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<nettime> Konfrontatie: ECHELON

[text in english]


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by Nicky Hager


For 40 years, New Zealand's largest intelligence agency, the Government
Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) the nation's equivalent of the US
National Security Agency (NSA) had been helping its Western allies to spy
on countries throughout the Pacific region, without the knowledge of the
New Zealand public or many of its highest elected officials. What the NSA
did not know is that by the late 1980s, various intelligence staff had
decided these activities had been too secret for too long, and were
providing me with interviews and documents exposing New Zealand's
intelligence activities. Eventually, more than 50 people who work or have
worked in intelligence and related fields agreed to be interviewed.

The activities they described made it possible to document, from the South
Pacific, some alliance-wide systems and projects which have been kept
secret elsewhere. Of these, by far the most important is ECHELON.

Designed and coordinated by NSA, the ECHELON system is used to intercept
ordinary e-mail, fax, telex, and telephone communications carried over the
world's telecommunications networks. Unlike many of the electronic spy
systems developed during the Cold War, ECHELON is designed primarily for
non-military targets: governments, organizations, businesses, and
individuals in virtually every country. It potentially affects every person
communicating between (and sometimes within) countries anywhere in the

It is, of course, not a new idea that intelligence organizations tap into
e-mail and other public telecommunications networks. What was new in the
material leaked by the New Zealand intelligence staff was precise
information on where the spying is done, how the system works, its
capabilities and shortcomings, and many details such as the codenames.

The ECHELON system is not designed to eavesdrop on a particular
individual's e-mail or fax link. Rather, the system works by
indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communications and
using computers to identify and extract messages of interest from the mass
of unwanted ones. A chain of secret interception facilities has been
established around the world to tap into all the major components of the
international telecommunications networks. Some monitor communications
satellites, others land-based communications networks, and others radio
communications. ECHELON links together all these facilities, providing the
US and its allies with the ability to intercept a large proportion of the
communications on the planet.

The computers at each station in the ECHELON network automatically search
through the millions of messages intercepted for ones containing
pre-programmed keywords. Keywords include all the names, localities,
subjects, and so on that might be mentioned. Every word of every message
intercepted at each station gets automatically searched whether or not a
specific telephone number or e-mail address is on the list.

The thousands of simultaneous messages are read in "real time" as they pour
into the station, hour after hour, day after day, as the computer finds
intelligence needles in telecommunications haystacks.
The computers in stations around the globe are known, within the network,
as the ECHELON Dictionaries. Computers that can automatically search
through traffic for keywords have existed since at least the 1970s, but the
ECHELON system was designed by NSA to interconnect all these computers and
allow the stations to function as components of an integrated whole. The
NSA and GCSB are bound together under the five-nation UKUSA signals
intelligence agreement. The other three partners all with equally obscure
names are the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Britain, the
Communications Security Establishment (CSE) in Canada, and the Defense
Signals Directorate (DSD) in Australia.

The alliance, which grew from cooperative efforts during World War II to
intercept radio transmissions, was formalized into the UKUSA agreement in
1948 and aimed primarily against the USSR. The five UKUSA agencies are
today the largest intelligence organizations in their respective countries.
With much of the world's business occurring by fax, e-mail, and phone,
spying on these communications receives the bulk of intelligence resources.
For decades before the introduction of the ECHELON system, the UKUSA allies
did intelligence collection operations for each other, but each agency
usually processed and analyzed the intercept from its own stations.

Under ECHELON, a particular station's Dictionary computer contains not only
its parent agency's chosen keywords, but also has lists entered in for
other agencies. In New Zealand's satellite interception station at Waihopai
(in the South Island), for example, the computer has separate search lists
for the NSA, GCHQ, DSD, and CSE in addition to its own. Whenever the
Dictionary encounters a message containing one of the agencies' keywords,
it automatically picks it and sends it directly to the headquarters of the
agency concerned. No one in New Zealand screens, or even sees, the
intelligence collected by the New Zealand station for the foreign agencies.
Thus, the stations of the junior UKUSA allies function for the NSA no
differently than if they were overtly NSA-run bases located on their soil.

The first component of the ECHELON network are stations specifically
targeted on the international telecommunications satellites (Intelsats)
used by the telephone companies of most countries. A ring of Intelsats is
positioned around the world, stationary above the equator, each serving as
a relay station for tens of thousands of simultaneous phone calls, fax, and
e-mail. Five UKUSA stations have been established to intercept the
communications carried by the Intelsats.

The British GCHQ station is located at the top of high cliffs above the sea
at Morwenstow in Cornwall. Satellite dishes beside sprawling operations
buildings point toward Intelsats above the Atlantic, Europe, and, inclined
almost to the horizon, the Indian Ocean. An NSA station at Sugar Grove,
located 250 kilometers southwest of Washington, DC, in the mountains of
West Virginia, covers Atlantic Intelsats transmitting down toward North and
South America. Another NSA station is in Washington State, 200 kilometers
southwest of Seattle, inside the Army's Yakima Firing Center. Its satellite
dishes point out toward the Pacific Intelsats and to the east. *1

The job of intercepting Pacific Intelsat communications that cannot be
intercepted at Yakima went to New Zealand and Australia. Their South
Pacific location helps to ensure global interception. New Zealand provides
the station at Waihopai and Australia supplies the Geraldton station in
West Australia (which targets both Pacific and Indian Ocean Intelsats). *2

Each of the five stations' Dictionary computers has a codename to
distinguish it from others in the network. The Yakima station, for
instance, located in desert country between the Saddle Mountains and
Rattlesnake Hills, has the COWBOY Dictionary, while the Waihopai station
has the FLINTLOCK Dictionary. These codenames are recorded at the beginning
of every intercepted message, before it is transmitted around the ECHELON
network, allowing analysts to recognize at which station the interception

New Zealand intelligence staff has been closely involved with the NSA's
Yakima station since 1981, when NSA pushed the GCSB to contribute to a
project targeting Japanese embassy communications. Since then, all five
UKUSA agencies have been responsible for monitoring diplomatic cables from
all Japanese posts within the same segments of the globe they are assigned
for general UKUSA monitoring.3 Until New Zealand's integration into ECHELON
with the opening of the Waihopai station in 1989, its share of the Japanese
communications was intercepted at Yakima and sent unprocessed to the GCSB
headquarters in Wellington for decryption, translation, and writing into
UKUSA-format intelligence reports (the NSA provides the codebreaking

The next component of the ECHELON system intercepts a range of satellite
communications not carried by Intelsat.In addition to the UKUSA stations
targeting Intelsat satellites, there are another five or more stations
homing in on Russian and other regional communications satellites. These
stations are Menwith Hill in northern England; Shoal Bay, outside Darwin in
northern Australia (which targets Indonesian satellites); Leitrim, just
south of Ottawa in Canada (which appears to intercept Latin American
satellites); Bad Aibling in Germany; and Misawa in northern Japan.

A group of facilities that tap directly into land-based telecommunications
systems is the final element of the ECHELON system. Besides satellite and
radio, the other main method of transmitting large quantities of public,
business, and government communications is a combination of water cables
under the oceans and microwave networks over land. Heavy cables, laid
across seabeds between countries, account for much of the world's
international communications. After they come out of the water and join
land-based microwave networks they are very vulnerable to interception. The
microwave networks are made up of chains of microwave towers relaying
messages from hilltop to hilltop (always in line of sight) across the
countryside. These networks shunt large quantities of communications across
a country. Interception of them gives access to international undersea
communications (once they surface) and to international communication trunk
lines across continents. They are also an obvious target for large-scale
interception of domestic communications.

Because the facilities required to intercept radio and satellite
communications use large aerials and dishes that are difficult to hide for
too long, that network is reasonably well documented. But all that is
required to intercept land-based communication networks is a building
situated along the microwave route or a hidden cable running underground
from the legitimate network into some anonymous building, possibly far
removed. Although it sounds technically very difficult, microwave
interception from space by United States spy satellites also occurs.4 The
worldwide network of facilities to intercept these communications is
largely undocumented, and because New Zealand's GCSB does not participate
in this type of interception, my inside sources could not help either.

A 1994 expos of the Canadian UKUSA agency, Spyworld, co-authored by one of
its former staff, Mike Frost, gave the first insights into how a lot of
foreign microwave interception is done (see p. 18). It described UKUSA
"embassy collection" operations, where sophisticated receivers and
processors are secretly transported to their countries' overseas embassies
in diplomatic bags and used to monitor various communications in foreign
capitals. *5

Since most countries' microwave networks converge on the capital city,
embassy buildings can be an ideal site. Protected by diplomatic privilege,
they allow interception in the heart of the target country. *6 The Canadian
embassy collection was requested by the NSA to fill gaps in the American
and British embassy collection operations, which were still occurring in
many capitals around the world when Frost left the CSE in 1990. Separate
sources in Australia have revealed that the DSD also engages in embassy
collection. *7 On the territory of UKUSA nations, the interception of
land-based telecommunications appears to be done at special secret
intelligence facilities. The US, UK, and Canada are geographically well
placed to intercept the large amounts of the world's communications that
cross their territories.

The only public reference to the Dictionary system anywhere in the world
was in relation to one of these facilities, run by the GCHQ in central
London. In 1991, a former British GCHQ official spoke anonymously to
Granada Television's World in Action about the agency's abuses of power. He
told the program about an anonymous red brick building at 8 Palmer Street
where GCHQ secretly intercepts every telex which passes into, out of, or
through London, feeding them into powerful computers with a program known
as "Dictionary." The operation, he explained, is staffed by carefully
vetted British Telecom people: "It's nothing to do with national security.
It's because it's not legal to take every single telex. And they take
everything: the embassies, all the business deals, even the birthday
greetings, they take everything. They feed it into the Dictionary." *8 What
the documentary did not reveal is that Dictionary is not just a British
system; it is UKUSA-wide.

Similarly, British researcher Duncan Campbell has described how the US
Menwith Hill station in Britain taps directly into the British Telecom
microwave network, which has actually been designed with several major
microwave links converging on an isolated tower connected underground into
the station.9

The NSA Menwith Hill station, with 22 satellite terminals and more than 4.9
acres of buildings, is undoubtedly the largest and most powerful in the
UKUSA network. Located in northern England, several thousand kilometers
from the Persian Gulf, it was awarded the NSA's "Station of the Year" prize
for 1991 after its role in the Gulf War. Menwith Hill assists in the
interception of microwave communications in another way as well, by serving
as a ground station for US electronic spy satellites. These intercept
microwave trunk lines and short range communications such as military
radios and walkie talkies. Other ground stations where the satellites'
information is fed into the global network are Pine Gap, run by the CIA
near Alice Springs in central Australia and the Bad Aibling station
in Germany. *10 Among them, the various stations and operations making up
the ECHELON network tap into all the main components of the world's
telecommunications networks. All of them, including a separate network of
stations that intercepts long distance radio communications, have their own
Dictionary computers connected into ECHELON.

In the early 1990s, opponents of the Menwith Hill station obtained large
quantities of internal documents from the facility. Among the papers was a
reference to an NSA computer system called Platform. The integration of all
the UKUSA station computers into ECHELON probably occurred with the
introduction of this system in the early 1980s. James Bamford wrote at that
time about a new worldwide NSA computer network codenamed Platform "which
will tie together 52 separate computer systems used throughout the world.
Focal point, or `host environment,' for the massive network will be the NSA
headquarters at Fort Meade. Among those included in Platform will be the
British SIGINT organization, GCHQ." *11

The Dictionary computers are connected via highly encrypted UKUSA
communications that link back to computer data bases in the five agency
headquarters. This is where all the intercepted messages selected by the
Dictionaries end up. Each morning the specially "indoctrinated" signals
intelligence analysts in Washington, Ottawa,Cheltenham, Canberra, and
Wellington log on at their computer terminals and enter the Dictionary
system. After keying in their security passwords, they reach a directory
that lists the different categories of intercept available in the data
bases, each with a four-digit code. For instance, 1911 might be Japanese
diplomatic cables from Latin America (handled by the Canadian CSE), 3848
might be political communications from and about Nigeria, and 8182 might be
any messages about distribution of encryption technology.

They select their subject category, get a "search result" showing how many
messages have been caught in the ECHELON net on that subject, and then the
day's work begins. Analysts scroll through screen after screen of
intercepted faxes, e-mail messages, etc. and, whenever a message appears
worth reporting on, they select it from the rest to work on. If it is not
in English, it is translated and then written into the standard format of
intelligence reports produced anywhere within the UKUSA network either in
entirety as a "report," or as a summary or "gist."

A highly organized system has been developed to control what is being
searched for by each station and who can have access to it. This is at the
heart of ECHELON operations and works as follows.

The individual station's Dictionary computers do not simply have a long
list of keywords to search for. And they do not send all the information
into some huge database that participating agencies can dip into as they
wish. It is much more controlled.

The search lists are organized into the same categories, referred to by the
four digit numbers. Each agency decides its own categories according to its
responsibilities for producing intelligence for the network. For GCSB, this
means South Pacific governments, Japanese diplomatic, Russian Antarctic
activities, and so on.

The agency then works out about 10 to 50 keywords for selection in each
category. The keywords include such things as names of people, ships,
organizations, country names, and subject names. They also include the
known telex and fax numbers and Internet addresses of any individuals,
businesses, organizations, and government offices that are targets. These
are generally written as part of the message text and so are easily
recognized by the Dictionary computers.

The agencies also specify combinations of keywords to help sift out
communications of interest. For example, they might search for diplomatic
cables containing both the words "Santiago" and "aid," or cables containing
the word "Santiago" but not "consul" (to avoid the masses of routine
consular communications). It is these sets of words and numbers (and
combinations), under a particular category, that get placed in the
Dictionary computers. (Staff in the five agencies called Dictionary
Managers enter and update the keyword search lists for each agency.)

The whole system, devised by the NSA, has been adopted completely by the
other agencies. The Dictionary computers search through all the incoming
messages and, whenever they encounter one with any of the agencies'
keywords, they select it. At the same time, the computer automatically
notes technical details such as the time and place of interception on the
piece of intercept so that analysts reading it, in whichever agency it is
going to, know where it came from, and what it is. Finally, the computer
writes the four-digit code (for the category with the keywords in that
message) at the bottom of the message's text. This is important. It means
that when all the intercepted messages end up together in the database at
one of the agency headquarters, the messages on a particular subject can be
located again. Later, when the analyst using the Dictionary system selects
the four- digit code for the category he or she wants, the computer simply
searches through all the messages in the database for the ones which have
been tagged with that number.

This system is very effective for controlling which agencies can get what
from the global network because each agency only gets the intelligence out
of the ECHELON system from its own numbers. It does not have any access to
the raw intelligence coming out of the system to the other agencies. For
example, although most of the GCSB's intelligence production is primarily
to serve the UKUSA alliance, New Zealand does not have access to the whole
ECHELON network. The access it does have is strictly controlled. A New
Zealand intelligence officer explained: "The agencies can all apply for
numbers on each other's Dictionaries. The hardest to deal with are the
Americans. ... [There are] more hoops to jump through, unless it is in
their interest, in which case they'll do it for you."

There is only one agency which, by virtue of its size and role within the
alliance, will have access to the full potential of the ECHELON system the
agency that set it up. What is the system used for? Anyone listening to
official "discussion" of intelligence could be forgiven for thinking that,
since the end of the Cold War, the key targets of the massive UKUSA
intelligence machine are terrorism, weapons proliferation, and economic
intelligence. The idea that economic intelligence has become very
important, in particular, has been carefully cultivated by intelligence
agencies intent on preserving their post-Cold War budgets. It has become an
article of faith in much discussion of intelligence. However, I have found
no evidence that these are now the primary concerns of organizations such
as NSA.

A different story emerges after examining very detailed information I have
been given about the intelligence New Zealand collects for the UKUSA allies
and detailed descriptions of what is in the yards-deep intelligence reports
New Zealand receives from its four allies each week. There is quite a lot
of intelligence collected about potential terrorists, and there is quite a
lot of economic intelligence, notably intensive monitoring of all the
countries participating in GATT negotiations. But by far, the main
priorities of the intelligence alliance continue to be political and
military intelligence to assist the larger allies to pursue their interests
around the world. Anyone and anything the particular governments are
concerned about can become a target.

With capabilities so secret and so powerful, almost anything goes. For
example, in June 1992, a group of current "highly placed intelligence
operatives" from the British GCHQ spoke to the London Observer: "We feel we
can no longer remain silent regarding that which we regard to be gross
malpractice and negligence within the establishment in which we operate."
They gave as examples GCHQ interception of three charitable organizations,
including Amnesty International and Christian Aid. As the Observer
reported: "At any time GCHQ is able to home in on their communications for
a routine target request," the GCHQ source said. In the case of phone taps
the procedure is known as Mantis. With telexes it is called Mayfly. By
keying in a code relating to Third World aid, the source was able to
demonstrate telex "fixes" on the three organizations. "It is then possible
to key in a trigger word which enables us to home in on the telex
communications whenever that word appears," he said. "And we can read a
pre-determined number of characters either side of the keyword."12 Without
actually naming it, this was a fairly precise description of how the
ECHELON Dictionary system works. Again, what was not revealed in the
publicity was that this is a UKUSA-wide system. The design of ECHELON means
that the interception of these organizations could have occurred anywhere
in the network, at any station where the GCHQ had requested that the
four-digit code covering Third World aid be placed.

Note that these GCHQ officers mentioned that the system was being used for
telephone calls. In New Zealand, ECHELON is used only to intercept written
communications: fax, e-mail, and telex. The reason, according to
intelligence staff, is that the agency does not have the staff to analyze
large quantities of telephone conversations.  Mike Frost's expos of
Canadian "embassy collection" operations described the NSA computers they
used, called Oratory, that can "listen" to telephone calls and recognize
when keywords are spoken. Just as we can recognize words spoken in all the
different tones and accents we encounter, so too, according to Frost, can
these computers. Telephone calls containing keywords are automatically
extracted from the masses of other calls and recorded digitally on magnetic
tapes for analysts back at agency headquarters. However, high volume voice
recognition computers will be technically difficult to perfect, and my New
Zealand-based sources could not confirm that this capability exists. But,
if or when it is perfected, the implications would be immense. It would
mean that the UKUSA agencies could use machines to search through all the
international telephone calls in the world, in the same way that they do
written messages. If this equipment exists for use in embassy collection,
it will presumably be used in all the stations throughout the ECHELON
network. It is yet to be confirmed how extensively telephone communications
are being targeted by the ECHELON stations for the other agencies.
The easiest pickings for the ECHELON system are the individuals,
organizations,and governments that do not use encryption. In New Zealand's
area, for example, it has proved especially useful against already
vulnerable South Pacific nations which do not use any coding, even for
government communications (all these communications of New Zealand's
neighbors are supplied, unscreened, to its UKUSA allies). As a result of
the revelations in my book, there is currently a project under way in the
Pacific to promote and supply publicly available encryption software to
vulnerable organizations such as democracy movements in countries with
repressive governments. This is one practical way of curbing illegitimate
uses of the ECHELON capabilities.

One final comment. All the newspapers, commentators, and "well placed
sources" told the public that New Zealand was cut off from US intelligence
in the mid-1980s. That was entirely untrue. The intelligence supply to New
Zealand did not stop, and instead, the decade since has been a period of
increased integration of New Zealand into the US system. Virtually
everything the equipment, manuals, ways of operating, jargon, codes, and so
on, used in the GCSB continues to be imported entirely from the larger
allies (in practice, usually the NSA). As with the Australian and Canadian
agencies, most of the priorities continue to come from the US, too.
The main thing that protects these agencies from change is their secrecy.
On the day my book arrived in the book shops, without prior publicity,
there was an all-day meeting of the intelligence bureaucrats in the prime
minister's department trying to decide if they could prevent it from being
distributed. They eventually concluded, sensibly, that the political costs
were too high. It is understandable that they were so agitated.
 Throughout my research, I have faced official denials or governments
refusing to comment on publicity about intelligence activities. Given the
pervasive atmosphere of secrecy and stonewalling, it is always hard for the
public to judge what is fact, what is speculation, and what is paranoia.
Thus, in uncovering New Zealand's role in the NSA-led alliance, my aim was
to provide so much detail about the operations the technical systems, the
daily work of individual staff members, and even the rooms in which they
work inside intelligence facilities that readers could feel confident that
they were getting close to the truth. I hope the information leaked by
intelligence staff in New Zealand about UKUSA and its systems such as
ECHELON will help lead to change.

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