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Date: 1998-08-14

ECHELON: Experten evaluieren Welt/Abhoersystem

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Von Wayne Madsen, Co-Autor des NSA Standardwerks "The Puzzle
Palace" bis Nicky Hager, der für die letzten Enthüllungen
über das Weben & Wirken des Abhör/systems ECHELON , kommen
in diesem Artikel der Village Voice so ziemlich alle
Durch/blicker zu Wort.

Prädikat: Must read

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Listening In: The U.S.-led ECHELON Spy Network is
Eavesdropping on the Whole World

By Jason Vest

Suppose, this past weekend, you sent an e-mail to a friend
overseas. There's a reasonable possibility your
communication was intercepted by a global surveillance
system--especially if you happened to discuss last week's
bombings in East Africa. Or suppose you're stuck in traffic
and in your road rage you whip out a cell phone and angrily
call your congressman's office in Washington. There's a
chance the government is listening in on that conversation,
too (but only for the purposes of "training" new

Or suppose you're on a foreign trip--vacation, business,
relief work--and you send off a fax to some folks that
Washington doesn't view too keenly. Your message could be
taken down and analyzed by the very same system.

That system is called ECHELON and it is controlled by the
U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). In America, it is the
Intelligence Network That Dare Not Be Acknowledged.
Questions about it at Defense Department briefings are
deftly deflected. Requests for information about it under
the Freedom of Information Act linger in bureaucratic limbo.
Researchers who mention possible uses of it in the presence
of intelligence officials are castigated. Members of
Congress--theoretically, the people's representatives who
provide oversight of the intelligence community--betray no
interest in helping anyone find out anything about it. Media
outlets (save the award-winning but low-circulation Covert
Action Quarterly) ignore it. In the official view of the
U.S. Government, it doesn't exist.

But according to current and former intelligence officials,
espionage scholars, Australian and British investigative
reporters, and a dogged New Zealand researcher, it is all
too real. Indeed, a soon-to-be finalized European Parliament
report on ECHELON has created quite a stir on the other side
of the Atlantic. The report's revelations are so serious
that it strongly recommends an intensive investigation of
NSA operations.

The facts drawn out by these sources reveal ECHELON as a
powerful electronic net--a net that snags from the millions
of phone, fax, and modem signals traversing the globe at any
moment selected communications of interest to a five-nation
intelligence alliance. Once intercepted (based on the use of
key words in exchanges), those communiqués are sent in real
time to a central computer system run by the NSA;
round-the-clock shifts of American, British, Australian,
Canadian, and New Zealand analysts pour over them in search
of . . . what?

Originally a Cold War tool aimed at the Soviets, ECHELON has
been redirected at civilian targetsworldwide. In fact, as
the European Parliament report noted, political advocacy
groups like Amnesty International and Greenpeace were
amongst ECHELON's targets. The system's awesome potential
(and potential for abuse) has spurred some traditional
watchdogs to delve deep in search of its secrets, and even
prompted some of its minders within the intelligence
community to come forward. "In some ways," says Reg
Whittaker, a professor and intelligence scholar at Canada's
York University, "it's probably the most useful means of
getting at the Cold War intelligence-sharing relationship
that still continues."

While the Central Intelligence Agency--responsible for
covert operations and human-gathered intelligence, or
HUMINT--is the spy agency most people think of, the NSA is,
in many respects, the more powerful and important of the
U.S. intelligence organizations. Though its most egregious
excesses of 20 years ago are believed to have been curbed,
in addition to monitoring all foreign communications, it
still has the legal authority to intercept any communication
that begins or ends in the U.S., as well as use American
citizens' private communications as fodder for trainee
spies. Charged with the gathering of signals intelligence,
or SIGINT--which encompasses all electronic communications
transmissions--the NSA is larger, better funded, and
infinitely more secretive than the CIA. Indeed, the key
document that articulates its international role has never
seen the light of day.

That document, known as the UKUSA Agreement, forged an
alliance in 1948 among five countries--the U.S., Britain,
Australia, Canada, and New Zealand--to geographically divvy
up SIGINT-gathering responsibilities, with the U.S. as
director and main underwriter. Like the NSA--hardly known
until the Pike and Church congressional investigations of
the '70s--the other four countries' SIGINT agencies remain
largely unknown and practically free of public oversight.
While other member nations conduct their own operations,
there has "never been any misunderstanding that we're NSA
subsidiaries," according to Mike Frost, an ex-officer in
Canada's SIGINT service, the Communications Security
Establishment (CSE). Moreover, all the signatory countries
have NSA listening posts within their borders that operate
with little or no input from the local agency.

Like nature, however, journalism abhors a vacuum, and the
dearth of easily accessible data has inspired a cadre of
researchers around the world to monitor the SIGINT community
as zealously as possible. It is not, says David Banisar of
the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), an easy
task. Getting raw data is difficult enough. Figuring out
what it means even more so, he says, thanks in part to the
otherwise conservative NSA's very liberal use of code
names--many of which regularly change--for everything from
devices to operations. One that appears to have remained
constant, however, is ECHELON.

In 1988, Margaret Newsham, a contract employee from Lockheed
posted at Menwith Hill, the NSA's enormous listening post in
Yorkshire, England, filed a whistleblower suit against
Lockheed, charging the company with waste and mismanagement
(the case is currently being appealed after an initial
dismissal). At the same time, Newsham told Congressional
investigators that she had knowledge of illegal
eavesdropping on American citizens by NSA personnel. While a
committee began investigating, it never released a report.
Nonetheless, British investigative reporter Duncan Campbell
managed to get hold of some of the committee's findings,
including a slew of Menwith Hill operations. Among them was
a project described as the latest installment of a system
code named ECHELON that would enable the five SIGINT
agencies "to monitor and analyze civilian communications
into the 21st century."

To SIGINT watchers, the concept wasn't unfamiliar. In the
early '80s, while working on his celebrated study of the
NSA, The Puzzle Palace, James Bamford discovered that the
agency was developing a system called PLATFORM, which would
integrate at least 52 separate SIGINT agency computer
systems into one central network run out of Fort Meade,
Maryland. Then in 1991, an anonymous British SIGINT officer
told the TV media about an ongoing operation that
intercepted civilian telexes and ran them through computers
loaded with a program called "the Dictionary"--a description
that jibed with both Bamford and Campbell's gleanings.

In 1996, however, intelligence watchdogs and scholars got an
avalanche of answers about ECHELON, upon the publication of
Secret Power: New Zealand's Role in the International Spy
Network,written by Nicky Hager. A New Zealand activist
turned investigative author, Hager spent 12 years digging
into the ties between his country's SIGINT agency, the
Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), and the
NSA. Utilizing leaked material and scores of interviews with
GCSB officers, Hager not only presented a revealing look at
the previously unknown machinations of the GCSB (even New
Zealand's Prime Minister was kept in the dark about its full
scope) but also produced a highly detailed description of

According to Hager's information--which leading SIGINT
scholar and National Security Archive analyst Jeffrey
Richelson calls "excellent"--ECHELON functions as a
real-time intercept and processing operation geared toward
civilian communications. Its first component targets
international phone company telecommunications satellites
(or Intelsats) from a series of five ground intercept
stations located at Yakima, Washington; Sugar Grove, West
Virginia; Morwenstow in Cornwall, England; Waihopai, New
Zealand; and Geraldton, Australia.

The next component targets other civilian communications
satellites, from a similar array of bases, while the final
group of facilities intercept international communications
as they're relayed from undersea cables to microwave
transmitters. According to Hager's sources, each country
devises categories of intercept interest. Then a list of key
words or phrases (anything from personal, business, and
organization names to e-mail addresses to phone and fax
numbers) is devised for each category. The categories and
keywords are entered by each country into its "Dictionary"
computer, which, after recognizing keywords, intercepts full
transmissions, and sends them to the terminals of analysts
in each of the UKUSA countries.

To the layperson, ECHELON may sound like something out of
the X-Files. But the National Security Archives's Richelson
and others maintain that not only is this not the stuff of
science fiction, but is, in some respects, old hat. More
than 20 years ago, then CIA director William Colby
matter-of-factly told congressional investigators that the
NSA monitored every overseas call made from the United
States. Two years ago, British Telecom accidentally
disclosed in a court case that it had provided the Menwith
Hill station with equipment potentially allowing it access
to hundreds of thousands of European calls a day. "Let me
put it this way," says a former NSA officer. "Consider that
anyone can type a keyword into a Net search engine and get
back tens of thousands of hits in a few seconds." A pause.
"Assume that people working on the outer edges have
capabilities far in excess of what you do."

Since earlier this year, ECHELON has caused something of a
panic in Europe, following the disclosure of an official
European Parliament report entitled "In Appraisal of
Technologies of Political Control." While the report did
draw needed attention to ECHELON, it--and subsequent
European press coverage--says Richelson, "built ECHELON up
into some super-elaborate system that can listen in on
everyone at any time, which goes beyond what Nicky Hager
wrote." Richelson, along with other SIGINT experts,
emphasizes that, despite ECHELON's apparent considerable
capabilities, it isn't omniscient.

EPIC's David Banisar points out that despite the high volume
of communications signals relayed by satellite and
microwave, a great many fiber-optic communications--both
local and domestic long distance--can't be intercepted
without a direct wiretap. And, adds Canadian ex-spook Mike
Frost, there's a real problem sorting and reading all the
data; while ECHELON can potentially intercept millions of
communications, there simply aren't enough analysts to sort
through everything. "Personally, I'm not losing any sleep
over this," says Richelson, "because most of the stuff
probably sits stored and unused at [NSA headquarters in]
Fort Meade."

Richelson's position is echoed by some in the intelligence
business ("Sure, there's potential for abuse," says one
insider, "but who would you rather have this--us or Saddam
Hussein?"). But others don't take such a benign view.
"ECHELON has a huge potential for violating privacy and for
abuses of democracy," says Hager. "Because it's so powerful
and its operations are so secret that there are no real
constraints on agencies using it against any target the
government chooses. The excessive secrecy built up in the
Cold War removes any threat of accountability."

The only time the public gets anything resembling oversight,
Hager contends, is when intelligence officials have a crisis
of conscience, as several British spooks did in 1992. In a
statement to the London Observer, the spies said they felt
they could "no longer remain silent regarding that which we
regard to be gross malpractice and negligence within the
establishment we operate"--the establishment in question
being the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ),
Britain's version of the NSA. The operatives said that an
intercept system based on keyword recognition (sound
familiar?) was routinely targeting the communications of
Amnesty International and Christian Aid.

Adds Hager, "The use of intelligence services in these cases
had nothing to do with national security, but everything to
do with keeping tabs on critics. The British government
frequently finds itself in political conflict with Amnesty
over countries it is supplying arms to or governments with
bad human rights records. ECHELON provides the government
with a way to gain advantage over Amnesty by eavesdropping
on their operations."

Hager and others also argue that potential for abuse lies in
the hierarchical and reciprocal nature of the UKUSA
alliance. According to data gathered by congressional
committees in the '70s, and accounts of former SIGINT
officers like Frost, UKUSA partners have, from time to time,
used each other to circumvent prohibitions on spying on
their own citizens. Frost, for example, directed Canadian
eavesdropping operations against both Americans and
Britons--at the request of both countries' intelligence
services, to whom the surveillance data was subsequently

And British Members of Parliament have raised concerns for
years about the lack of oversight at the NSA's Menwith Hill
facility--a base on British soil with access to British
communications yet run by the NSA, which works closely with
the GCHQ. "Given that both the U.S. and Britain turn their
electronic spying systems against many other friendly and
allied nations," says Hager, "the British would be naive not
to assume it is happening to them."

David Banisar, the electronic privacy advocate, says that
apparently just asking about ECHELON, or mentioning anything
like it, is considered unreasonable. Since earlier this
year, Banisar has been trying to get information on ECHELON
from the NSA under the Freedom of Information Act. "They're
not exactly forthcoming," he says, explaining that he only
recently got a response in which he was in effect told the
European Parliament report "didn't provide enough
information" for the NSA to locate the requested
information. However, Wayne Madsen, co-author with Bamford
of the most recent edition of The Puzzle Palace, was more
directly discouraged from investigating ECHELON's possibly
dubious applications, as the following story makes clear.

On April 21, 1996, Chechnyen rebel leader Dzokhar Dudayev
was killed when a Russian fighter fired two missiles into
his headquarters. At the time of the attack, Dudayev had
been talking on his cellular phone to Russian officials in
Moscow about possible peace negotiations. According to
electronics experts, getting a lock on Dudayev's cell phone
signal would not have been difficult, but as Martin
Streetly, editor of Jane's Radar and Electronic Warfare
Systems, noted at the time, the Russian military was so
under-equipped and poorly maintained, it was doubtful a
radar intercept plane could have honed in on the signal
without help.

Speaking at a conference on Information Warfare a month
later, Madsen, one of the world's leading SIGINT and
computer security experts, explained that it was both
politically and technically possible that the NSA helped the
Russians kill Dudayev. Noting the West's interest in
preserving the Yeltsin presidency and in ensuring the safety
of an oil consortium's pipeline running through Chechnya,
Madsen explained which NSA satellites could have been used
to intercept Dudayev's call and directionally locate its

This wasn't exactly a stunning revelation: Not only had
reports recently been released in Australia and Switzerland
about police tracking suspects by their cell phone
signatures, but Reuters and Agence France-Press had written
about the Dudayev scenario as technically plausible. Still,
after his talk, Madsen was approached by an Air Force
officer assigned to the NSA, who tore into him. "Don't you
realize that we have people on the ground over there?"
Madsen recalled the officer seething. "You're talking about
things that could put them in harm's way." Asks Madsen, "If
this was how Dudayev died, do you think it's unreasonable
the American people know about the technical aspects behind
this kind of diplomacy?"

full text

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