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 advantage.)

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 Directorate.

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 the world.

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 containing them."

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.

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