ECHELON: America's Spy
in the Sky
Patrick S. Poole
Imagine what reaction the American public would have if they were suddenly to discover that a top-secret government intelligence agency was listening to virtually every phone conversation and reading almost every email and fax transmitted across the world each day, including their own. Now imagine how our European allies would react if they found out that this enormous intelligence gathering effort was particularly focused upon them by that same US intelligence agency. Think they'd be upset? Well, such as system exists, and in fact they are rather upset.
ECHELON : Every American interacts with this system on a daily basis, and yet virtually no one on this side of the Atlantic is aware of its existence. ECHELON is actually a computer component to a global spy system controlled by the National Security Agency (NSA) and shared with the GCHQ of England, the CSE of Canada, the Australian DSD, and the GCSB of New Zealand. These organizations are bound together under a secret 1948 agreement, UKUSA, whose terms and text remain under wraps even today.
But European diplomats are tearing the shroud of secrecy, tired of snooping by the US on their citizens. The use of ECHELON against European citizens was a central topic in a European Parliament STOA report published this past January, "Technologies of Political Control," which confirmed a decades worth of reports by several determined journalists about global spying by the NSA.
This global spy system itself is fairly simple in design: position communications receiving stations all over the world to capture all satellite, microwave, cellular and fiber-optic traffic, and then process this information through the massive computer capabilities of the NSA, including voice recognition and OCR technology, and look for code words or phrases (known as the ECHELON "dictionaries"). Intelligence analysts at each of the respective "listening stations" analyze any conversation or document flagged by the system and forward any relevant information back to NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland.
The vast majority of information gathered by this system passes through without notice to the intelligence agencies. But should you mention the word "bomb" in a phone conversation, you can be assured that some intelligence analyst will be reviewing the transcript of your conversation to ensure that you are not engaged in a terrorist plot.
Now you may wonder how it is that the NSA can conduct spying within US borders in violation of its charter barring domestic surveillance. This is where UKUSA works to their advantage. The two primary listening stations at Sugar Grove, West Virginia and Yakima, Washington are manned by "on loan" intelligence officials from the one of the cooperating agencies. If they uncover information regarding a US citizen, they walk across the hall and give the information to the NSA liaison officer, effectively circumventing the domestic surveillance prohibition.
At this point you're probably thinking that I've read one too many issues of the Black Helicopter Gazette or the Branch Davidian Times, however, my sources come from such "covert" sources as the London Times, the New York Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, La Monde and the BBC. Much of the recent press coverage has focused on the growing European outrage at the use of ECHELON and the British participation in the UKUSA intelligence arrangement.
A May 31st article by Nicholas Rufford in the Sunday (London) Times quoted several officials from the German, French and Italian intelligence agencies decrying the expansion of the NSA facility on the windswept North Yorkshire moors of Menwith Hill, England (Field Station F83). Menwith Hill is the largest spy station in the world, and operated exclusively by the NSA. It monitors all communications traffic crossing the Atlantic and the European continent.
Last September in a trial of two Menwith Hill trespassers, British Telecomm inadvertently released top secret documents to defense attorneys which confirmed that the three main digital optical fiber cables for the British Isles - each carrying 100,000 calls each at any time - run through the Menwith Hill facility to ease spying against Anglo citizens. Judge Jonathan Crabtree immediately lambasted the phone company, stating "BT had no business whatsoever to disclose anything of the kind. The national interest of the United Kingdom, even if it is conducted dishonestly, requires this to be kept a secret."
ECHELON was designed during the heated days of the Cold War to combat the Soviet Union's creep into Western Europe - a noble cause indeed. During that time, however, the Watergate scandal uncovered that US law enforcement and intelligence agencies were targeting US citizens for surveillance based on their political affiliations. In hearings held in 1975, Senator Frank Church cautioned against the technological power of the NSA, and we should heed his warning today:
"That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no America would have any privacy left. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny. There would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capacity of this technology."
It is truly a difficult thing to admit that America - land of the free and home of the brave - may be behind the largest surveillance effort in the history of mankind. If we should become as outraged as the Europeans about the use of the NSA's vast technological resources against US citizens, one could rightly ask what we could actually do about it. Sadly, the answer may be - not much. As Lord Acton's dictum goes, "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." As power goes, it does not get any more absolute than ECHELON.
If you think that I'm smoking a little too much strange tobacco, I would encourage you to visit this site that has links to reprints of many of the mainstream European press articles and the European Parliament STOA report that discuss ECHELON: http://www.qainfo.se/~lb/echelon.htm.
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