4. Exposing the Global Surveillance System

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Source: COVERTACTION QUARTERLY (CAQ), Title: “Secret Power. Exposing the Global Surveillance System,”* Date: Winter 1996/1997, Author. Nicky Hager

SSU Censored Researchers: Bryan Way and Brad Smith
SSU Faculty Evaluator. David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

For over 40 years, New Zealand’s largest intelligence agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), has been helping its Western allies to spy on countries throughout the Pacific region. Neither the public nor the majority of New Zealand’s top elected officials had knowledge of these activities. These procedures have operated since 1948 under a secret, Cold War-era intelligence alliance between the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand-the UKUSA agreement. But in the late 1980s, the U.S. prompted New Zealand to join a new and highly secret global intelligence system. Author Nicky Hager’s investigation into this system and his discovery of the ECHELON Dictionary has revealed one of the world’s biggest, most closely held intelligence projects—one which allows spy agencies to monitor most of the telephone, e-mail, and telex communications carried over the world’s telecommunication networks. It potentially affects every person communicating between (and sometimes within) countries anywhere in. the world.

The ECHELON system, designed and coordinated by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is one of the world’s biggest, most closely held intelligence projects. Unlike many of the Cold War electronic spy systems, ECHELON is designed primarily to gather electronic transmissions from nonmilitary targets: governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals in virtually every country.

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. Computers at each secret station in the ECHELON network automatically search millions of messages for pre-programmed key words. For each message containing one of those key words, the computer automatically notes time and place of origin and interception, and gives the message a four-digit code for future reference. Computers that can automatically search through traffic for key words 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. Using the ECHELON system, an agency in one country may automatically pick up information gathered elsewhere in the system. 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 exposure of ECHELON occurred after more than 50 people who work or have worked in intelligence and related fields—concerned that the UKUSA activities had been secret too long and were going too far—agreed to be interviewed by Hager, a long-time researcher of spying and intelligence. Materials leaked to Hager included precise information on where the spying is conducted, how the system works, the system’s capabilities and shortcomings, and other details such as code names.

The potential abuses of and few restraints around the use of ECHELON have motivated other intelligence workers to come forward. In one example, a group of “highly placed intelligence operatives” from the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) came forward protesting what they regarded as “gross malpractice and negligence” within the establishments in which they operate, citing cases of GCHQ interception of charitable organizations such as Amnesty International and Christian Aid.

Nicky Hager states: “The main thing that protects these agencies from change is their secrecy. On the day my book [Secret Power] arrived in the bookstores, 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.”

UPDATE BY AUTHOR NICKY HAGER: “As a long-time researcher into issues of spying and intelligence, I have become all too aware of how little reliable information on these subjects ever reaches the public. Many of the ‘leaks’ that hit the news have been planned by the spy agencies. Fragments of correct information that do leak out of the highly secretive agencies usually remain scattered or are denied, and incorrect information is frequently repeated year after year in news stories for lack of anything more substantial.

“As far as I know, the information contained in my CAQ article comes from the most substantial leak of top secret information this decade about the electronic spying activities of the Western powers. Many intelligence staff who work in the New Zealand outposts of the U.S. spy-network risked their careers to give me hundreds of pages of interview notes about the high-tech spy systems they operate.

“Since the article was published, the main electronic spy station operating in New Zealand has expanded its oper-ations—from intercepting e-mail, fax, and telex to telephone calls as well confirming that the ominous capability for large-scale automated telephone monitoring has been achieved by the spy agencies.

“When governments refuse to comment on and calculatedly ignore new stories, those stories usually quickly die. That is largely what happened with my revelations. However, anyone interested in reading more about the secret inner workings of the electronic spy agencies can read my book upon which the article was based: Secret Power (Nelson, New Zealand: Craig Potton, 1996). The book is available from CovertAction Quarterly (CAQ), 1500 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, #732, Washington, DC 20005; Tel: 202/331-9763; E-mail: caq@igc.org.”