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Spies in the sky - more on Echelon
Saturday, February 19, 2000
The new space invaders
Peter Goodspeed - National Post
A former employee of Canada's security agency has charged that Canadian spies once managed to overhear the American ambassador to Canada discussing a pending trade deal with China on a mobile telephone and used that information to undercut the Americans in landing a $2.5-billion Chinese grain sale.
For decades they were guardians -- mysterious warriors who straddled the globe searching for secrets that would prevent a nuclear holocaust. But now, the new technology of the post-Cold War world has suddenly transformed the West's leading spymasters into sinister shadows manipulating a massive surveillance system that can capture and study every telephone call, fax and e-mail message sent anywhere in the world.
These high-tech espionage agents from Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand -- backed up by a web of ships, planes and radar and communication interception sites that ring the earth -- have established the greatest spy network in history. Its name is Echelon.
Originally devoted solely to monitoring the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its East Bloc allies, today Echelon searches for hints of terrorist plots, drug-dealer's plans and political and diplomatic intelligence. But critics claim the system is also being used for crass commercial theft and a brutal invasion of privacy on a staggering scale.
On Tuesday, the European Union's parliament will open a major international debate on the spy practices of the world's five leading English-speaking nations, claiming that this electronic espionage ring, led by the United States and Britain, is methodically going where it has no right to go. The EU's civil liberties committee is expected to accuse Britain of aiding the United States in conducting economic and commercial espionage on a grand scale at the expense of its European partners. A special 112-page expose of the spy network prepared for the EU last spring declares that the rapid proliferation of surveillance technologies presents "a serious threat to the civil liberties in Europe" with "awesome implications."
"There is wide-ranging evidence indicating that major governments are routinely utilizing communications intelligence to provide commercial advantage to companies and trade," declared Duncan Campbell, the report's author, a Scottish physicist and researcher who has devoted 20 years to s
tudying electronic espionage. Moreover, research about to be released by the EU's Scientific and Technical Options Assessment office is expected to document how deeply Echelon has penetrated Europe. It will outline ways to combat the espionage assault.
At the same time:
"Echelon is a black box, and we really don't know what is inside it," says Barry Steinhardt, of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We don't know who is being targeted, what they are being targeted for or what is being done with the information."
The Echelon system is simple in design. All members of the English-speaking alliance are part of the UKUSA intelligence alliance that has maintained ties since the Second World War. These states have positioned electronic-intercept stations and deep-space satellites to capture all satellite, microwave, cellular and fibre-optic communications traffic. The captured signals are then processed through a series of supercomputers, known as dictionaries, that are programmed to search each communication for targeted addresses, words, phrases or even individual voices.
Individual states in the UKUSA alliance are assigned responsibilities for monitoring different parts of the globe. Canada's main task used to be monitoring northern portions of the former Soviet Union and conducting sweeps of all communications traffic that could be picked up from our embassies around the world. In the post-Cold War era, a greater emphasis has been placed on monitoring satellite and radio and cellphone traffic originating from Central and South America, primarily in an effort to track drugs and thugs in the region.
The United States, with its vast array of spy satellites and listening posts, monitors most of Latin America, Asia, Asiatic Russia and northern China. Britain listens in on Europe and Russia west of the Urals as well as Africa. Australia hunts for communications originating in Indochina, Indonesia and southern China. New Zealand sweeps the western Pacific.
"Most people just don't understand how pervasive government surveillance is," warns John Pike, a leading military analyst with the Washington-based American Federation of Scientists. "If you place an international phone call, the odds that the [U.S.] National Security Agency are looking is very good. If it goes by oceanic fibre-optic cable, they are listening to it. If it goes by satellite, they are listening to it. If it is a radio broadcast or a cellphone conversation, in principle, they could listen to it. Frankly, they can get what they want."
Experts stress that Echelon is simply a method of sorting captured signals and is just one of the many new arrows in the intelligence community's quiver, along with increasingly sophisticated bugging and interception techniques, satellite tracking, through-clothing scanning, automatic fingerprinting and recognition systems that can recognize genes, odours or retina patterns.
The Americans dominate the UKUSA alliance, providing most of the computer expertise and frequently much of the personnel for global interception bases. The U.S. National Security Agency, headquartered in Fort Meade, Md., just outside Washington, has a global staff of 38,000 and a budget estimated at more than $3.6-billion (all dollar figures US unless otherwise specified). That's more than the FBI and the CIA combined.
By comparison, Canada's communications-intelligence operations are conducted by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), a branch of the National Defence Department. It has a staff of 890 people and an annual budget of $110-million (Cdn). The CSE's headquarters, nicknamed "The Farm," is the Sir Leonard Tilley Building on Heron Road in Ottawa, and its main communications intercept site is located on an old armed-forces radio base in Leitrim, just south of Ottawa.
Though shrouded in secrecy to the extent that American officials used to joke NSA stood for "No Such Agency" or "Never Say Anything," few foreign-affairs analysts are surprised by the sweep or appetite of electronic spies and they caution against taking Europe's angry protestations of dismay at face value.
"The EU hearings are a bit of a joke," says Wayne Madsen, a former NSA employee and senior fellow at the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC). "It's going to be a bit like that scene in the movie Casablanca, where Inspector Renault declares: 'I'm shocked to find gambling in this establishment.' "
"The fact is the German Greens and the French Socialists and Gaullists can pull their hair out and say, 'This is terrible,' but their countries are involved in this stuff. The French have an extensive signals intelligence network of their own. I think what is going to happen is there will be a lot of wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, but then business is going to go on as usual."
But the real issue is whether UKUSA's spies are using electronic espionage to get commercial information.
"Since the demise of Communism in Eastern Europe, the intelligence agencies have searched for a new justification for their surveillance capability in order to protect their prominence and their bloated budgets," says Patrick Poole, deputy director of the Centre of Technology at Washington's Free Congress Federation. "Their solution was to redefine the notion of national security to include economic, commercial and corporate concerns.
"By redefining the term 'national security' to include spying on foreign competitors of prominent U.S. corporations, the signals-intelligence game has gotten ugly."
Lately there has been a frenzy of concern over possible American economic espionage in Europe.
Mike Frost, a former CSE employee and author of Spyworld, which is about his career in Canada's secret service, claims that as far back as 1981 Canada was using its U.S.-produced spy technology to eavesdrop on the American ambassador to Ottawa. In one instance, Canadian spies managed to overhear the ambassador discussing a pending trade deal with China on a mobile telephone and used that information to undercut the Americans in landing a $2.5-billion Chinese grain sale.
On another occasion, in 1983, Mr. Frost says British intelligence officials invited their Canadian counterparts to come to London to eavesdrop on two British cabinet ministers whose political loyalty was doubted by Margaret Thatcher, then the British prime minister. Since it would have been illegal for British officials to do the surveillance themselves, they had the Canadians do the job using eavesdropping equipment in the Canadian embassy.
After three weeks of snooping, the Canadians quietly turned over all their findings to the British, Mr. Frost says.
"It should hardly be surprising that Echelon ends up being used by elected and bureaucratic officials to their political advantage or by the intelligence agencies themselves for the purpose of sustaining their privileged powers and bloated budgets," says Mr. Poole. "The availability of such invasive technology practically begs for abuse."
Ottawa bureaucrat Claude Hisson, the commissioner for the Communications Security Establishment, is charged with investigating any complaints into CSE operations. In his most recent annual report, he admits that, on occasion, our spies intercept private conversations. But he insists there is nothing to worry about. "The sophistication of CSE's technology has led to speculation about the organization's capability to intercept the communications of Canadians," Mr. Hisson says.
"However, I have observed that CSE's activities are driven not by the capabilities of the technology it deploys but by its mandate to fulfill the foreign intelligence requirements established by the Government of Canada. ... In keeping with the policy of the government, CSE goes to considerable effort to avoid collecting Canadian communications."
Still, critics of Echelon warn the potential for abuse never goes away.
"This whole thing is so bizarrely powerful that the opportunity or temptation for abuse is fairly substantial," says Mr. Pike of the American Federation of Scientists. "How many people in your organization always obey the rules?
"The notion that NSA or any other of these spy networks is the only large organization in human history in which everyone always obeys the rules just flies in the face of common sense," he says.
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