LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE - January 1999
TOP SECRET SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM
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
by PHILIPPE RIVIERE
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
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
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. http://www.pgp.com/
(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
(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
LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE - January 1999
TOP SECRET SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM
Most discreet intelligence agency
By PATRICK S. POOLE *
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
(http://www.nsa.gov./about/). 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
(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
LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE - January 1999
TOP SECRET SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM
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).
(1) Duncan Campbell, "BT condemned for listing cables to US Sigint
station", 4 September 1997. http://www.gn.apc.org/duncan/
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1999 Le Monde diplomatique