By D. Webb Encyclopedia of Cyber Warfare and Cyber Terrorism

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Echelon and the NSA
By D. Webb
Encyclopedia of Cyber Warfare and Cyber Terrorism
Editors: J. Janczewski, PhD and Andrew M. Colarik, PhD
1. Introduction
The ECHELON system is widely accepted to be the most pervasive and powerful electronic intelligence gathering system in the world. It was developed and is operated on behalf of the United States and its partners (the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) in an intelligence alliance known as UKUSA. The system involves the automatic selection of intercepted electronic messages from target lists using a computer based system known as DICTIONARY. Those messages, which include specific combinations of names, dates, places and subjects, matching particular criteria are sent for further processing by analysts at Fort Mead, Maryland – the Headquarters of the US National Security Agency (NSA). The messages can be intercepted at ground based stations that may link directly into land lines or pick up radio or microwave frequency signals. These signals are broadcast and distributed through radio aerials or a series of microwave towers as part of a local, national or international network. Microwave signals can also be intercepted in space using specially designed satellites positioned to pick up signals which overshoot receivers and continue in a straight line into space. The satellites then downlink the intercepted signals to ground based receivers in a number of geographical locations to enable a global coverage.
ECHELON was first revealed by Duncan Campbell in 1988 in an article in the British New Statesman political periodical 1 In 1991, a UK television “World in Action” programme disclosed the presence of a DICTIONARY computer at GCHQ's processing centre in Westminster. In 1993, Campbell produced a documentary for Channel 4 television called "The Hill" describing the ECHELON operation at the Menwith Hill NSA field station near Harrogate in Yorkshire,

described in more detail by Nicky Hagar in his book “Secret Power” in 1996 2.

In his article Campbell described a world wide electronic interception and monitoring network operated by the NSA which makes use of a secret, post World War II, international agreement to collect and share SIGnals INTelligence (SIGINT) information gathered from a variety of electronic sources (telephone, fax, telex, email, etc). ECHELON was described as the part of the system that involves satellite interception.
2.1. UKUSA Agreement
Perhaps the first public reference to the UKUSA agreement was made in a 1972 article in Ramparts magazine3 which described the NSA global eavesdropping network of stations. The "UKUSA Agreement" was formed in secret in 1947, to enable intelligence information to be shared between the US and the UK. The agreement brought together personnel and stations from the NSA and the Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ) in the UK. They were joined soon after by the intelligence networks of three British Commonwealth countries - the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) of Canada, the Australian Defence Security Directorate (DSD), and the General Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) of New Zealand. Since then other countries, including Germany, Japan, Norway, Denmark, South Korea and Turkey, have become "third party" participants in the UKUSA network.4 In addition other countries, such as China, may host UKUSA SIGINT stations or share limited SIGINT information.
The network operates by dividing the world up into regions, with each region being allocated to a network member who then takes responsibility for collecting SIGINT in that particular area. Jeffrey Richelson and Desmond Ball 5 have recorded that:
"… the current division of responsibility allocates coverage of the eastern Indian Ocean and parts of South East Asia and the South-west Pacific to the DSD; Africa and the Soviet Union east of the Urals to the GCHQ; the northern USSR and parts of Europe to the Canadian CSE; a small portion of the South-west Pacific to the New Zealand GCSB; and all the remaining areas of interest to the NSA and its component service agencies."
However, they also note that "the geographical division of the world is, in practice, of course not as clear cut as this." For example, although the NSA predominately collects SIGINT information on the former Soviet Union, the UK also monitors activity associated with the Western Soviet Union in which the NSA field station at Menwith Hill plays an important role.

An example of how intelligence agreements can be used is provided by former Canadian agent Mike Frost. He revealed that in 1983 former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did not have full confidence in two of her ministers and requested that they be monitored. Because of legal difficulties associated with domestic spying on high governmental officials, the GCHQ could not perform this task directly and so a request was made to CSE in Ottawa asking them to conduct the surveillance mission which they did.6

This use of the UKUSA alliance for purely political reasons (rather than those of state security) appears to be very easy to arrange. It is unlikely that approval to carry out this exercise was requested from officials high up in the intelligence hierarchy. It was probably thought that checking too much with those at the top might only complicate things unnecessarily.

Frost also claimed that in 1975 he was asked to spy on Margaret Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minster Pierre Trudeau’s wife. Apparently, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) Security Service division believed that Mrs Trudeau might be involved in the use of marijuana. However, months of surveillance by the CSE revealed nothing of importance and Frost was concerned that there were political motivations behind the RCMP request: “She was in no way suspected of espionage. Why was the RCMP so adamant about this? Were they trying to get at Pierre Trudeau for some reason or just protect him? Or were they working under orders from their political masters?” 7


The ECHELON system is directed primarily at the Intelsat and Inmarsat satellites that carry the vast majority of global civilian, diplomatic and governmental phone and fax communications. Signals from these satellites are intercepted at a number of field stations - a station at Morwenstow in Cornwall, England intercepts signals from satellites transmitting to Europe, Africa and western Asia from above the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The Yakima station in Washington State listens in to Pacific Ocean and Far East communications, while signals for North and South America are picked up at Sugar Grove, West Virginia. A DSD facility at Geraldton, Australia and one run by the GCSB at Waihopai, New Zealand cover Asia, the South Pacific countries and the Pacific Ocean. Another station on Ascension Island is suspected of covering communications meant for the South Atlantic. 8

Some other stations also monitor signals from other satellites that relay information that may be of interest to the UKUSA nations - as do bases at Menwith Hill; Shoal Bay near Darwin in northern Australia; Leitrim in Canada; Bad Aibling (since moved to Darmstadt) in Germany, and Misawa in Japan.

The NSA and CIA also operate their own satellite networks to pick up microwave signals that leak into space from ground based transmitters. These satellites then download the intercepted signals to field stations on the ground. They include the first generation of spy satellites launched in the 1960s (known as Ferret), the second generation Canyon, Rhyolite and Aquacade satellites of the 1970s; a third generation in the 1980s known as Chalet, Vortex, Magnum, Orion, and Jumpseat satellites, the fourth generation Mercury, Mentor and Trumpet satellites of the 1990s and the fifth generation Intruder and Prowler series from 2000. 9

In addition, a world wide network of radio listening posts was set up by the UKUSA countries before satellite communications became so important. These are still employed to intercept High Frequency (HF) radio frequency signals (used by the military for communications with ships and aircraft) and Very High-Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High-Frequency (UHF) signals (often used for short range tactical military communications).

Each ECHELON station maintains its own “DICTIONARY” system of keywords used in searching the intercepted data. Messages that meet specific criteria are identified with an associated code that represents the source or subject, the date and time and the receiving station. These messages are then transmitted to each intelligence agency’s headquarters via a global computer system named PLATFORM. 10 Messages that go for further processing are organised into different analysis types (reports- which are direct and complete translations of intercepted messages; “gists,” - which give basic information on a series of messages within a given category; and summaries - made from compilations of reports and gists) 11 They are then classified in terms of sensitivity and coded as, for example, MORAY (secret), SPOKE (more secret than MORAY), UMBRA (top secret), GAMMA (Russian intercepts) and DRUID (intelligence forwarded to non-UKUSA parties).

In 1992 former NSA Director William Studeman illustrated the extent of the message selection process through systems like ECHELON: 12

"One [unidentified] intelligence collection system alone can generate a million inputs per half hour; filters throw away all but 6500 inputs; only 1,000 inputs meet forwarding criteria; 10 inputs are normally selected by analysts and only one report is produced. These are routine statistics for a number of intelligence collection and analysis systems which collect technical intelligence".

Much of the information about ECHELON that formed the basis of Campbell’s original 1988 article was provided by Margaret Newsham who was a software system support co-ordinator at Menwith Hill in the late 1970s. While working there she witnessed the interception of a telephone call made by US Senator Strom Thurmond but her disclosure of this did not result in any substantive official investigation, although it was reported to the House Committee.13

The full details of ECHELON were described by Nicky Hager following 6 years of painstaking research on the activities of New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) and the NSA ECHELON station at Waihopi that started operating in 1989. According to Hagar:

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.” 14

In 1998 and 1999 Jeffrey Richelson of the National Security Archive15 used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain official documents to confirm the existence and wide spread use of the ECHELON system. Its existence was officially confirmed in a report for the European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options office (STOA) by Steve Wright of the Omega Foundation in January 1998. 16 The disclosure of this surveillance system in NSA-run bases in Europe caused widespread concern and a further series of working documents were produced for STOA in 1999.17 These documents brought together the results of four studies, one of which, “Interception Capabilities 2000” by Duncan Campbell18, exposed the political and commercial uses of the system and caused considerable apprehension among European politicians and the media, who paid special attention to the likelihood of commercial intelligence gathering which could give US companies an advantage over European businesses when bidding for lucrative international contracts.

Concern in Europe grew rapidly and, in March 2000, 172 MEPs of all political groups signed up in support of the establishment of a Parliamentary Inquiry Committee on ECHELON. This proposal was at first rejected by the major political groups and instead, on 5 July 2000, the European Parliament decided to set up a Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System and appointed 36 MEPs (rapporteur: Gerhard Schmid)19 to lead a year-long investigation to verify the existence of the system and to assess any legal implications and commercial risks. A temporary committee is not restricted to dealing only with matters relating to community law (as a committee of enquiry would be) and can investigate, for example, whether the rights of European citizens are adequately protected or determine whether European industry is put at risk by the global interception of communications.

In May 2001 Members of the committee visited the US on a fact-finding mission to include discussions with various politicians and intelligence officials. However, no-one in the US Government would admit that ECHELON even existed and the NSA, the CIA, the State Department and the Department of Commerce refused to talk to the committee. The MEPs cut their visit short, returning home somewhat angry and frustrated. 20

A working document for the Temporary Committee was issued in early May 200121 and a draft report “On the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system)” was published later that month. 22 The MEPs were unable to find conclusive proof of industrial espionage. However, they considered the threat to privacy posed by ECHELON to be more disturbing. They concluded that the system could not be as extensive as initially claimed as it is concerned mainly with the worldwide interception of satellite communications, which forms only a small part of the total global communications. The committee decided that ECHELON had access to a limited proportion of radio and cable communications, although evidence submitted showed that the ECHELON system gave 55,000 British and American operatives access to data gathered by 120 spy satellites worldwide.

The Committee’s Final Report and Motion for a Resolution was issued in June 2001.23 The Temporary Committee found that the conduct of electronic surveillance activities by US intelligence breaches the European Convention of Human Rights even when conducted, allegedly, for law enforcement purposes. It concluded that the British and German governments may be in breach of community law and of human rights treaties if they fail to prevent the improper use of surveillance stations sited on their territory to intercept private and commercial communications. Two of the NSA's largest electronic intelligence stations were located at that time in Bad Aibling, Bavaria and Menwith Hill, in England.

Duncan Campbell supplied four important submissions to the Committee on "Interception Capabilities - Impact and Exploitation". These were commissioned by the Committee in December 2000 to update and extend the 1999 report, "Interception Capabilities 2000". They covered the use of COMmunications INTelligence (COMINT) for economic purposes, legal and human rights issues, and recent political and technological developments and were presented in Brussels on 22 and 23 January 2001. The first paper summarised the role of ECHELON in COMINT 24 and pointed out that very few media reports had provided any new information about ECHELON at that time. Campbell claimed that previous statements that had credited ECHELON with the capacity to intercept "within Europe, all e-mail, telephone, and fax communications" had since proven to be incorrect, although the global NSA SIGINT capability could process most of the world’s satellite communications.25

The third paper26 revealed how Britain protects the rights of Americans, Canadians and Australians against interception that would not comply with their own domestic law, but does not offer such protection to other Europeans. The fourth study, on new political and technical developments, was presented in the form of a slideshow. 27

2.2.1. Economic Espionage

The second of Campbell’s submissions to the Temporary Committee was on the "COMINT impact on international trade" 28 and described in detail how, since 1992, Europe could have sustained significant employment and financial loss as a result of the US government's use of ECHELON. Estimates of the damage varied from $13 billion to $145 billion and the paper refers to various annexes which described (among other things) the work of the US Trade Promotion Co-ordinating Committee (TPCC) and the Advocacy Center set up by President Clinton with direct intelligence inputs from the CIA and NSA.

The earlier STOA reports had accused the US of using ECHELON for economic espionage – to help US companies gain an advantage over European competitors in major contracts. In 2000 former CIA director James Woolsey stated in an article in the Wall Street Journal that the policy of the US government was to use the US intelligence system to spy on European companies in order to level the playing field by gathering evidence of bribery and unfair trade practices. 29

Campbell’s paper describes in some detail how US intelligence gathering priorities underwent a major change after the Cold War and how "about 40 percent of the requirements" of U.S. intelligence collection became "economic, either in part or in whole". The new priorities for economic intelligence were approved by President George Bush in a document called NSD-67 (National Security Directive 67), issued on 20 March 1992.

The Temporary Committee did not find new reports of European business losses beyond those appearing in the American media in 1994-1996, however, it did find that, even if bribery was involved, NSA activities of this kind were illegal in Europe and pointed out that “all EU Member States have properly functioning criminal justice systems. If there is evidence that crimes have been committed, the USA must leave the task of law enforcement to the host countries.”

The report also stated that: "interference in the exercise of the right to privacy must be proportional and, in addition, the least invasive methods must be chosen” and, because Europeans can only try to obtain legal redress for misconduct in their own national and not American courts, then:

As far as European citizens are concerned, an operation constituting interference carried out by a European intelligence service must be regarded as less serious than one conducted by an American intelligence service".

The draft committee report therefore concluded that: "there would seem to be good reason ... to call on Germany and the United Kingdom to take their obligations under the ECHR seriously and to make the authorisation of further intelligence activities by the NSA on their territory contingent on compliance with the ECHR".

The report also pointed out that: "possible threats to privacy and to businesses posed by a system of the ECHELON type arise not only from the fact that is a particularly powerful monitoring system, but also that it operates in a largely legislation-free area." It consequently called for the development and promotion of European "user-friendly open-source encryption software" and wanted "encryption to become the norm" with "a common level of protection against intelligence operations based on the highest level which exists in any member state".

The Committee was particularly critical of the UK and some other member states where there was no effective parliamentary oversight of surveillance. It said that national governments should set up "specific, formally structured monitoring committees responsible for supervising and scrutinising the activities of the intelligence services" and called for the European Parliament to hold an international congress for NGOs from Europe, the USA and other countries to provide a forum on the protection of privacy against telecommunications surveillance.

2.2.2. Political Espionage

The European Committee concentrated on the issues of economic espionage, perhaps believing that political activities were too delicate to consider or that they were the prerogative of individual governments. There is no doubt though that the ECHELON surveillance and interception techniques are used for political purposes. In 1992 for example, several former GCHQ officials confidentially told the London Observer that organisations such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Christian Aid, were being targeted.30 Another story in The Observer included an admission by Robin Robison, a former employee of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, that Margaret Thatcher had personally ordered the communications interception of Lonrho, the parent company of The Observer, following the publication in that newspaper of a 1989 article claiming that bribes had been paid to Mark Thatcher, the Prime Minister’s son, in a multi-billion dollar British arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Despite facing legal action for breaking the Official Secrets Act, Robison admitted that he had personally delivered intercepted Lonrho messages to Mrs. Thatcher’s office.31

Although it is not clear that ECHELON or the intelligence agencies of other countries are always involved in examples of domestic surveillance, it is perhaps not a huge assumption that the vast intelligence network of the UKUSA alliance and the sophisticated surveillance techniques offered by ECHELON can and are often used not only for the purposes of monitoring and detection of national threats but also for the purposes of political control.

2.3. The National Security Agency (NSA)32
The history and activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA)33 were first introduced to a world wide audience through James Bamford’s book “The Puzzle Palace” in 1982. 34 Bamford has enjoyed a somewhat erratic relationship with the NSA who threatened to sue him over his first exposure of their work and then later celebrated him at the publication of his second book on the NSA - “Body of Secrets” 35
The NSA was established in secret by President Harry S Truman in 1952 to act as a focal point for US SIGINT and "Communications Security" (COMSEC) activities. SIGINT is subdivided into "Communications Intelligence" (COMINT) and "Electronics Intelligence" (ELINT). Its headquarters have been at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland (approximately ten miles or 16 km northeast of Washington, DC) since 1957.
The controlling National Security Council Intelligence Directive defines COMINT as: "technical and intelligence information derived from foreign communications by other than the intended recipients" and the same NSC directive also states that COMINT: "shall not include … any intercept and processing of unencrypted written communications, press and propaganda broadcasts, or censorship."
Communications Signals (email, fax, telephone intercepts) are collected at NSA field stations around the world and after some initial processing those of interest are passed on to Fort Meade for further analysis. The results are then presented to other agencies such as the CIA or DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). The NSA is staffed by a mixture of civilians and military personnel although it provides operational guidance for SIGINT collection for stations maintained by the military intelligence services, collectively known as the Central Security Service (CSS).

Two NSA analysts, Bernon Mitchell and William Martin, who had defected to the Soviet Union, told the world what the NSA was doing at a press conference in Moscow as long ago as September 1960:

We know from working at NSA [that] the United States reads the secret communications of more than forty nations, including its own allies ... Both enciphered and plain text communications are monitored from almost every nation in the world, including the nations on whose soil the intercept bases are located.” 36
2.3.1. The NSA and Political Espionage
The NSA has frequently been accused of being involved in political spying. For example, John Ehrlichman revealed 37 that Henry Kissinger used the NSA to intercept messages of then Secretary of State William P. Rogers. Kissinger was said to use this information to convince President Nixon of Rogers’ incompetence. However, Kissinger himself became a victim of the NSA’s spy network when President Nixon was informed of his secret diplomatic dealings with foreign governments.38

In 1969, people thought to be involved in “subversive” domestic activities.were organized into “watch lists” under an operation called MINARET. The lists included people such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jane Fonda, Joan Baez and Dr. Benjamin Spock. The NSA instructed its personnel to "restrict the knowledge" that it was collecting this information and to keep its name off any disseminated information.39 The watch lists were determined to be of "questionable legality" in October 1973 by the Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen and Attorney General Elliot Richardson.

The NSA had therefore already been secretly spying on Americans for some time when, in 1970, President Nixon directed the NSA "to program for coverage the communications of US citizens using international facilities" and, in particular, to target a number of Vietnam war protestors. No warrant was needed for these actions and the NSA could decide on who they could spy on and where and when their operations should take place. 40
Concerns that anti-war protestors were being spied upon led to the formation of select committee hearings in both chambers in the mid-1970s. Investigations determined that the NSA had intercepted communications under an operation known as SHAMROCK. A number of American citizens were targeted and the information obtained had been disseminated to the FBI, CIA, Secret Service, Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), and the Department of Defense.41
During the hearings conducted by the Senate Select Committee (chaired by Senator Frank Church), Lt. General Lew Allen, Jr., the Director of NSA, testified in open session and gave a public overview of NSA’s responsibilities, stating:
This mission of NSA is directed to foreign intelligence, obtained from foreign electrical communications and also from other foreign signals such as radars. Signals are intercepted by many techniques and processed, sorted and analyzed by procedures which reject inappropriate or unnecessary signals. The foreign intelligence derived from these signals is then reported to various agencies of the government in response to their approved requirements for foreign intelligence.”42
In August 1975, Lt General Allen told the Select Committee of the US House of Representatives (the Pike Committee) that the:
"NSA systematically intercepts international communications, both voice and cable" and that "messages to and from American citizens have been picked up in the course of gathering foreign intelligence".
The final report of the Pike Committee recommended that the Agency should be held accountable for their actions and proposed that they be made subject to legal constraints. Their recommendations contributed to the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 which created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to which requests were to be made to authorise electronic surveillance and physical search. The FISC issued about 500 FISA warrants per year from 1979 through 1995, and then slowly increased until 2004 when some 1,758 were issued.
Legislation concerning the Intelligence Community is complicated and takes a long time to formulate and the NSA did not receive a functional charter until 1992. However, guidance was provided by a series of executive orders issued by President Ford on February 18, 1976 (requiring the government to acquire a warrant to conduct electronic surveillance within the U.S. for foreign intelligence purposes)43 and President Carter in 1979 (authorising the Attorney General to approve warrantless electronic surveillance so as to obtain foreign intelligence as long as the conditions required by the FISA are met - that the means of communication are exclusively between or among foreign powers or the objective is to under the "open and exclusive" control of a foreign power, and that there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication involving a US citizen).44 In December 1981 President Reagan signed an order to assign responsibility for the NSA to the Secretary of Defense.45

It was also the Reagan Administration that directed the NSA to intercept phone calls placed to Nicaraguan officials by Congressman Michael Barnes of Maryland. A conversation he had with the Foreign Minister of Nicaragua where he protested about the imposition of martial law there was leaked to reporters.46


3.1. Spying on the UN

On March 2 2003 The Observer newspaper published the contents of a leaked NSA memorandum, dated January 31 2003, that showed that the US had developed an "aggressive surveillance operation, which involves interception of the home and office telephones and the e-mails of UN delegates." The purpose of the memo was "to win votes in favour of war against Iraq" and it had been circulated to senior agents in the NSA and to Britain’s GCHQ. 47

The Observer report explained that:

"The leaked memorandum makes clear that the target of the heightened surveillance efforts are the delegations from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea and Pakistan at the U.N. headquarters in New York -- the so-called 'Middle Six' delegations whose votes are being fought over by the pro-war party, led by the U.S. and Britain, and the party arguing for more time for U.N. inspections, led by France, China and Russia."

Katharine Gunn, a GCHQ translator, was later arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act in connection with the leak. She stated her intention to plead not guilty on the grounds that her actions were justified to prevent an illegal war. The UK government eventually dropped the charges against her. During all this time the story was hardly covered at all in the US media and, as Norman Solomon has said:

In contrast to the courage of the lone woman who leaked the NSA memo -- and in contrast to the journalistic vigour of the Observer team that exposed it -- the most powerful US news outlets gave the revelation the media equivalent of a yawn. Top officials of the Bush administration, no doubt relieved at the lack of U.S. media concern about the NSA's illicit spying, must have been very encouraged.”48

Five days after the date of the leaked memo, on February 5th, US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a dramatic presentation to the UN Security Council during which he played NSA intercepts of Iraqi field commanders and showed satellite photographs in an attempt to present a case for military intervention in Iraq. SIGINT was also seen to play a significant role during the execution of the Gulf Wars.49.

3.2. ECHELON, The NSA and Terrorism

The US “War Against Terror” has allowed the NSA to develop and expand their programmes of spying and surveillance. The government and intelligence agencies use events such as of the bombing in Oklahoma City, attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the bombings of the American embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, to justify the continued monitoring of people and organisations around the world.

ECHELON systems have been employed successfully in monitoring international and domestic communications to detect international criminals. Among the claimed successes are:

  • The discovery of missile sites in Cuba in 1962;

  • The capture of the Achille Lauro terrorists in 1995;

  • The uncovering of the involvement of Libya in the Berlin discotheque bombing that killed 1 American (and resulted in the bombing of Tripoli of 1996)

Incidents such as these, and some others that have been prevented from happening, are used to add credibility to arguments that a large scale and free ranging surveillance system is necessary for the sake of national security.

The United States has never aspired to be a country where the state continually spies on its citizens and is not accountable to them for its actions, in fact the Constitution goes to some lengths to limit the powers of government and protect the rights of individuals in this respect. However, there are always difficulties when a country is in a state of war or siege. The state and/or military are then often tempted to justify a temporary loss of civil liberties in exchange for a general feeling of increased national and/or personal security. President George W. Bush has stated that the US is currently involved in a “War against Terror” which, if not perpetual, may last a long time against an ‘enemy’ that is difficult to identify and monitor. In this case the temptation to cut corners, to become misleading as far as concepts of security and freedom are concerned, and to conceal certain actions and intentions, is likely to be strong on a number of occasions.

For example, just a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the Justice Department lawyer, Mr. Yoo, wrote a memo arguing that the government might use "electronic surveillance techniques and equipment that are more powerful and sophisticated than those available to law enforcement agencies in order to intercept telephonic communications and observe the movement of persons but without obtaining warrants for such uses." He noted that while such actions could raise constitutional issues, in the face of devastating terrorist attacks "the government may be justified in taking measures which in less troubled conditions could be seen as infringements of individual liberties." 50

Also around this time President George W. Bush issued a secret executive order authorizing the NSA to conduct phone-taps on anyone suspected of links with terrorism without the need to issue warrants from a special court, as required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This program of surveillance was concealed from the public until December 2005, when the New York Times reported it. The article contained a statement that the newspaper had delayed publication for a year at the request of the White House who asked that the article not be published " arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny.”

The article emphasised that:
The previously undisclosed decision to permit some eavesdropping inside the country without court approval was a major shift in American intelligence-gathering practices, particularly for the National Security Agency, whose mission is to spy on communications abroad.”
And also that:
Nearly a dozen current and former officials, who were granted anonymity because of the classified nature of the program, discussed it with reporters for The New York Times because of their concerns about the operation's legality and oversight.” 51

The article refers to statements made by officials familiar with the program that the NSA eavesdrops without warrants on up to 500 people in the US at any one time and from 5,000 to 7,000 people overseas. It was also claimed that the eavesdropping program had helped uncover a plot by Iyman Faris (who pleaded guilty in 2003 to supporting Al Qaeda and planning to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge) and also helped to expose a possible plot to attack British pubs and train stations in 2004. Even so, it seems that most people monitored by the NSA have never actually been charged at all.

3.3 Political Espionage

It was also revealed in April 2005 that, under the above mentioned program, recent NSA Director General Michael Hayden approved intercepts of phone conversations made by past and present US government officials. These intercepts played a major role in the controversy surrounding the nomination of Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations.52

During Bolton’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing, Senator Christopher Dodd from Connecticut revealed that Bolton had requested transcripts of 10 intercepts of conversations between named US government officials and foreign persons. Later, it was revealed that US companies (treated as "U.S. persons" by the NSA) were identified in an additional nine intercepts requested by Bolton. NSA insiders reported that Hayden approved special intercept operations on behalf of Bolton and had them masked as "training missions" in order to get around internal NSA regulations that normally prohibit such eavesdropping on US citizens.

The response to the revelations that the NSA had engaged in warrantless domestic surveillance was immediate and dramatic. Following a considerable amount of media coverage in the US, a Congress hearing examined the legality of the program in February 2006. Evidence suggests that the NSA had already begun these activities before President Bush had granted formal approval and that the operation involved cooperation from American telecommunication companies, and information shared with other agencies, including the DIA.

In February 2006, the National Security Archive, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Justice to compel the immediate disclosure of the internal legal justifications for the surveillance program. As a consequence the Justice Department has conceded that it could begin releasing the internal legal memos used to set up the program imminently. The results and further investigations may have dramatic repercussions for the Intelligence Community, the Bush Administration and the people of the United States.


Spying is often referred to as the “second oldest profession” and it is well known that throughout history governments have not always fully trusted each other (even those supposed to be allies) and often go to considerable lengths to find out what others may be doing in secret while at the same time concealing their own. Perhaps what comes as a bigger surprise to many people (especially in democracies) is the extent of state surveillance of its own citizens – including its own elected officers and servants – and that they too may be a target for state security systems without ever knowing why and what records have been made and kept on them and their activities.

ECHELON and the activities of the NSA are just the latest developments in a long history of surveillance activities developed and executed by those in authority and/or those who see thmselves as protectors of the status quo and/or the well-being of the general public. Problems arise when these activities are seen to be carried out for personal or political advantage. This is why accountabilty for security activities must be assured and legal protection available. The general public and their watchdogs need to be continually alert to ensure that their rights are protected and their systems of governance are improved. This is especially true in a time of upheaval produced by national emergencies and widespread security concerns.

The New York Times’ disclosure of warrantless surveillance by the NSA on US citizens and officials has led to a major national controversy in which a number of related issues have been discussed and debated. These include:

  • The legality of the warrantless wiretaps on US citizens.53

  • The US citizens' right to privacy. 54

  • Constitutional issues concerning presidential powers and the separation of powers.55

  • The effectiveness56 and scope 57 of the program.

  • The legality of the publication of highly classified information. 58

  • Implications for US national security.59

It is clear that the capabilities and practices of the NSA have resulted in suspicion and resentment from overseas and US citizens alike. Whether or not the methods employed by the NSA are legal, US officials justify the NSA’s activities as being necessary to acquire information about threats to national security, international terrorism, and the narcotics trade.
Rapid advances in the new professions of computer science and electronic communications have heavily influenced the way that procedures and techniques have developed in the second oldest profession. New technologies have been embraced and exploited rapidly and effectively. Sometimes these developments move more quickly than the legal structures and guidance in place to protect individuals’ rights. Perhaps the greatest test for any society is how it responds to and deals with these new situations and challenges?

COMINT - COMunications INTelligence: a major component of SIGINT. Technical and intelligence information derived from foreign communications by other than the intended recipients.

DICTIONARY - Computer based system for the automatic selection of intercepted electronic messages that may include combinations of specific names, dates, places, subjects, etc. from target lists

ECHELON - the part of the SIGINT system that involves satellite interception.

GCHQ - Government Communications Head Quarters in the UK, headquarters in Cheltenham.

NSA - The National Security Agency, headquarters in Fort Mead, Maryland.

SIGINT - SIGnals INTelligence: information gathered from a variety of electronic sources (telephone, fax, telex, email, etc). SIGINT is subdivided into "Communications Intelligence" (COMINT) and "Electronics Intelligence" (ELINT).

UKUSA - An intelligence alliance bringing together personnel and stations from the NSA in the US, and the GCHQ in the UK. Later joined by the intelligence networks of three British Commonwealth countries - the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) of Canada, the Australian Defence Security Directorate (DSD), and the General Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) of New Zealand

1 Duncan Campbell, “They’ve got it taped - Somebody's listening” New Statesman, 12 August 1988 – available at

2 Nicky Hagar, “Secret Power - New Zealand's Role in the International Spy Network”, Craig Potton Publishing, New Zealand, 1996 – available at: - see also: Nicky Hagar, “Exposing the Global Surveillance System”, Covert Action Quarterly – available at -

3 Winslow Peck, “U.S. Electronic Espionage: A Memoir”, Ramparts, Vol. 11, No. 2, August, 1972, pp. 35-50 -

4 Jeffrey Richelson, The U.S. Intelligence Community (second edition), Ballinger, 1989, p. 283.

5 Jeffrey Richelson and Desmond Ball, The Ties That Bind: Intelligence Cooperation Between the UKUSA Countries--the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada, Australian and New Zealand. 2d ed. Boston: Unwin gHyman, 1990.

6 Mike Frost as told to Michel Gratton, “Spyworld: Inside The Canadian And American Intelligence Establishments”, Doubleday, Canada, pp 234-238, 1994

7 Ibid

8 Patrick S Poole, “ECHELON: America's Secret Global Surveillance Network”, 1999/2000 -

9 See “SIGINT Satellites” from “The Encyclopedia of Astrobiology Astronomy and Spaceflight, The Worlds of David Darling” website -

10 James Bamford, “The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America's Most Secret Intelligence Organization”, Penguin Books, 1983, pp. 138-139.

11 Nicky Hagar, “Secret Power - New Zealand's Role in the International Spy Network”, Craig Potton Publishing, New Zealand, 1996, p. 45.

12 Address to the Symposium on "National Security and National Competitiveness : Open Source Solutions" by Vice Admiral William Studeman, Deputy Director of Central Intelligence and former director of NSA, 1 December 1992, McLean, Virginia.

13 Duncan Campbell, “Making history: the original source for the 1988 first Echelon report steps forward”, London, Friday 25 February, 2000 -

14 Nicky Hagar, “Exposing the Global Surveillance System”, Covert Action Quarterly, 59, December 1996 -

15 The National Security Archive” of the George Washington University is available at

16 The European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options office (STOA) report "An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control" – by Steve Wright, Omega Foundation, Manchester, UK, January 1998. can be found at:

17 The European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options office (STOA) report “Development of Surveillance Technology and Risk of Abuse of Economic Information” edited by Dick Holdsworth, October 1999 is available from:

18 The European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options office (STOA) report “Interception Capabilities 2000”, PE 168.184/Vol 2/5, by Duncan Campbell, October 1999 -

19 See details at:

20 Perrott, A., “Echelon: Spying Chain's Cover Blown”, New Zealand Herald, June 7, 2001 -

21 Working Document in preparation for a report on the existence of a global system for intercepting private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system)”, Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System, DT\437638EN.doc, Rapporteur: Gerhard Schmid, May 8, 2001 -

22 Draft Report on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system)”, European Parliament Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System, PR/439868EN.doc, Rapporteur: Gerhard Schmid, 18 May, 2001,

23 “Report on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system), Motion for a Resolution ”, European Parliament Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System, Report 2001/2098(INI), Rapporteur: Gerhard Schmid, 11 July 2001 -

24 Campbell, D., “Interception Capabilities - Impact and Exploitation: Paper 1: Echelon and its role in COMINT”, 27 May 2001 -

25 Inside Echelon” by Duncan Campbell, Telopolis, Hannover - July 25 2000, available at

26 Campbell, D., “Interception Capabilities - Impact and Exploitation: Paper 3: COMINT, privacy and human rights”, 27 May 2001 -

27 See: “ECHELON Violates Human Rights Treaties: Echelon system identified as "legislation-free zone", Nizkor Int. Human Rights Team, Derechos Human Rights, Serpaj Europe, 10 June 2001 -

28 Campbell, D., “Interception Capabilities - Impact and Exploitation: Paper 2: COMINT Impact on International Trade”, 27 May 2001 -

29 Woolsey, R.J., “Why We Spy on Our Allies”, The Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2000 -

30 John Merritt, “UK: GCHQ Spies on Charities and Companies – Fearful Whistleblowers Tell of Massive Routine Abuse,” The Observer (London), June 18, 1992.

31 Hugh O’Shaughnessy, “Thatcher Ordered Lonrho Phone-Tap Over Harrods Affairs,” The Observer (London), June 28, 1992; cited in Secret Power, p. 54.

32 Up to-date news and information on the activities of the NSA can be obtained from “The National Security Archive” of the George Washington University at and from NSA watch at

33 Official web-site:

34 Bamford, J., “The Puzzle Palace - A Report on America's Most Secret Agency”, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1982

35 Bamford, J., “Body of Secrets – Anatomy of the Ultra-secret National Security Agency”, Doubleday, New York, 2001

36 The New York Times, 7 September 1960 quoted in “Inside Echelon: The history, structure und function of the global surveillance system known as Echelon” by Duncan Campbell, 25 July 2000 – available from

37 John Ehrlichman, “Witness to Power: The Nixon Years”,Pocket Books, 1982

38 Scott Shane and Tom Bowman, “Catching Americans in NSA’s Net”, The Baltimore Sun, December 12, 1995

39 MINARET Charter, 7/1/69, Hearings, Vol. 5, Exhibit No. 3, pp. 149-150.

40 Patrick S Poole, “ECHELON: America's Secret Global Surveillance Network”, 1999/2000 -

41 “Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans: Book III”, Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate, APRIL 23 (under authority of the order of April 14), 1976 -

42 Testimony of Lt. Gen. Lew. Allen, Jr., Director, National Security Agency in U.S. Congress, 94th Congress, 1st session, Senate, Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, Hearings, vol 5. The National Security Agency and Fourth Amendment Rights, 1976, p. 17.

43 Gerald R. Ford's Executive Order 11905: United States Foreign Intelligence Activities, February 18, 1976, text available from the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Vol. 12, No. 8, February 23, 1976

44 Jimmy Carter, Executive Order 12139, Foreign Intelligence Electronic Surveillance”, May 23, 1979. Unclassified. Source: Federal Register, 44, 103, May 25, 1979

45 Ronald Reagan, “Executive Order 12333, “United States Intelligence Activities”, December 4, 1981 – available from

46 Patrick S Poole, “ECHELON: America's Secret Global Surveillance Network”, 1999/2000 -

47 Martin Bright, Ed Vulliamy and Peter Beaumont, “Revealed: US Dirty Tricks to Win Vote on Iraq War: Secret document details American plan to bug phones and emails of key Security Council members”, The Observer, March 2, 2003 available at,12239,905936,00.html

48 Norman Solomon, NSA Spied on U.N. Diplomats in Push for Invasion of Iraq”, adapted from his book: "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death." John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, 2005. For information, go to:

49 See for example, “SIGINT and Warfighting”, on the Yorkshire CND web site at

50 James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts”, The New York Times, December 16 2005

51 Ibid

52 Wayne Madsen, “NSA intercepts for Bolton masked as 'training missions”, Online Journal Contributing, April 25, 2005 -

53 Dan Eggen, “Congressional Agency Questions Legality of Wiretaps”, Washington Post, January 19, 2006 – available at and Morton H. Halperin, “A Legal Analysis of the NSA Warrantless Surveillance Program”, Center for American Progress, January 6, 2006 – available at

54 See for example, “The Electronic Privacy Information Centre” -

55 Yochi J. Dreazen, “Expert on Congress's Power Claims He Was Muzzled for Faulting Bush”, The Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2006

56 Lowell Bergman, Eric Lichtblau, Scott Shane and Don van Natta Jr., “Spy Agency Data After Sept. 11 Led FBI. to Dead Ends”, The New York Times, January 17, 2006 – available at

57 Barton Gellman, Dafna Linzer and Carol D. Leonnig, "Surveillance Net Yields Few Suspects - NSA's Hunt for Terrorists Scrutinizes Thousands of Americans, but Most Are Later Cleared", The Washington Post, February 5, 2006 – available at

58 See for example the American Civil Liberties Union” -

59 See for example, “The National Security Archive”, George Washington University -

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