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Profile: Echelon

Echelon was a participant or observer in the following events:

The NSA, following up on its successful pilot program of satellite-based intelligence gathering called “Canyon” (see 1968), develops a much more sophisticated satellite surveillance program called “Rhyolite.” Rhyolite, later renamed “Aquacade,” is a breakthrough in the world of signal intelligence (sigint). Most importantly, it can monitor microwave transmissions, used extensively by the Soviet Union for its most secure transmissions. Its possibilities, says one insider, are “mind-blowing.” Britain’s own security agency, GCHQ, is a full party to Rhyolite/Aquacade. Former Army sigint officer Owen Lewis recalls in 1997, “When Rhyolite came in, the take was so enormous that there was no way of handling it. Years of development and billions of dollars then went into developing systems capable of handling it.” The NSA will pass much of the information it gathers to the GCHQ for transcription and analysis. Subsequently, the NSA will deploy new and even more sophisticated surveillance systems, code-named “Chalet” and “Vortex.” In doing so, it constructs numerous listening stations on friendly foreign soil, including the Menwith Hill facility that will later become a linchpin of the satellite surveillance program known as Echelon (see February 27, 2000). The new programs will revitalize the lapsed sigint alliance between the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (see July 11, 2001). [Federation of American Scientists, 7/17/1997]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Echelon, Rhyolite, Chalet, Government Communications Headquarters, Owen Lewis, Canyon

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Michael Barnes.Michael Barnes. [Source: Covington and Burling]Representative Michael Barnes (D-MD) is targeted by the NSA’s Echelon satellite surveillance program on orders from Reagan administration officials. Barnes, an outspoken opponent of Reagan’s Central American policies, had phone conversations with Nicaraguan officials intercepted and recorded, including one conversation between Barnes and the foreign minister of Nicaragua. Barnes learns of the surveillance after White House officials, apparently attempting to discredit Barnes, leaks transcripts of the taped conversations to reporters. CIA director William Casey shows Barnes a Nicaraguan embassy cable reporting a meeting between embassy staff and one of Barnes’s aides; Casey demands that Barnes fire the aide. Barnes refuses, noting that the aide had visited the embassy on legitimate business concerning international affairs. Barnes will say in 1995, “I was aware that NSA monitored international calls, that it was a standard part of intelligence gathering. But to use it for domestic political purposes is absolutely outrageous and probably illegal.” Former senator Dennis DeConcini (R-AZ) says he worries about the NSA spying on US citizens: “It has always worried me. What if that is used on American citizens? It is chilling. Are they listening to my private conversations on my telephone?” [Patrick S. Poole, 8/15/2000]

Entity Tags: Michael D. Barnes, Reagan administration, William Casey, National Security Agency, Dennis DeConcini, Echelon

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Strom Thurmond.Strom Thurmond. [Source: US Government]Former Lockheed software manager Margaret Newsham, who worked at the Menwith Hill facility of the NSA’s Echelon satellite surveillance operation in 1979, says she heard a real-time phone intercept of conversations involving senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC). She was shocked, she recalls, because she thought only foreign communications were being monitored. Newsham, who was fired from Lockheed after she filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging fraud and waste, tells the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Louis Stokes (D-OH), of the overheard conversations. In July, Capital Hill staffers will leak the story to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Thurmond says he doesn’t believe Newsham’s story, but his office admits that it has previously received reports that Thurmond had been a target of NSA surveillance. Thurmond will decline to press for an investigation, and the reason for the surveillance has never been revealed. [CBS News, 2/27/2000; Patrick S. Poole, 8/15/2000]

Entity Tags: Strom Thurmond, National Security Agency, House Intelligence Committee, Louis Stokes, Echelon, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Margaret Newsham

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

According to counterterrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, US intelligence monitoring al-Qaeda communications learn that al-Qaeda is canceling an attack on Western targets in Singapore. On April 18, 1996, 108 Lebanese civilians seeking refuge at a UN camp in Qana, Lebanon, are killed by mortars fired by Israeli forces. Bin Laden “was keen not to dissipate what he envisaged as widespread revulsion against Israel’s action and hence called off the strike in Southeast Asia. Al-Qaeda’s team in question was very determined to go ahead, having spent years preparing the attack, and according to the intercepts it proved difficult for Osama to convince it otherwise.” Gunaratna claims the US learned this through the NSA’s Echelon satellite network (see Before September 11, 2001) “and other technical monitoring of their communications traffic.” [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 133-134] If true, this case supports other evidence that the US was successfully monitoring bin Laden’s communications from an early date (see Early 1990s) and that al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asia operations were penetrated years before an important al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia discussing the 9/11 plot (see January 5-8, 2000).

Entity Tags: Echelon, Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Princess Diana at a mine field in Angola in 1997.Princess Diana at a mine field in Angola in 1997. [Source: Tim Graham / Corbis]The NSA admits that US intelligence agencies possess 1,056 pages of classified information regarding Britain’s Princess Diana. British tabloids portray the documents as rife with salacious information on Diana’s “most intimate love secrets” about her relationship with Egyptian billionaire Dodi al-Fayed, but the actual documentation may not be so lurid. The NSA recently denied a Freedom of Information request from the Internet news service APB Online about information it has collected on Diana, who died in a tragic car accident in 1997. (It is unclear whether US intelligence has any unreleased information about the circumstances of Diana’s death. [APB Online, 11/30/1998; Washington Post, 12/12/1998] The NSA has denied monitoring Diana on the night of her death, an allegation raised by The Observer in 2006.) [MSNBC, 12/11/2006] In the two-page letter denying the request, the NSA admits to possessing a “Diana file,” but refuses to divulge what is in that file. A US intelligence official says the information is made up of conversations between other people who mentioned Diana; the references to Diana in those intercepted conversations are “incidental.” The official says Diana was never a particular target of the NSA’s Echelon surveillance program. However, the NSA has classified 124 pages of the “Diana documents” as top secret “because their disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.” According to a recent report by the European Parliament, the NSA routinely monitors virtually “all e-mail, telephone and fax communications… within Europe” (see July 11, 2001). Intelligence expert Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists says “the US and our allies promiscuously collect electronic communications around the world. Whether the descriptions of Echelon are accurate or not, that much is definitely true.” Some believe that lurid snippets of information leaked to the British press regarding Diana’s affair with Fayed, and her ambivalent relationship with Prince Charles, may have come from Echelon wiretaps and surveillance. Another FAS scientist, John Pike, says the NSA and other US intelligence agencies may have been monitoring Diana to protect her from terrorist attacks. Pike says it is also possible she may have been monitored because of her involvement in banning land mines, a position opposed by the Pentagon. [APB Online, 11/30/1998; Washington Post, 12/12/1998] Former NSA official Wayne Madsen will say in 2000, “[W]hen NSA extends the big drift net out there, it’s possible that they’re picking up more than just her conversations concerning land mines. What they do with that intelligence, who knows?” [CBS News, 2/27/2000] In August 1999, the NSA will deny another Freedom of Information request about its “Diana file” from the British newspaper The Guardian. [Guardian, 8/6/1999]

Entity Tags: Steven Aftergood, Prince Charles, The Guardian, John Pike, Dodi al-Fayed, Echelon, Federation of American Scientists (FAS), National Security Agency, Princess Diana

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The NSA’s Echelon satellite surveillance system has eavesdropped on numerous public figures, human rights organizations, charities, and even the Vatican, former British intelligence officials admit (see February 27, 2000). The NSA, which shares information with Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, has eavesdropped on, among others, Princess Diana (see November 30, 1998), Mark Thatcher (the son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher), the Pope, Mother Teresa, Amnesty International, Christian Aid, and others. It is unclear exactly when the NSA performed its surveillance operations, and what information it collected. The officials choose to speak out after the European Parliament announces it will open an inquiry into Echelon’s operations (see July 11, 2001). Former NSA official Wayne Madsen says, “Anybody who is politically active will eventually end up on the NSA’s radar screen.” The NSA routinely monitors charities and human rights organizations operating overseas because they often have access to information about regimes opposed to Western interests. Madsen believes the NSA spied on Diana because of her human rights work; he says that “undisclosed material held in US government files on Princess Diana was collected because of her work with the international campaign to ban landmines.” Mark Thatcher was monitored in the 1980s because of his work on the huge al-Yamamah arms contract being negotiated between Britain and Saudi Arabia. The NSA also monitored conversations by officials of the Panavia consortium, which builds the Tornado fighter plane. British Aerospace is a major partner in the consortium. “I just think of Echelon as a great vacuum cleaner in the sky which sucks everything up,” says former Canadian intelligence officer Mike Frost. “We just get to look at the goodies.” Former US computer software manager Margaret Newsham, who worked during the 1980s at the Menwith Hill listening station in Yorkshire, says, “I was aware that massive security violations were taking place. If these systems were for combating drugs or terrorism, that would be fine. But not for use in spying on individuals.” Newsham recalls being shocked when she overheard conversations by then-US senator Strom Thurmond (see April, 1988). “It was evident American constitutional laws had been broken,” she says. [London Times, 2/27/2000]

Entity Tags: Strom Thurmond, Wayne Madsen, Panavia, Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, Christian Aid, British Aerospace, Amnesty International, Echelon, European Parliament, Margaret Newsham, Margaret Thatcher, National Security Agency, Mark Thatcher, Mike Frost

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Mike Frost.Mike Frost. [Source: NineMSN]One of the few commercial media reports about Echelon, the NSA’s global surveillance network (see April 4, 2001), appears on CBS’s 60 Minutes. The report is disturbing in its portrayal of Echelon as a surveillance system capable of, in host Steve Kroft’s words, capturing “virtually every electronic conversation around the world.” Kroft continues, “[V]irtually every signal radiated across the electromagnetic spectrum is being collected and analyzed,” including land line and cell phone signals, ATM transactions, fax machines,public and private radio broadcasts, even baby monitors. Mike Frost, a former intelligence officer for the CSE, the Canadian equivalent of the National Security Agency which often works closely with the NSA, says, “The entire world, the whole planet” is being surveilled. “Echelon covers everything that’s radiated worldwide at any given instant.… Every square inch is covered.” Listening stations around the world transmit their data to the NSA’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, where, as Kroft says, “acres of supercomputers scan millions of transmissions word by word, looking for key phrases and, some say, specific voices that may be of major significance.” Frost adds, “Everything is looked at. The entire take is looked at. And the computer sorts out what it is told to sort out, be it, say, by key words such as ‘bomb’ or ‘terrorist’ or ‘blow up,’ to telephone numbers or—or a person’s name. And people are getting caught, and—and that’s great.” Echelon is so secret that even its successes are not publicly documented, though it is believed that, among other successes, it helped capture international terrorist “Carlos the Jackal,” and helped identify two Libyans accused of planting a bomb on PanAm Flight 103 [CBS News, 2/27/2000] which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people. [Washington Post, 12/22/1988] “I say, never over-exaggerate the capacity of a system such as Echelon,” Frost noted in a 1999 interview with the Australian press. “Never ever over-exaggerate the power that these organizations have to abuse a system such as Echelon. Don’t think it can’t happen in Australia. Don’t think it can’t happen in Canada, because it does.” [NineMSN, 5/23/1999]
Monitoring Legal Conversations - As successful as Echelon has been in capturing terrorists, international drug dealers, and various criminals, it has raised serious concerns for its capability of monitoring ordinary, innocent civilians. Frost says that such monitoring happens every day: “Not only possible, not only probable, but factual. While I was at CSE, a classic example: A lady had been to a school play the night before, and her son was in the school play and she thought he did a—a lousy job. Next morning, she was talking on the telephone to her friend, and she said to her friend something like this, ‘Oh, Danny really bombed last night,’ just like that. The computer spit that conversation out. The analyst that was looking at it was not too sure about what the conversation w—was referring to, so erring on the side of caution, he listed that lady and her phone number in the database as a possible terrorist.” Though the NSA has a long and checkered history of spying on American citizens, including extensive monitoring of antiwar and civil rights protesters during the 1970s, the agency refuses to provide any information about its activities—not to the public and not even to Congress. Congressman Bob Barr (R-GA) has for years pressed for more information about the program, which he recently said “engages in the interception of literally millions of communications involving United States citizens.” Even the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Porter Goss (R-FL) had trouble getting information when he requested it last year. At the time, Goss said, “[T]here was some information about procedures in how the NSA people would employ some safeguards, and I wanted to see all the correspondence on that to make sure that those safeguards were being completely honored. At that point, one of the counsels of the NSA said, ‘Well, we don’t think we need to share this information with the Oversight Committee.’ And we said, ‘Well, we’re sorry about that. We do have the oversight, and you will share the information with us,’ and they did.” Goss had to threaten to cut the NSA’s budget before the agency would share even limited information with him. When asked how he can be sure the NSA isn’t listening in on ordinary citizens’ communications, Goss merely says, “We do have methods for that, and I am relatively sure that those procedures are working very well.”
Princess Diana, Human Rights Organizations Monitored - Evidence presented in the broadcast also suggests the NSA was monitoring Princess Diana (see November 30, 1998), as well as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and other groups (see February 27, 2000). [CBS News, 2/27/2000]
British Ministers Monitored - Frost cites an instance where then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher monitored two of her own ministers (see 1983).
Americans Monitored - Former NSA contractor Margaret Newsham recalls hearing a monitored conversation featuring then-Senator Strom Thurmond (see April, 1988). Frost is not surprised. “Oh, of course it goes on,” he says. “Been going on for years. Of course it goes on.” Kroft asks, “You mean the National Security Agency spying on politicians in… in the United States?” Frost replies, “Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? Sounds like the world of fiction. It’s not; not the world of fiction. That’s the way it works. I’ve been there. I was trained by you guys” (see 1980s). Goss seems less concerned. He says that it is “[c]ertainly possible that something like that could happen. The question is: What happened next?… It is certainly possible that somebody overheard me in a conversation. I have just been in Europe. I have been talking to people on a telephone and elsewhere. So it’s very possible somebody could have heard me. But the question is: What do they do about it? I mean, I cannot stop the dust in the ether; it’s there. But what I can make sure is that it’s not abused—the capability’s not abused, and that’s what we do.”
Used for Corporate Advantage - In 2001, the European Parliament released a report listing many of Echelon’s surveillance stations around the world and detailing their capabilities (see July 11, 2001). Kroft notes, “The report says Echelon is not just being used to track spies and terrorists. It claims the United States is using it for corporate and industrial espionage as well, gathering sensitive information on European corporations, then turning it over to American competitors so they can gain an economic advantage.”
Encryption Effective? - European governments and corporations are encrypting more and more of their phone, fax, and e-mail transmissions to keep Echelon from listening in. In response, the US government is pressuring the Europeans to give US law enforcement and intelligence agencies software keys so that they can unlock the code in matters of national security. Parliament member Glyn Ford is not opposed to the idea in principle: “[I]f we are not assured that that is n—not going to be abused, then I’m afraid we may well take the view, ‘Sorry, no.’ In [Britain], it’s traditional for people to leave a key under the doormat if they want the neighbors to come in and—and do something in their house. Well, we’re neighbors, and we’re not going to leave the electronic key under the doormat if you’re going to come in and steal the family silver.” The NSA, CSE, and even Echelon are necessary evils, Ford acknowledges, but, “My concern is no accountability and nothing—no safety net in place for the innocent people that fall through the cracks. That’s my concern.” [CBS News, 2/27/2000]

Entity Tags: Greenpeace, Wayne Madsen, Glyn Ford, Echelon, Communications Security Establishment, Central Intelligence Agency, Amnesty International, Strom Thurmond, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Steve Kroft, Princess Diana, Mike Frost, Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Newsham, National Security Agency, Robert “Bob” Barr, House Intelligence Committee, Porter J. Goss, Ilich Ramírez Sanchez

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US routinely denies that its satellite surveillance program, Echelon, provides any information to corporations, noting that the law clearly prevents such transactions. But former CIA director James Woolsey confirms that the US does indeed conduct economic espionage against its European allies, though he does not specifically mention Echelon. Woolsey, a well-known neoconservative, justifies such actions by accusing European companies of using bribery to gain unfair advantages against US corporations. “We have spied on you because you bribe,” he writes in the Wall Street Journal. “[European] products are often more costly, less technically advanced or both, than [their] American competitors’. As a result [they] bribe a lot.” [BBC, 7/6/2000]

Entity Tags: Echelon, Wall Street Journal, James Woolsey

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The NSA asks Qwest, a major US telecommunications firm and a cutting-edge provider of high-tech wireless and Internet connectivity, to reveal information about its customers and their phone calls. Qwest’s CEO, Joe Nacchio, refuses after meeting with NSA officials and deciding that the program is illegal without court orders (see February 27, 2001). The NSA refuses to seek court authorization for its wiretaps and electronic surveillance. The NSA will renew its request from Qwest after the 9/11 attacks, and will also ask the firm to help it track suspected terrorists. Other telecommunications firms such as Verizon, AT&T, and BellSouth, will comply with the NSA’s requests (see February 2001 and Beyond).
Fears of a 'Digital Pearl Harbor' - According to a former White House official, the NSA’s primary purpose before 9/11 is to watch for computer hackers and foreign-government agents trying to hack into the government’s computer information systems, particularly those within the Defense Department. Government officials fear a “digital Pearl Harbor” if hackers were ever to seize control of those systems or other key US infrastructures. The former official will say in 2007 that the NSA’s proposal to Qwest is, “Can you build a private version of Echelon and tell us what you see?” Echelon is the NSA’s enormous signals intelligence (SIGINT) network used by the agency and its counterparts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Britain. Qwest is constructing a high-speed network for phone and Internet traffic, and the NSA wants Qwest to keep records of its customers’ transactions for it. The NSA, another source will say, wants to analyze call, e-mail, and other transmissions’ traffic patters for signs of suspicious activity. The White House official will say that telecom firms such as Qwest “have an enormous amount of intelligence-gathering” capability. They don’t have to target individual customers to “look for wacky behavior,” or “groups communicating with each other in strange patterns.” Such information could augment intelligence that the NSA and other agencies were gathering from other sources, and enable the NSA to collect the information it wants without violating laws prohibiting it and other intelligence agencies from directly gathering data on US citizens.
Ill Will from NSA - Nacchio’s refusal to go along with the NSA’s request garners it some ill will among the US intelligence community, the former White House official will say. Nacchio will contend that because of his refusal, the NSA denied Qwest a lucrative government contract. A former high-level intelligence official will add that other telecom companies had little problem agreeing to the NSA’s requests. Nacchio believes that the NSA’s request is illegal under the Telecommunications Act without court orders; the former White House official will acknowledge that it might violate the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act. After 9/11, that law will be amended by the USA Patriot Act to give the government more room to monitor US citizens.
Qwest, Other Telecom Firms Cooperative with Other Agencies - Qwest is apparently less reluctant to share other information with the Pentagon. Qwest began sharing its technology and information as far back as 1997 (see 1997). In May 2001, Commerce Secretary Don Evans will tell the Senate Appropriations Committee that his department helped persuade Qwest to “share proprietory information with the Defense Department to evaluate the vulnerability of its network.” Qwest, which serves the Rocky Mountain and West Coast regions of the country, covers the areas that house some of the military’s most important command-and-control facilities, including the US Strategic Command. In the 1990s, Qwest began actively pursuing contracts with the Defense Department to build more modern, private, secure networks for defense and intelligence agencies. [National Journal, 11/2/2007]
Meetings with Bush Officials - In court documents filed in 2006 to challenge his prosecution for insider trading and, in heavily redacted form, released to the public in 2007, Nacchio will indicate that telecom executives met frequently with Bush administration officials before 9/11, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, NSA Director Michael Hayden, and counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke. Many telecom firms are working closely with the government to develop highly classified operations, including joint networks to which the government will have unfettered access. The future director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, works with telecom firms to expand the cooperation between the telecom industry and the federal government. [Salon, 10/15/2007]

Entity Tags: Condoleezza Rice, US Department of Defense, Bush administration (43), Verizon Communications, AT&T, US Department of Commerce, Senate Appropriations Committee, US Strategic Command, BellSouth, Donald L. Evans, Echelon, Richard A. Clarke, Qwest, Mike McConnell, National Security Agency, Joe Nacchio, Paul Wolfowitz

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In a series of articles for UPI, journalist Richard Sale reveals many details about the NSA’s electronic surveillance of al-Qaeda. “The United States has scored notable successes in an information war against the organization of terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden. US hackers have gone into foreign bank accounts and deleted or transferred money and jammed or blocked the group’s cell or satellite phones.” It is also mentioned that “Bin Laden is surrounded by US listening posts.” The articles discuss the extent to which the NSA’s Echelon satellite network is monitoring al-Qaeda, and even seems to make an oblique reference to monitoring the al-Qaeda safe house in Yemen that enabled the NSA to discover valuable information on hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar (see December 29, 1999). The articles also reveal that since 1995, bin Laden tried to protect his communications with a “full suite of tools,” but “codes were broken.” An expert adds that “you don’t use your highest level of secure communications all the time. It’s too burdensome, and it exposes it to other types of exploitation.” The articles also imply that Echelon is used in illegal ways. An anonymous former senior US intelligence official says, “This isn’t about legality. This is about trying to protect American lives.” [United Press International, 2/9/2001; United Press International, 2/13/2001; United Press International, 2/21/2001] While bin Laden’s communications were certainly thoroughly monitored before 9/11 (see November 1996-Late August 1998), no evidence has come to light since 9/11 that the US was hacking into bank accounts or jamming signals.

Entity Tags: Nawaf Alhazmi, Echelon, Khalid Almihdhar, National Security Agency, Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Nicky Hager.Nicky Hager. [Source: Rotorua District Council]New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager appears before a European Parliament investigative committee to testify about the US’s satellite surveillance program, Echelon (see July 11, 2001). Hager has discovered information about Echelon’s use by the New Zealand equivalent of the NSA, the Government Communication Security Bureau (GCSB). In researching Echelon’s use by the USA, Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, Hager learned of the extent of the system’s “capability to monitor the whole of governments, regional and international organizations, non-government organizations, companies and individuals throughout Europe.” Although Hager warns the committee not to focus exclusively on Echelon’s use for corporate benefits, he gives several examples of such uses in the South Pacific, including monitoring “deals to do with Japan… collecting intelligence on meat sales, which is very important for New Zealand… intelligence to do with oil prices… [and] a particularly large Japanese development project in the South Pacific where there was potential for New Zealand companies to win contracts. In other words, there were both macro-level and micro-level economic intelligence being collected.” Corporate executives routinely received such information, Hager testifies, and tells about “the fantastic amount of intelligence that was arriving, for example, monitoring international trade meetings.… From my sources, they said that whenever there was a GATT meeting or another major international meeting, there were hundreds of reports of the monitoring of the different delegations which were arriving in New Zealand and being shared between [British]/USA partners, and I have absolutely no doubt about that, because I have talked to people who saw it coming from the NSA.” [European Parliament, 4/24/2001]

Entity Tags: Government Communication Security Bureau, Echelon, National Security Agency, Nicky Hager, European Parliament

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

One of the approximately 30 radomes at the Echelon station in Menwith Hill, England. A radome covers an antenna to protect it from the weather and disguise the direction it is pointing.One of the approximately 30 radomes at the Echelon station in Menwith Hill, England. A radome covers an antenna to protect it from the weather and disguise the direction it is pointing. [Source: Matt Crypto / Public domain]The BBC reports on advances in electronic surveillance. The US’s global surveillance program, Echelon, has become particularly effective in monitoring mobile phones, recording millions of calls simultaneously and checking them against a powerful search engine designed to pick out key words that might represent a security threat. Laser microphones can pick up conversations from up to a kilometer away by monitoring window vibrations. If a bug is attached to a computer keyboard, it is possible to monitor exactly what is being keyed in, because every key on a computer has a unique sound when depressed. [BBC, 4/4/2001] Furthermore, a BBC report on a European Union committee investigation into Echelon one month later notes that the surveillance network can sift through up to 90 percent of all Internet traffic, as well as monitor phone conversations, mobile phone calls, fax transmissions, net browsing history, satellite transmissions and so on. Even encryption may not help much. The BBC suggests that “it is likely that the intelligence agencies can crack open most commercially available encryption software.” [BBC, 5/29/2001]

Entity Tags: Echelon, British Broadcasting Corporation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, Civil Liberties

German intelligence warns the CIA, Britain’s intelligence agency, and Israel’s Mossad that Middle Eastern militants are planning to hijack commercial aircraft to use as weapons to attack “American and Israeli symbols, which stand out.” A later article quotes unnamed German intelligence sources who state the information was coming from Echelon surveillance technology, and that British intelligence had access to the same warnings. However, there were other informational sources, including specific information and hints given to, but not reported by, Western and Near Eastern news media six months before 9/11. [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Frankfurt), 9/11/2001; Washington Post, 9/14/2001; Fox News, 5/17/2002] According to a separate account, in the summer of 2001, German officials are aware that al-Qaeda is planning a major attack, but they don’t know the details (see Summer 2001).

Entity Tags: Echelon, Israel Institute for Intelligence and Special Tasks (Mossad), German intelligence community, UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Glyn Ford.Glyn Ford. [Source: British Labour Party]The European Parliament releases its final report on its findings about the secretive US surveillance program known as Echelon. The report, two years in the making, exhaustively details many of Echelon’s surveillance capabilities, and lists many of Echelon’s surveillance stations around the world. One of the more interesting sections of the report concerns its apparent use on behalf of US corporations. According to the report, Echelon—operated by the NSA as a highly classified surveillance program ostensibly for tracking terrorist threats and activities by nations hostile to the West—is also being used for corporate and industrial espionage, with information from the program being turned over to US corporations for their financial advantage. The report gives several instances of Echelon’s use by corporations. One is the use of Echelon to “lift… all the faxes and phone calls” between the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus and Saudi Arabian Airlines; that information was used by two American companies, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, to outflank Airbus and win a $6 billion contract. The report also alleges that the French company Thomson-CSF lost a $1.3 billion satellite deal to Raytheon the same way. Glyn Ford, the MP who commissioned the report, says he doesn’t have a problem with Echelon itself, but in the way it is being used. “Now, you know, if we’re catching the bad guys, we’re completely in favor of that… What we’re concerned about is that some of the good guys in my constituency don’t have jobs because US corporations got an inside track on—on some global deal.” [Washington Post, 11/14/1999; CBS News, 2/27/2000; BBC, 7/6/2000; European Parliament, 7/11/2001] In 1977, the US government began providing Echelon-based intelligence to US corporations (see 1977). In April 2001, New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager testified about Echelon’s use by US allies for corporate and economic purposes (see April 2001), and former CIA director James Woolsey confirmed that US surveillance programs were used to benefit US corporations (see March 2000).

Entity Tags: US Department of Commerce, Thomson-CSF, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Glyn Ford, McDonnell Douglas, Central Intelligence Agency, Boeing Company, Echelon, Airbus, European Parliament, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

An Echelon station in Menwith Hill, Britain.An Echelon station in Menwith Hill, Britain. [Source: BBC]By the 1980s, a high-tech global electronic surveillance network shared between the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand is gathering intelligence all over the world. The BBC describes Echelon’s power as “astounding,” and elaborates: “Every international telephone call, fax, e-mail, or radio transmission can be listened to by powerful computers capable of voice recognition. They home in on a long list of key words, or patterns of messages. They are looking for evidence of international crime, like terrorism.” [BBC, 11/3/1999] One major focus for Echelon before 9/11 is al-Qaeda. For instance, one account mentions Echelon intercepting al-Qaeda communications in Southeast Asia in 1996 (see Before September 11, 2001). A staff member of the National Security Council who regularly attends briefings on bin Laden states, “We are probably tapped into every hotel room in Pakistan. We can listen in to just about every phone call in Afghanistan.” However, he and other critics will claim one reason why US intelligence failed to stop terrorism before 9/11 was because there was too much of a focus on electronic intelligence gathering and not enough focus on human interpretation of that vast data collection. [Toronto Star, 2/2/2002]

Entity Tags: United Kingdom, United States, Osama bin Laden, Echelon, National Security Council, Canada, Australia, Al-Qaeda, New Zealand

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Katharine Gun.Katharine Gun. [Source: BBC]Katharine Gun, a 29-year old translator for British intelligence’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), leaks the National Security Agency memo documenting the NSA’s electronic and physical surveillance of numerous UN delegates to the Security Council (see January 31, 2003). Gun will be arrested on March 8 and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act (see March 9, 2003). Gun leaks the memo, [BBC, 9/15/2004] written by the NSA’s Frank Koza and sent to several US allies via its ECHELON global surveillance system, to Britain’s Observer, which spends weeks verifying the document’s veracity before running the story on March 2. Former NSA intelligence officer Wayne Madsen, now of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says the leak illustrates the deep unhappiness among several US allies’ intelligence agencies over US and British attempts to allege ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda. “My feeling is that this was an authorized leak,” Madsen says. “I’ve been hearing for months of people in the US and British intelligence community who are deeply concerned about their governments ‘cooking’ intelligence to link Iraq to al-Qaeda.’ While surveillance of delegates and other officials at the UN is a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, [Observer, 3/9/2003] intelligence experts acknowledge that the US and other nations routinely conduct at least some sort of surveillance on UN members. “One would have to have the innocence of an unborn child to believe that espionage doesn’t go on every day at the United Nations,” says one such expert, Loch Johnson. “From a purist point of view, it’s unfortunate in a way, because after all, we’re the host nation for the United Nations. But the reality is, Europeans and everyone else engages in espionage in New York City, much of it focused on the United Nations.” Experts say what is unprecedented is the leak itself, especially in its timeliness and detail. [Baltimore Sun, 3/4/2003]
bullet Vietnam-era whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the so-called “Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times, writes in January 2004, “I can only admire the more timely, courageous action of Katherine Gun…who risked her career and freedom to expose an illegal plan to win official and public support for an illegal war, before that war had started. Her revelation of a classified document urging British intelligence to help the US bug the phones of all the members of the UN security council to manipulate their votes on the war may have been critical in denying the invasion a false cloak of legitimacy.…She did what she could, in time for it to make a difference, as indeed others should have done, and still can. I have no doubt that there are thousands of pages of documents in safes in London and Washington right now—the Pentagon Papers of Iraq—whose unauthorized revelation would drastically alter the public discourse on whether we should continue sending our children to die in Iraq.…Exposing governmental lies carries a heavy personal risk, even in our democracies. But that risk can be worthwhile when a war’s-worth of lives is at stake.” [Guardian, 1/27/2004]

Entity Tags: United Nations, Observer, Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Wayne Madsen, Loch Johnson, United Nations Security Council, Government Communications Headquarters, Daniel Ellsberg, Katherine Gun, Al-Qaeda, Echelon, National Security Agency, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Frank Koza

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

Suzanne Spaulding, a former counsel for the CIA, the Senate and House intelligence commission, and executive director of the National Terrorism Commission from 1999 through 2000, writes an op-ed criticizing the Bush administration for its domestic surveillance program. She writes that the three main sources of oversight and restraint on Bush’s unfettered efforts to monitor US citizens—Congress, the judiciary, and the American people—have failed to halt what she calls “this extraordinary exercise of presidential power.” Spaulding, who will testify along similar lines before the Senate over a year later (see April 11, 2007), writes, “Ironically, if it is ultimately determined that this domestic surveillance program reflects the exercise of unchecked power in contravention of law, it will wind up weakening the presidency. Once again, we will confront the challenge of restoring Americans’ faith in the rule of law and our system of checks and balances.” The pretense of oversight by the administration, in providing limited and perhaps misleading briefings on the program only to the so-called “Gang of Eight” Congressional leaders, is superficial and ineffective, she writes; the entire process “effectively eliminates the possibility of any careful oversight.” She notes that because of the severe restrictions both in the information doled out to these Congressional leaders, and their strict prohibition on discussing the information with anyone else, even other intelligence panel members, “[i]t is virtually impossible for individual members of Congress, particularly members of the minority party, to take any effective action if they have concerns about what they have heard in one of these briefings. It is not realistic to expect them, working alone, to sort through complex legal issues, conduct the kind of factual investigation required for true oversight and develop an appropriate legislative response.” Congressional oversight is key to retaining the trust of the US citizenry, she writes, and adds that that particular principle was well understood at the CIA while she was there. Oversight “is vital for a secret agency operating in a democracy. True oversight helps clarify the authority under which intelligence professionals operate. And when risky operations are revealed, it is important to have members of Congress reassure the public that they have been overseeing the operation. The briefings reportedly provided on the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program reflect, instead, a ‘check the box’ mentality—allowing administration officials to claim that they had informed Congress without having really achieved the objectives of oversight.” While those few members of Congress are given little real information, the judiciary, particularly the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), is cut out of the process entirely. “Instead of going to a judge on the secret court that was specifically established to authorize foreign intelligence surveillance inside the United States, we are told that an NSA shift supervisor was able to sign off on the warrantless surveillance of Americans,” she writes. “That’s neither a check nor a balance. The primary duty of the NSA shift supervisor, who essentially works for the president, is to collect intelligence. The task of the judge is to ensure that the legal standards set out in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) have been met. Which one has stronger independence to say no, if no needs to be said? The objectives of the surveillance program, as described in news reports, seem laudable. The government should be running to ground the contacts listed in a suspected terrorist’s cell phone, for example. What is troubling is that this domestic spying is being done in apparent contravention of FISA, for reasons that still are not clear.” In her piece she takes issue with the Bush administration’s insistence that its surveillance program is legal and necessary. She makes the following case:
Specious Arguments to Duck FISA Court - The argument that the FISA Court is too slow to respond to immediate needs for domestic surveillance is specious, she says. “FISA anticipates situations in which speed is essential. It allows the government to start eavesdropping without a court order and to keep it going for a maximum of three days. And while the FISA application process is often burdensome in routine cases, it can also move with remarkable speed when necessary, with applications written and approved in just a few hours.” Instead, she says that the Bush administration must have dodged FISC because their wiretaps didn’t meet FISA standards of probable cause. Since FISC is staffed by judges hand-picked by conservative then-Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, “who presumably felt that they had the right temperament and expertise to understand the national security imperatives as well as the need to protect civil liberties,” and since FISC has granted all but four of the more than 5,645 requests for wiretaps and surveillance made by the administration since 2001, to argue that FISC is unresponsive is simply wrong-headed. And, she notes, if the administration felt that FISA’s standards were too strict, it could have moved to amend the law to allow more leniency in obtaining such warrants. It has not done so since the passage of the 2001 Patriot Act. She writes, “The administration reportedly did not think it could get an amendment without exposing details of the program. But this is not the first time the intelligence community has needed a change in the law to allow it to undertake sensitive intelligence activities that could not be disclosed. In the past, Congress and the administration have worked together to find a way to accomplish what was needed. It was never previously considered an option to simply decide that finding a legislative solution was too hard and that the executive branch could just ignore the law rather than fix it.”
No Justification for Keeping Program Secret - In addition, the administration has consistently failed to make a case for keeping the domestic wiretapping policy secret for four years. US-designated terrorist groups already know that the government listens to their cell phone conversations whenever possible, and they are well aware of the various publicly known programs to search through millions of electronic communications, such as the NSA’s Echelon program (see April 4, 2001). “So what do the terrorists learn from a general public discussion about the legal authority being relied upon to target their conversations?” she asks. “Presumably very little. What does the American public lose by not having the public discussion? We lose the opportunity to hold our elected leaders accountable for what they do on our behalf.”
Assertions that Program Authorized by Congress Fallacious - The argument advanced by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that says the program does not violate the law because Congress’s post-9/11 authorization of force against terrorists gives the administration the right to circumvent FISA is equally specious, she argues. “FISA does provide for criminal penalties if surveillance is conducted under color of law ‘except as authorized by statute.’ This is a reference to either FISA or the criminal wiretap statute. A resolution, such as the Use of Force resolution, does not provide statutory authority. Moreover, FISA specifically provides for warrantless surveillance for up to 15 days after a declaration of war. Why would Congress include that provision if a mere Use of Force resolution could render FISA inapplicable? The law clearly states that the criminal wiretap statute and FISA are ‘the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance…and the interception of domestic wire, oral, and electronic communications may be conducted.’ If these authorities are exclusive, there is no other legal authority that can authorize warrantless surveillance. Courts generally will not view such a clear statutory statement as having been overruled by a later congressional action unless there is an equally clear indication that Congress intended to do that.” Therefore, by any legal standard, the administration’s program is, apparently, illegal.
No Inherent Presidential Authority - The ultimate argument by Bush officials, that the president has some sort of inherent authority as commander-in-chief to authorize illegal wiretaps, is the same groundless legal argument recently used to justify the use of torture by US intelligence and law enforcement agents (see December 28, 2001). That argument was withdrawn, Spaulding notes, after it became publicly known. While the courts have not specifically ruled on this particular argument, Spaulding notes that the Supreme Court refused to recognize then-President Harry Truman’s attempt to seize control of the nation’s steel mills to avert a possible strike during the Korean War. The Supreme Court ruled “that the president’s inherent authority is at its weakest in areas where Congress has already legislated. It ruled that to find inherent presidential authority when Congress has explicitly withheld that authority—as it has in FISA—‘is not merely to disregard in a particular instance the clear will of Congress. It is to disrespect the whole legislative process and the constitutional division of authority between president and Congress.’” She notes that in 2004, the Supreme Court rejected the argument for unchecked presidential power in the Hamdi case (see June 28, 2004), with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writing for the court, “We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens. …Whatever power the United States Constitution envisions for the Executive in its exchanges with… enemy organizations in times of conflict, it most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake.” Spaulding concludes, “The rule of law and our system of checks and balances are not a source of weakness or a luxury of peace. As O’Connor reminded us in Hamdi, ‘It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments…that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.’” [Washington Post, 12/25/2005]

Entity Tags: Sandra Day O’Connor, William Rehnquist, USA Patriot Act, Suzanne Spaulding, National Security Agency, US Supreme Court, Harry S. Truman, Alberto R. Gonzales, “Gang of Eight”, National Commission on Terrorism, Central Intelligence Agency, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Echelon, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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