CovertAction Quarterly No. 59 Exposing the Global Surveillance System, continued
"COMMUNICATION" THROUGH SATELLITES
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
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|
international undersea communications (once
All five UKUSA agencies have been responsible for monitoring diplomatic cables from all Japanese posts.
and to international communication trunk lines across continents. They are
also an obvious target for
large-scale interception of domestic
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. 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.
NO ONE IS SAFE FROM A MICROWAVE
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
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.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. On the territory of UKUSA nations, the interception of||
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
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." What the
documentary did not reveal is that Dictionary
is not just a British system; it is
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
converging on an isolated tower
connected underground into the station.
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. 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."|
LOOKING IN THE DICTIONARY
|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."
station and who can have access to it. This is
at the heart of ECHELON operations and works
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
The agencies also specify combinations of keywords to help sift out communications of interest. For example, they might search for diplomatic cables containing
"We feel we can no longerremain silent regarding that which we regard to be gross malpractice and negligence whithin the establishment
in which we operate."
-British intelligence operatives-
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
|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 intelligence could|
concerns of organizations such as NSA.
QUICKER INTELLIGENCE,SAME MISSION
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
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." 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
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
Britin's GCHQ intercept the communications of at least three charitable organizations, including Christian Aid and Amnesty International.
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
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.|
Crypto AG: The NSA's Trojan Whore?
about the compromise of trusted ecryption hardware
Networking with Spooks
about control over the internet domain name system
Big Brother Goes Hi Tech
about loss of privacy in the information age
The Secret FISA Court:
Rubberstamping on Rights
about the loss of legal protections from covert surveillance.
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