had no information on such an operation, but if there was one, "It would be classified and we would not be able to talk about it." It's also possible, according to Mike Frost, that cleverly disguised bugs might have been planted in Baghdad— SCS, he recalls, managed to listen in on secured facilities by bugging pigeons. But, says a retired CIA veteran, with UNSCOM effectively dead, bugging is now out of the question. "I hope the take from this op," he says, "was worth losing the only access the outside world's disarmament experts had to Iraq."

The Radome Archipelago

During the Cold War there were hundreds of secret remote listening posts spread around the globe. From large stations in the moors of Scotland and mountains of Turkey that were complete with golf ball­like structures called "radomes" to singly operated stations in the barren wilderness of Saint Lawrence Island between Alaska and Siberia that had only a few antennae, these stations constituted the ground-based portion of the United States Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) System or "USSS."

Operated by the supersecret National Security Agency (NSA), these stations were designed to intercept Morse Code, telephone, telex, radar, telemetry, and other signals emanating from behind the Iron Curtain. At one time, the NSA contemplated a worldwide, continuously operated array of 4120 intercept stations. While the agency never achieved that goal, it could still boast of several hundred intercept stations. These included its ground-based "outstations," which were supplemented by other intercept units located on ships, submarines, aircraft (from U-2s to helicopters), unmanned drones, mobile vans, aerostats (balloons and dirigibles), and even large and cumbersome backpacks.

With the collapse of the Communist "bloc" and the advent of microwaves, fiber optics, and cellular phones, NSA's need for numerous ground-based intercept stations waned. It began to rely on a constellation of sophisticated SIGINT satellites with code names like Vortex, Magnum, Jumpseat, and Trumpet to sweep up the world's satellite, microwave, cellular, and high-frequency communications and signals. Numerous outstations met with one of three fates: they were shut down completely, remoted to larger facilities called Regional SIGINT Operations Centers or "RSOCs," or were turned over to host nation SIGINT agencies to be operated jointly with NSA.

However, NSA's jump to relying primarily on satellites proved premature. In 1993, Somali clan leader Mohammed Farah Aideed taught the agency an important lesson. Aideed's reliance on older and lower-powered walkie-talkies and radio transmitters made his communications virtually silent to the orbiting SIGINT "birds" of the NSA. Therefore, NSA technicians came to realize there was still a need to get in close in some situations to pick up signals of interest. In NSA's jargon this is called improving "hearability."

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