CAQ #59: Exposing Global Surveillance System

The Anarchives (tao@lglobal.com)
Wed, 11 Dec 1996 19:15:41 +0000 (GMT)


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 10 Dec 96 11:48:48 CST
From: Rich Winkel <rich@pencil>
To: tao@LGLOBAL.COM
Subject: CAQ #59: Exposing Global Surveillance System

/** covertaction: 60.0 **/
** Topic: #59 Exposing Global Surveillance System **
** Written 10:30 AM Dec 3, 1996 by caq in cdp:covertaction **
EXPOSING THE GLOBAL SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM
by Nicky Hager

------
The article as it apears in hard copy in the
magazine also includes the following sidebars:
--"NSA'S BUSINESS PLAN: GLOBAL ACCESS"
by Duncan Campbell
--GREENPEACE WARRIOR: WHY NO WARNING?
and
--NZ's PM Kept in the Dark
by Nicky Hager

********Hager's book "secret Power"
is available from CAQ for $33.*******
-----------

IN THE LATE 1980S, IN A DECISION IT PROBABLY
REGRETS, THE US PROMPTED NEW ZEALAND TO JOIN A
NEW AND HIGHLY SECRET GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE
SYSTEM. HAGER'S INVESTIGATION INTO IT AND HIS
DISCOVERY OF THE ECHELON DICTIONARY HAS
REVEALED ONE OF THE WORLD'S BIGGEST, MOST
CLOSELY HELD INTELLIGENCE PROJECTS. THE SYSTEM
ALLOWS SPY AGENCIES TO MONITOR MOST OF THE
WORLD'S TELEPHONE, E-MAIL, AND TELEX
COMMUNICATIONS.

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 world.

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.

SOMEONE IS LISTENING
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 occurred.

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 programs).

"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
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.

NO ONE IS SAFE FROM A MICROWAVE
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

LOOKING IN THE DICTIONARY
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."

INFORMATION CONTROL
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.

QUICKER INTELLIGENCE,SAME MISSION
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. n

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