How the United States spies on us all

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Thu Jan 7 03:31:42 PST 1999

[Just make sure your email doesn't have the words "Libya" or "terrorism" in them & you're safe.]



How the United States spies on us all


With an annual budget of $26.7 billion - as much as during the cold

war - the American intelligence services are the best equipped in

the world. Strategic alliances and powerful technology allow them

to tap into the world's telephones, faxes and electronic mail as a

matter of routine. But the United States' trump card is the

cooperation it receives from the police and armed forces of other

states more concerned with surveillance than with protecting

individual liberties.



Is the United States now so powerful it no longer cares what its

European "friends" think? It took dogged research by New Zealander

Nicky Hager to uncover a huge world surveillance network, the Echelon

system, in operation since the 1980s. His investigations (1) revealed

in detail how one of the US' most secret organisations, the National

Security Agency (NSA), has been discreetly "listening in" to all

international communications for almost 20 years (2). When questioned

on the subject, the former national security advisor to President

Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, admitted for the first time that

when you have the ability to obtain information, it is very hard to

set arbitrary limits on what you actually receive. Should he have

refused to read it? (3) Turning the accusation on its head, he

explained his concept of "friendship" by asking whether it wasn't

immoral for the French and German governments to talk about things

they didn't want the United States to know about.

The embryo of the American espionage network goes back to the start of

the cold war - around 1947 - when the first agreement for the

collection and exchange of intelligence, known as Ukusa, was forged

between the United Kingdom and the United States. They were

subsequently joined by Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Powerful

listening stations in these countries, evenly spaced around the world,

pick up the signals sent to earth by satellites such as Intelsat and

Inmarsat. These satellites carry a significant (though falling)

proportion of international telecommunications traffic. Every day

hundreds of thousands of faxes, telexes, electronic messages and

telephone calls from all over the world are scrutinised, sorted,

selected and analysed.

The Echelon system, Nicky Hager reveals, has been designed to

interconnect all the listening stations and allow them to function as

components of an integrated whole. These listening stations are

located at low latitudes to pick up every beam from the Intelsat

satellites. There is one at Waihopai in New Zealand, two in the US, at

Yakima on the west coast and Sugar Grove on the east coast, one in the

UK at Morwenstow, Cornwall, and one at Geraldton on the west coast of

Australia. There is probably also a sixth station in the South

Atlantic, as well as eavesdropping systems designed for other types of

telecommunications infrastructure.

However, the volume of information collected in this way is too great

to be handled by the multitudinous, but not unlimited, operatives of

the intelligence services. The key to this interception plan, as Nicky

Hager explains, is powerful computers that search through the masses

of messages for ones of special interest. The intercept stations take

in millions of messages intended for legitimate earth stations served

by the satellite and then use computers to search for pre-programmed

addresses and key words.

The intelligence services pass these addresses and key words on to

each other in the form of "dictionaries" reflecting their concerns of

the moment. A telephone conversation, fax or email need only contain

such words as "terrorism", "drugs" or "guerrillas" or names like

"Castro", "Gaddafi" or "Saddam Hussein" for the communication to be

identified, recorded and analysed. Rather like search engines on the

Internet, these giant "ears", equipped with the best possible

automated systems for voice recognition, optical reading and content

evaluation, select manageable quantities of data (hundreds or even

thousands of daily communications).

The scenario is as follows (4). Every day, analysts in various

agencies examine the previous day's harvest which arrives marked with

dates, indications of origin and destination and code numbers. For

example, 5535 identifies Japanese diplomatic communications, 8182

exchanges concerning the distribution of ciphering technologies, etc.

The data are transcribed, deciphered, translated and supplied in the

form of detailed reports or "gists" giving the essence of a

conversation or summaries of information in context.

The document so produced is stamped "Moray" (secret), "Spoke" (more

secret than "Moray"), "Umbra" (top secret), "Gamma" (interception of

Russian communications) or "Druid" (for countries not members of

Ukusa). A final code ("Alpha" for Britain's GCHQ, "Echo" for

Australia's DSD, "India" for New Zealand's GCSB, "Uniform" for

Canada's CSE and "Oscar" for the NSA) shows to whom the message must

be sent via "Platform", Ukusa's central nervous system.

This system differs from "conventional" telephone tapping in ways that

are particular causes for concern.

The first is a major problem of national sovereignty for the small

countries in the Ukusa alliance. In the 1980s New Zealanders believed

their country to be cut off from NSA intelligence because of the then

labour prime minister David Lange's refusal to allow the USS Buchanan,

a ship with nuclear capability, into New Zealand territorial waters.

But in reality, without consulting their government, the New Zealand

services had in actually increased their collaboration with the NSA

and accelerated the deployment of Echelon - at the risk of

compromising the line then being taken by Wellington on Asian policy.

At the same time, the New Zealand press launched a massive

disinformation campaign on the lines of "What shall we do without

American intelligence?".

Moreover, the very fact that Echelon allows "dictionaries" to be

exchanged makes every intelligence service an agent for the collection

of information intended for foreign partners. It is transmitted

automatically and because of the way the system is programmed, it does

not allow the New Zealand party to know the key words used by its

partners. The reverse, we suspect, is not true. This probably enabled

the United States to use New Zealand infrastructures to spy on

Greenpeace communications during its protests against the French

nuclear tests on Mururoa atoll in 1995 without the Wellington

intelligence services knowing, let alone the government.

Another thing that distinguishes it from "conventional" listening is

that communications are actually intercepted on the basis of key words

and not by systematic surveillance of particular people's telephone

and fax numbers or Internet addresses. This technical aspect, no doubt

very promising in intelligence terms, makes it impossible from the

outset to determine - by a judicial, military or political decision -

the source of the intelligence collected: absolutely anyone who utters

or writes the words in the "dictionary" is likely to come under


Abuses are inevitable. For example, a former Canadian spy, Mike Frost,

accuses Margaret Thatcher of bringing Canadian operatives to London in

February 1983 to keep an eye on two ministers of her own government

who naively used their cell phones to hatch some political plot.

It is tempting to use such a secret and powerful system for general

intelligence and ordinary police work: in 1992, angry about various

abuses, high-ranking British secret service operatives revealed that

Amnesty International and a number of other non-governmental

organisations had had their phones tapped on the strength of key words

relating to arms trafficking. As an example, they showed an Observer

journalist how they went about intercepting conversations involving

the key word "aid to the third world" (5). The choice of newspaper was

certainly fitting: Mrs Thatcher had ordered surveillance of The

Observer's proprietors following publication in 1989 of an

investigation into the activities of her son (6).

More generally, as Steve Wright, a researcher with the British human

rights organisation, Omega Foundation, explains in a preliminary

report to the European parliament in 1998, "Echelon is designed for

primarily non-military targets: governments, organisations and

businesses in virtually every country. Whilst there is much

information gathered about potential terrorists, there is a lot of

economic intelligence, notably intensive monitoring of all the

countries participating in the GATT negotiations (7)."

So these are not isolated abuses; the eavesdropping systems do not

confine themselves to monitoring terrorist or mafia activity but also

gather economic intelligence and general information of a political

nature. But those incidents that have become known and appear in a

report presented to the US Congress in November 1998 (see article by

Patrick S Poole) show that the firms to benefit the most from this

espionage are those that make equipment for the Echelon network, in

particular Lockheed, Boeing, Loral, TRW and Raytheon: "This incestuous

relationship is so strong that sometimes this intelligence information

is used to push other American manufacturers out of deals in favour of

these mammoth US defence and intelligence contractors, who frequently

are the source of major cash contributions to both political parties


The mystery surrounding the development of these systems strengthens

the advocates of freedom of cryptography in their convictions. These

militant supporters of the right to privacy who have tried their

strength in fighting against the American "clipper chip" project (a

chip thought to "guarantee" that conversations are safe from any

interception except the NSA's) are vilified as "ultra-liberals" trying

to stop the police finding paedophiles and the army tracking down

terrorists. While the issue is a complex one, those in favour of the

restriction of cryptography tend to forget existing means of secure

communication like the emblematic PGP software (9), which can be

adapted for telephone use and is already widely used by criminals

without government authorisation.

Nonetheless, on 3 December 1998 the US administration discreetly

managed to persuade the 33 signatory countries to the Wassenaar

Arrangement (10) on arms exports to extend the Arrangement to strong

cryptography which hitherto had not been considered a "weapon of war"

other than by the United States and France. What irony. The US has

made itself the champion of "laissez-faire" on communications

networks. In the name of the free development of electronic commerce,

it has banished all thought of a tax on the "information highway" or

the use of personal data. Why does it suddenly want regulation to ban

this tool which would improve the protection of privacy and security

of trade but which would interfere with its surveillance abilities?

And how can the countries of Europe, who have the edge in the

development of civilian encryption techniques, have allowed such a

decision to be imposed on them?

The man in the street has been systematically kept out of this debate.

That is perhaps where the main danger lies: no procedure or regulatory

authority has been put in place to ensure that these listening devices

don't fall into the hands of the far right - as, say, video

surveillance has in many French cities. Governments are defending

their (recent and exponential) electronic surveillance prerogatives

tooth and nail.

This security-minded approach is taken for granted on both sides of

the Atlantic. But when it comes to economic intelligence, France is

the United States' number one enemy. The tale of transatlantic

espionage resurfaces regularly, be it microphones hidden in Air France

aircraft or, more recently, the revelation of an eavesdropping system

similar to Echelon. This is said to have been installed by the French

Directorate General for External Security (DGSE) and to have space

listening stations in France, especially at Domme in the Dordogne,

next to Sarlat airport, but also in French overseas territories - in

particular, of recent date, in New Caledonia and on the Kourou space

base in French Guiana (11). The German intelligence agency, the BND,

is said to be involved in this major first.

However, Europe and the United States are agreeing on standards that

will make interception easier. In 1995, for example, the European

Union adopted a memorandum on "the lawful interception of

communications" which requires every telecommunications operator to

install a permanent listening "interface" giving access not only to

conversations but also to the "associated data": numbers called and

callers (even if no-one answers), location of mobile phones,

everything of course "unscrambled" if the signal is "coded, compressed

or encrypted" (12).

In a report published in February 1997 (13), the British association

StateWatch showed that the group that drew up the European memorandum

was working closely with the FBI. In particular, the memorandum

contains two contact addresses, including FBI headquarters in


The official line, voiced by the French Directorate General of Posts

and Telecommunications (DGPT), remains that "all communications

networks must be interceptable". Laws are being considered, in the

Netherlands and the United States in particular, concerning the

obligations of Internet service providers. The German taxpayer is

going to have to pay nearly $2.5 billion to bring the mobile telephone

network up to European interception standards (14). In France,

National Computers and Liberties Commission chairman Jacques Fauvet

reports that "the legitimate concern that the use of portable

telephones should not leave the police helpless in the face of crime

is now leading to the demand that anyone buying a prepaid card for use

with a portable without being a subscriber should have to provide

proof of identity which will be noted. Every purchaser is thus made a

suspect (14)." And many countries are wondering what constraints to

impose on satellite constellation systems of the Iridium type.

In all, listening systems are growing in a fertile terrain of

cooperation and emulation between the police forces of different

countries without meeting any real resistance. "European companies

have already paid the price [of Echelon]," Alain Pompidou, chairman of

the European Parliament's Scientific and Technical Options Assessment

Committee (STOA) explains that "As they trade with the United States,

they keep quiet (15)".

In these companies' defence, it must be said that there is nothing in

international law concerning the interception of satellite

transmissions. It is also difficult to get hold of reliable

information. British involvement in such eavesdropping is an

embarrassment to the European authorities who, like European trade

commissioner Martin Bangemann, are looking for "evidence that the

system exists" before risking damaging "good trading relations with

the United States". Although the British Foreign Office attests that

"there is no incompatibility between the United Kingdom's position in

the European Union and its duty to guarantee national security", MEPs

are nevertheless calling for the introduction of a "code of conduct"

and a further inquiry - which might lead them to question the NSA.

Translated by Malcolm Greenwood

(1) Nicky Hager, Secret Power. New Zealand's role in the international

spy network, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, New Zealand, 1996. Since

no publisher was found in the United States, the book is distributed

there by the journal Covert Action Quarterly, Washington, DC.

(2) Steve Wright, An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control,

Interim Study, STOA, European Parliament, 19 January 1998.

(3) Le Nouvel observateur, 10-16 December 1998.

(4) Patrick S. Poole, "Echelon: America's Secret Global Surveillance

Network", The Privacy Papers No. 4, November 1998, Free Congress

Research and Education Foundation, Washington, DC.

(5) John Merritt, The Observer, London, 28 June 1992, quoted by Nicky

Hager, op. cit.

(6) Hugh O'Shaughnessy, The Observer, 28 June 1992.

(7) Steve Wright, op. cit.

(8) Patrick S. Poole, op. cit.

(9) For Pretty Good Privacy.

(1) The US, Russia, the 15 members of the EU, Switzerland, Norway,

Australia, Canada, Japan, Turkey, New Zealand, Poland, Hungary, the

Czech and Slovak Republics, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, South Korea

and Argentina. Signed in 1996, the Wassenaar Arrangement seeks to

limit exports of software, know-how and means of production that are

freely on sale but which may be used to manufacture "weapons of mass


(11) See the investigation by Jean Guisnel, "Les Français aussi

écoutent leurs alliés", Le Point, Paris, 6 June 1998.

(12) "Memorandum of Understanding Concerning the Lawful Interception

of Communications", ENFOPOL 112, 10037/95, Limite, Brussels, 25

November 1995.

(13) "European Union and FBI launch global surveillance system",

StateWatch, London, February 1997; available, with other documents

like the above memorandum, from:

(14) Jérôme Thorel, Bulletin lambda No. 3.02, April 1997.

(15) See Jaques Fauvet, "Informatique et libertés ou vingt ans après",

Le Monde, 1 December 1998.

(16) Le Figaro, Paris, 19-20 September 1998.


ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1999 Le Monde diplomatique





Most discreet intelligence agency


The diplomatic foundation that was the genesis of Echelon (see

article by Philippe Rivière) is the Ukusa agreement. This still

secret agreement goes back to 1947 and has its roots in the

communications intelligence alliance formed in the early days of

the second world war and ratified on 17 May 1943 by the United

Kingdom and the United States. Foremost among those agencies is the

US National Security Agency (NSA) which is designated as the First

Party to the Treaty. The British Government Communications

Headquarters (GCHQ) signed the Ukusa agreement on behalf of the

Commonwealth, bringing Australia's Defence Signals Directorate

(DSD), the Canadian Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and

New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) into

the arrangement (1).

While these countries are bound by additional direct agreements

with the US and each other, they are considered the Second Parties

to the (Ukusa) Treaty. Third Party members include Germany, Japan,

Norway, South Korea and Turkey. There are sources that indicate

China may be included in this group on a limited basis as well.(2)

The prime mover in the Ukusa arrangement is undeniably the National

Security Agency (NSA) which issues the majority of funds for joint

projects and facilities as well as the direction for intelligence

gathering operations. The participating agencies frequently

exchange personnel, divide up intelligence collection tasks and

establish common guidelines for classifying and protecting shared

information. However, the NSA utilises 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, and 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 US. To this,

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 Defence (3).

With its headquarters at Fort George Meade, 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 code-makers and code-breakers ever assembled. The latter's job

is to crack the encryption codes of foreign and domestic electronic

communications, forwarding the revealed messages to their enormous

team of skilled linguists to review and analyse the messages in

over 100 languages. The NSA is also responsible for creating the

encryption codes that protect the US government's communications


Since the creation of the NSA 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 the main telegraph companies, the NSA's

predecessor and later the NSA itself were provided with daily

microfilm copies of all incoming, outgoing and transiting

telegraphs. At the height of Project Shamrock 150,000 messages a

month were printed and analysed (5).

However, NSA director Lew Allen brought the project to a crashing

halt in May 1975 as Congressional critics began to rip open the

programme's shroud of secrecy. His testimony and that of the

representatives from the cable companies at the hearings prompted

the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman to conclude that Project

Shamrock was "probably the largest government interception

programme affecting Americans ever undertaken" (6).

A sister project, Project Minaret, involved the creation from 1967

of "watch lists" by the NSA, the CIA and the FBI of those accused

of "subversive" domestic activities, including such notables as

Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jane Fonda and Joan Baez.

Project Minaret was brought to an end in 1973 after a Supreme Court

decision which held that - while the president could act to protect

the country from any activity designed to overthrow the government

- that same power did not extend to electronic surveillance of

domestic organisations. By then over 5,925 foreigners and 1,690

organisations and US citizens had been included on the Project's

watch lists. And Mr Allen testified in 1975 that the NSA had issued

over 3,900 reports on American citizens. In addition, the NSA

Office of Security Services maintained reports on at least 75,000

Americans between 1952 and 1974 (7).

This reminder of the NSA and CIA's domestic activities helps us

understand only too well just how the Echelon system could threaten

fundamental liberties - both in the US and the rest of the world.

* Deputy Director, Center for Technology Policy, Washington, DC

Original text in English

(1) The author has handed over the conclusions of his research to

the US Congress. "Echelon: America's Secret Global Surveillance

Network", The Privacy Papers, no 4, November 1998, Free Congress

Research and Education Foundation, Washington DC. -

(2) Duncan Campbell, "They've got it taped", New Statesman, London,

12 August 1988.

(3) "About NSA" is the agency's presentation on its Internet site

( This soothing document reassures us

that the NSA is very interested in the environment, has established

a large recycling programme and is one of the major blood donors in

the region.

(4) Idem.

(5) James Bamford, The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security

Agency, America's Most Secret Intelligence Organization, Penguin

Books, New York, 1983.

(6) External Collection Program, US Senate Select Committee on

Intelligence, Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence

and the Rights of Americans, 23 April 1976.

(7) See James Bamford, op cit.


ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1999 Le Monde diplomatique





Lifting the veil

The Echelon system would not work without the network of spy

satellites and its corresponding reception bases scattered

throughout the Ukusa empire. These space-based electronic

communications "vacuum cleaners" were launched by the NSA in

cooperation with its sister spy agencies, the National

Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the 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 in the 1980s paved the way for the Mercury, Mentor

and Trumpet satellites of the 1990s. These surveillance satellites,

some the size of a rugby pitch, with the light they reflect visible

by telescope, are like an enormous net trawling for electronic

communications, cell phone conversations and various radio


The two primary downlink facilities are at Menwith Hill in the UK

and Pine Gap in Australia, but are under exclusive United States'

control. The trial in 1997 of two women peace campaigners accused

of trespassing on the Menwith Hill site was a step towards lifting

the veil of secrecy. In documents and testimony, British Telecom

(BT) revealed that at least three of its fibre-optic trunk lines -

each capable of carrying 100,000 calls simultaneously - were wired

through Menwith Hill, allowing the NSA to tap directly into the

heart of the British telecommunications network (1).

P. P.

(1) Duncan Campbell, "BT condemned for listing cables to US Sigint

station", 4 September 1997.


ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1999 Le Monde diplomatique

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