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CODE NAME ECHELON
internet-like encrypted network of computers.
Analysrs might,request somerhing on gence headquarters), and worked closely
and GCHQ(the UK government's intelli-
Osama Brn Laden, lltA... whatever. They wirh both organisations. Frost's hoarse voice
punch the request in and, just like Alta
Vista, back comes the material.
"Dictionary sounds weary when he speaks. He has a conscience.
That weight compelled him to write
Nlanagers" update the important keywords his book, S2lootld: "I'm very concerned
regularly. In this fashion, immensq complex about the fact that these organisations in the
cmounts of intelligence are distilled - via five countries of the agreement have relatively
Echeloo cornputers and analysts - into readable
For anyone researching the subject of
The whole operation is run by the NSA, Echelon, speaking to someone like Mike
with its headquarters in Fort Meade, Frost is a relief He maintains there are many
Maryland, USA. It does not, like the CIA,
carry out "opemtions":
more like him who want to speak out but
it just gathers intelligence.
Its business is covert intelligence Frost spent 20 years in signals intelligence,
rvon't, mostly for fear ofofficial repdsals.
interception, collection, analysis, production spying for Canada. Headmits that \a'hen talking
to journalists like me he "walks a very,
of reports and finally dissemination to ils
other government agency
very fine line. Most of the things that I'm
The only authoritative book ever written saying [are] a judgement call on me." His
about the NSA is The Puzzle Pulace by interview rules include the stipulation that
Washington DC journalist James Bamford: he'll never damage his country's security; he
"Most Americans have very little ideaofwhat
the NSA is," Bamford told me. "There's won't divulge anything that could put an
individual's life in danger at home or abroad;
never been an employee who's ever written a and he won't talk in specific terms about
book from the NSA. And the NSA is three codes or code breaking. But he remarks,
times the size ofthe CIA."
"When I was in a foreign country eavesdroppingon
their domesticommunications from
The writer Duncan Campbell, now based
at the Electronic Privacy Information Centre the safe conflnes ofthe Canadian Embassy, I
in Washington DC, recently heightened knew damn well I was breaking the law."
public awaleness ofEchelon when he published
his landmark European Parliament years to become even partially visible. It
The exact nature of Echelon has taken
strdy c,alled Interceqtion Ca2abilities 2000.
He told me: "ft's attracts abstract descriptions that make it
not legal. lt is the business seem like an all-seeing, all-listening, allpervasiv
electronic monolith. Inevitably a
of spying... Conventions, including the
Declaration ofHuman fughts, speak ofnever great dealofthe incoming traffic from global
being subject to albitrary interference with surveillance is now controlled and filtered
privacy or colrespondence. And yet that's by computers. This dlows thesystem to cope
precisely... whatEchelonisabout. Arbitrary, with rnassive amounts of intelligence.
uniform, non-specifig and lawless." Compurers work full-time in remote starions
That's not what the NSA says. Call their
HQand you'll be told: "The with only a few staffoverseeing thern. Maybe
NSA does not that's why Echelon feels like something out
comment on actual or alleged intelligence of a novel or movie, something easily dismissed
as a paranoid fantasy - until you hear
activities. Its activities are conducted lvith
the highest constitutional, legal and ethical what Mike Frost has to say.
"The strain is
standards." The UK's MoD spokesperson tough. I coped with it by getting addicted to
in Whitehall was only slightly more forthcoming
about Menwith Hill's activities: I haven't had a drink now in over l0 years."
alcohol... I became a roaring alcoholic. But
"It's a communications facilitS part of a A few days prior to talking to Frost, I'd
worldwide network which is maintained by walked past the famous row ofinternational
the US and UK and serves both UK and embassies in Kensington, London. You only
NATO interests. It opelates with the full have to glance up at the roofs to spot sophisticated
equipment. Frost explains: "I lvould
knowledge of HM Government and UK
personnel are integmted at every level." say that the majodty ofthe ernbassies would
have some intercept capability. Some fulltime
and some part-time."
Laws are, as Frost admitted, being broken.
One ot lfte most slartlitq fact$ ot t||e
material that exists about the NSA is that
you'll search in vain for first-hond resrimonies
from people who've worked for it.
Mike Frost, a retired 6l-year-old Canadian
ex-spy, is one ofthe very few prepared to go
on the record. Frost lvas employed by the
Communications Security Establishment
(CSE), the Canadian equivalent ofthe NSA
No judges have been approached for rtrarrants,
no target is legitimately suspected of
having done anything illegal. Some countlies
villingly help out their allies. He tells me
about a startling request his depaltment
received in the early Eighties which he
alleees emanated from then Prime Nlinister
Margaret Thatcher: "GCHQasked us if
we could do something to help the Prime
Minister, as she believed trvo ofher ministers
vere not (on side'. We agreed to do it.
A Canadian rvent over to London, housed
himself in Macdonald House, and started to
intercept the frequencies that were giv€n to
us by GCHQ To my knowledge it was a successful
operation. Now that's a grcat way to
do it because there's complete deniability in
the House of Commons xnd Parlirment in
your country because they can stand up and
say,'We did not do this."'
That's why Echelon is attractive: it's the
intelligence world's version ofthe so-called
missiles that "take-out" the
targets in operations which might involve
"collateral damage": such language doesn't
hide the civilian fatalities in real war any
more than it masks the bin-raking activity of
intelligence gathering nor conceals the sordid
invasion of privacy that occurs in the
process. Yet, so successful is Echelon that it
can hardly handlc the material it gathers, as
Mike Frost concedes:
"Collecting all this
stuffis not the problem: solting it out is."
For years it's been believed that security
sewices have a piece ofsurveillance technology
that will listen for certain target words
in telephone conversations and automatically
start recording when it hears them. Frost
"A lot ofmoney, a lot ofengineering
went into the voice recognition system
ofselection... In those days they were able
to get the computers to recognise a voice that
had been plogrammed into the computer
previously." Frost has used this equipment:
it works. However, he recalls one amusing
incident where a telephone number was
being spat out by the computer because a
voice on the line constantly used the word
"bombing":"We checked into it... It was a
mortician's phone and he was using the word
Duncan Campbell says that voice "print"
technology has been used since the mid-
Nineties. IfEchelon has a recording ofyour
voiceit can scancalls, find you and track your
conversation. The NSA is devising a system
to recognise keywords, ironing out problems
caused by accents and ambient noise.
Alleged recent targets of the NSA/
Echelon spying operation have been organisations
like Greenpeace and Amnesty
International, and individuals including the
Pope, Mother Theresa, and Diana, Princess
of Wales. The latter was targeted because of
her work relating to the banning of landmines.
"It would fhave been] easy to get her,
she had such a distinctive voice..." says Mike
Frost. It's been alleged that the tapes ofher
private calls released to the press in the
Nineties may have come fiom Echelon.
122 @ Augusl 2000
Nlore information about this UKUSA
Iistening system emerged in 1992 when
disaffected GCHQemployees gave examples
ofspying on charities such as Christian Aid
and Amnesty. Another British human rights
organisation Liberty was also targeted by
the security services. John Wadham, its
director, told me: "We know thatLiberty was
under some kind ofsurveillance by MI5. We
took our case to Snasbourg and again the
Government had to bring forward legislation...
to regulate the activities of MI5...
There's a complaints mechanism set up
under the 1985 act which has never upheld
one single complaint since it was set up"
In 1998, Home SecretaryJack Straw authorised
more than 2,000 interception warrants
- an average ofseven every working day. In
total since 1986. over 20.000 have been issued.
Yet much ofEchelon's surveillance is done
illegally. The number ofwarrants issued and
their restrictions therefore become unimoortant.
Such violations aren't recorded.
Ev€n enclypted messages aren't, in legal
never mind electronic terms, safe. The
Government's Regulation of Invesrigatory
Powers Bill now going through Parliament
means it can gain access to such material by
forcing its suspecto hand over the encryption
key, or the information itself This puts
the onus on the target ro prove his innocence,
thus r€versing the burden of guilt.
Shockingly, until the beginning ofthis year,
software from the main US companies was
also wide open to NSA,/Echelon examination.
The European Parliament report says:
"In 1995, [the] NSA became concerned
about cryptographic security systems being
built into internet and email software by
Microsoft, Netscape and Lotus. The companies
agreed to adapt their software to
reduce the level ofsecurity provided to users
outside the US." So, if you weren't a US
citizen, the NSA could peer straight into
The NSlfs secretiveness has led to accusations
that it uses Echelon to help US
companies in foreign business deals. They
allegedly intercept highly detailed communications
intelligence about irnrninent deals
that is passed on to US cornpanies. It's never
been a secret that from as far back as the
Seventies the US has put its economic intelligence
priorities on a par with diplomaric,
military and technological intelligence.
Echelon was allegedly used by the US to listen
in to deals between the European Airbus
consortium, the Saudi national airline
and the Saudi government. Blibes changed
hands. When news ofthe sweetenels reached
the US government's ears via the NSA, they
acted swiftly-aUS company eventually won
a $6 billion contract.
New information uncovered by the US
MSNBC news organisation illustrates how
the US government utilises Echelon in this
process. It gives a lie to the official claim that
intellicence is not used for the benefit of US
companies. Its government
has always denied passing on
any information that could
assist US companies which
it comes across during its
covert electronic activities.
That is not strictly true:
instead the NSA passes the
information to another government
official in another
department who personally
intervenes in a deal - eg,
where bribes are on the table
- and says that the whole
arrangement should be called
off unless the host country
wants its relations with the
US to go sour. Inevitably,
deals are scrapped, restarted,
and it's US companies who
are always in the strongest
position to benefit.
The use ofeconomic intelligence
is now US policy.
James Woolsey, the former
CIA director, has stated:
"A number of countries...
including some of our oldest friends, are
very much irtto the business ofbribing their
way to contracts that they cannot wln on
merits... Rather frequently what happens rs
that when the contract is re-bid, sometimes
the Amelicafl corporation gets a share ofit...
Sometimes not. But we calculate, really very
conservatively, that several billion dollars a
year in contracts are saved for US business."
This has enraged many European countries,
including France where several commercial
and private lawsuits againsthe US,/NSlils
use ofEchelon are currently pending.
Could the US be using the Echelon system
to spy also on the UK, one ofits "oldest
friends"? Could a US employee in Menwith
Hill be eavesdropping this very minute on
conversations being held in Whitehalli I put
this question to Mike Frost. "IfI said to you
that the US was perhaps eavesdropping oo
Tony Blair, how would you respond?"
Frost didn't even pause: "I would say they
That's the high price the UK pays for
being a member of the exclusive Echelon
club. Thanks to technology, the more
independent we rhr[ we're becoming, the
less we actually are. If privacy isn't dead
just yet you can be sure - courtesy of the
NSA/GCHQEchelon system - thar ir is
terminally ill. @
All MoD cons
Menwith Hillis MoD
activiry there is staffed
and funded by the US
phone is o
device. A prison
do o better iob
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