Eavesdropping on the Whole World
by Claudio Gatti
Il Mondo newsmagazine, Milan, Italy, March 20
and 27, 1998
(from World Press Review magazine)
(Most Americans take it for granted that the end of the cold
war did not put U.S. intelligence agencies out of business; they
have found other secrets to chase and other keyholes to peep through.
Just what that meant, however, was a mystery-especially when it
turned out that the spooks had failed to predict India's recent
nuclear tests. Coincidentally, a study by the European Parliament
turned up an answer. The top-secret Echelon network, run by the
U.S. National Security Agency in cooperation with four English-speaking
countries, uses satellites and super-computers to intercept, sift,
and eavesdrop on most of the world's telephone, e-mail, and fax
communications. This discovery, first reported in Europe in Milan's
newsmagazine "II Mondo," has raised an outcry on the
continent over civil liberties violations and the use of espionage
to give "Anglo-Saxon" corporate interests an economic
It is called UKUSA, and it is the most exclusive club in the
world. Its members are five English-speaking countries: the United
States (top of the class and leader of the pack), Britain, Canada,
Australia, and New Zealand. Its purpose is electronic espionage,
and its principal resource is called Echelon, a network of highly
sophisticated spy satellites, interception bases on the ground,
and super-computers capable of analyzing vast quantities of intercepted
messages, phone conversations, faxes, and electronic-mail messages.
The target of this satellite-cum-electronic Big Brother is the
entire world's telecommunications.
It is legitimate to ask whether this description of a massive
global surveillance system might not stem from paranoia of Orwellian
proportions. But the existence, the pervasiveness, and the power
of this system have been confirmed by a report prepared early
this year for the Scientific and Technological Options Assessment
(STOA), a department of the European Parliament's General Research
According to this report, every phone call, every fax, and
every email message, whether in code or otherwise, can be intercepted,
selected, decoded, and inserted into an extremely powerful computerized
database shared by the five countries involved. In describing
this mechanism, the report, "An Assessment of Technologies
for Political Control," states categorically: "Throughout
Europe all phone calls, faxes, and e-mail messages are regularly
intercepted, and from the British strategic center of Menwith
Hill any information of interest is sent to the headquarters of
the [U.S.] National Security Agency (NSA)."
This incredible communications vacuum cleaner, christened
Echelon, is the most technologically advanced result of the UKUSA
Security Agreement, a pact for cooperation in the gathering of
"signal intelligence" signed in 1948 whose very existence
has never been officially confirmed by any of the five participants
involved in it. "What is most striking is precisely the fact
that for all these years no government in any of the five member
states has ever said anything or admitted anything regarding this
pact," researcher Nicky Hager told Il Mondo.
He is the author of a book published in New Zealand entitled
Secret Power [and of a report published in the U.S. in Covert
Action Quarterly, winter, 1996/97 -WPR], the first book to break
through the wall of silence surrounding UKUSA and Echelon. [Hager
says that his information, along with documentation about Echelon,
came from more than 50 sources who have worked in intelligence
and related fields in New Zealand. -WPR]
"The size of this network of global interception is the
result of decades of intense anti-Soviet spying activities,"
Hager explained. "With the end of the cold war, however,
this network was not dismantled. It was decided to modernize it,
closing down many land bases and placing the emphasis increasingly
on satellites, as well as redirecting it toward new objectives
of a nonmilitary nature such as the international telecommunications
system." This repositioning is confirmed in the European
report: "Unlike other electronic-espionage systems in the
UKUSA network, the Echelon system is directed primarily against
civilian objectives: governments, organizations, and companies
from practically every country in the world."
The strategic thinking behind this decision is explicitly
outlined in a confidential White House memorandum dated Sept.
16,1994. It says that with the end of the cold war "economic
issues are of growing interest and concern." These include
issues such as competition for a new Malay telecommunications
network between the U.S. company AT&T and a Japanese company.
The Japanese would have won, the report says, if NSA had not intercepted
the coded message containing the amount of the Japanese offer.
The special characteristic of the Echelon system is that its
network of satellites, land bases, and super-computers is designed
not only to enable the interception of certain specific transmission
lines but also to indiscriminately intercept unimaginably vast
quantities of communications via any method of line or transmission.
The system's first component is five large UKUSA bases that intercept
communications going through the 25 international telecommunications
satellites (Intelsats) used by telephone companies throughout
Each individual member state in the pact (except Canada) is
charged with monitoring a given area in the world. The base that
monitors all the traffic in Europe is located in Britain, in Morwenstow
on the cliffs of Cornwall. The traffic moving north to south along
the American continent is monitored from the base of Sugar Grove,
located some 150 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., in the mountains
of West Virginia. Monitoring of telecommunications in the Pacific
is shared between the base inside the U.S. Army's Yakima Firing
Center, some 125 miles southeast of Seattle, the Waihopai base
in New Zealand, and the Geraldton base in Australia.
The second part of the UKUSA network is the constellation
of spy satellites that NSA has been putting into orbit since 1970,
known by the code name of Vortex. "The latest generation
of spy satellites consists of three new geo-synchronic 'birds'
sent into orbit over the past four years that cover practically
the whole world on their own," Jeff Richelson, the leading
expert in this field, says. "The satellite covering Europe
is stationed in orbit at 22,300 miles above the Horn of Africa,
and it is controlled from the British land base of Menwith Hill
in North Yorkshire, which with 22 satellite terminals is far and
away the largest and most powerful base in the UKUSA network."
The third and final element in the UKUSA system consists of
a grid of super-computers that have been christened "dictionaries."
They are capable of absorbing, examining, and filtering vast quantities
of digital and analog messages in real time, of extrapolating
those containing one or more of the preprogrammed key words, of
decoding them, and of automatically sending them to the intelligence
headquarters in each of the five countries interested in any messages
that include the predetermined words. "Every few days a "dictionary
manager" in each of the five countries changes the list of
key words, adding new ones and removing old ones in accordance
with the political, diplomatic, and economic issues of interest
to the United States and to its allies," Hager explained.
"And once the new words have been inserted, it is only a
matter of minutes before the dictionaries start spouting messages
This means, for example, that the day after the cable-car
tragedy in Cavalese, Italy, in February [when a U.S. Marine warplane
hit a ski-lift cable, killing 20 people], when NSA received word
of the strong reaction in Italy, in all likelihood it added the
key word "Cavalese" to the list. "Italy and the
other countries of Europe are constant targets of Echelon, and
the U.S. request to Morwenstow to add new key words relating to
Italian issues would have been received by the British technicians
there without any surprise whatsoever. It would have been a routine
operation handled at the administrative level," Hager said.
From that moment on, any phone call, fax, or e-mail from or to
ministries, government offices, embassies, and probably also the
residences and headquarters of Italian political and military
leaders containing the word "Cavalese" may well have
become a target for the Echelon system.
The Echelon system's end product can be split into three different
categories: reports, "gists" (the kernel or substance
of any topic), and summaries. Reports are direct translations
of any messages intercepted, gists are telegraphic compendiums
with basic information on any topic, and summaries are compilations
that contain information from a variety of reports and gists.
These are then saved in the databases run by the signal intelligence
services in each of five UKUSA member states. "Each service
has the ability and the right to ask the others to provide any
summaries that they may have put together on given issues, but
it has to specify for whom the information is intended,"
Hager explained. In view of the frequency of these exchanges,
the UKUSA member states have set up an electronic distribution
system in code that continually moves reports around among the
five countries. In the event of any information being particularly
sensitive, there is available a network of couriers that reports
to the staff of the Defense Courier Service stationed at NSA headquarters
in Fort Meade, Maryland.
"The degree of cooperation is impressive," Hager
said. "Every day interceptions are planned together, new
targets are decided on, the management of satellites and of computers
is coordinated, and information is exchanged. In short, everything
works like a gigantic shared system. Despite the fact that almost
half a century has now gone by since [the UKUSA] accord was signed,
it is as though nothing had changed at all since the end of World
War Il." Above all, it is as though Britain had decided not
to join the European Union, a move by which it has forged a strategic
alliance with the very same countries that it spies on together
with or on behalf of the United States.
Over and above any British declaration of loyalty to the European
cause, the truth is that this extremely close U.S.-British relationship
has weighty political, diplomatic, and economic repercussions
and is more important than any European alliance. Not only is
London able to rely on a global and all-encompassing system that
it would never be able to set up, manage, and update on its own,
but also thanks to the UKUSA pact, it is sheltered from any form
of U.S. diplomatic, industrial, or economic espionage to which,
on the other hand, all its European partners are exposed.
Is it possible that, as the process of European unification
moves forward, Britain may decide to quit the UKUSA pact? Experts
tend to rule out such a move. British involvement in the system
has actually increased over the past 10 years. Indeed, toward
the end of 1988, after toying with the idea of setting up its
own network of spy satellites, Margaret Thatcher's government
made a decision that would be difficult for any British government
to rescind, when it signed a top-secret memorandum of understanding
in which it boosted its commitment to UKUSA. In order not to be
overly subordinate to Washington, London made a commitment to
contribute a further $830 million to the system, receiving in
exchange the right to redirect one of the three NSA spy satellites
on a target of its own choosing for no more than four months a
year, with NSA's requirements taking precedence only in the event
of a crisis.