CAQ (CovertAction Quarterly)
For 40 years, New Zealand’s largest intelligence agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) the nation’s equivalent of the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been helping its Western allies to spy on countries throughout the Pacific region, without the knowledge of the New Zealand public or many of its highest elected officials.
What the NSA did not know is that by
the late 1980s, various intelligence staff had decided these
activities had been too secret for too long, and were providing me
with interviews and documents exposing New Zealand’s intelligence
activities. Eventually, more than 50 people who work or have worked
in intelligence and related fields agreed to be interviewed.
Unlike many of
the electronic spy systems developed during the Cold War, ECHELON is
designed primarily for non-military targets: governments,
organizations, businesses, and individuals in virtually every
country. It potentially affects every person communicating between
(and sometimes within) countries anywhere in the world.
Some monitor communications satellites,
others land-based communications networks, and others radio
communications. ECHELON links together all these facilities,
providing the US and its allies with the ability to intercept a
large proportion of the communications on the planet.
The computers in stations around the globe are known, within the network, as the ECHELON Dictionaries.
Computers that can automatically search through traffic for keywords have existed since at least the 1970s, but the ECHELON system was designed by NSA to interconnect all these computers and allow the stations to function as components of an integrated whole.
and GCSB are bound together under
the five-nation UKUSA signals
intelligence agreement. The other three partners all with equally
obscure names are the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)
in Britain, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) in
Canada, and the Defense Signals Directorate (DSD) in Australia.
The five UKUSA agencies are today the largest intelligence organizations in
their respective countries. With much of the world’s business
occurring by fax, e-mail, and phone, spying on these communications
receives the bulk of intelligence resources. For decades before the
introduction of the ECHELON system, the UKUSA allies did
intelligence collection operations for each other, but each agency
usually processed and analyzed the intercept from its own stations.
Whenever the Dictionary encounters a
message containing one of the agencies’ keywords, it automatically
picks it and sends it directly to the headquarters of the agency
concerned. No one in New Zealand screens, or even sees, the
intelligence collected by the New Zealand station for the foreign
agencies. Thus, the stations of the junior UKUSA allies function for
the NSA no differently than if they were overtly NSA-run bases
located on their soil.
An NSA station at Sugar Grove, located 250 kilometers southwest of Washington, DC, in the mountains of West Virginia, covers Atlantic Intelsats transmitting down toward North and South America. Another NSA station is in Washington State, 200 kilometers southwest of Seattle, inside the Army’s Yakima Firing Center.
Its satellite dishes point out toward the Pacific Intelsats and to the east.
The job of intercepting Pacific Intelsat communications that cannot be intercepted at Yakima went to New Zealand and Australia.
Their South Pacific location helps to ensure
global interception. New Zealand provides the station at Waihopai
and Australia supplies the Geraldton station in West Australia
(which targets both Pacific and Indian Ocean Intelsats).
Since then, all five UKUSA agencies have been responsible for monitoring diplomatic cables from all Japanese posts within the same segments of the globe they are assigned for general UKUSA monitoring.
Until New Zealand’s integration into ECHELON with the
opening of the Waihopai station in 1989, its share of the Japanese
communications was intercepted at Yakima and sent unprocessed to the GCSB headquarters in Wellington for decryption, translation, and
writing into UKUSA-format intelligence reports (the NSA provides the
The next component of the ECHELON system intercepts a range of satellite communications not carried by Intelsat.
In addition to the UKUSA stations targeting Intelsat
satellites, there are another five or more stations homing in on
Russian and other regional communications satellites. These stations
are Menwith Hill in northern England; Shoal Bay, outside Darwin in
northern Australia (which targets Indonesian satellites); Leitrim,
just south of Ottawa in Canada (which appears to intercept Latin
American satellites); Bad Aibling in Germany; and Misawa in northern
Besides satellite and radio, the other main method of transmitting large quantities of public, business, and government communications is a combination of water cables under the oceans and microwave networks over land. Heavy cables, laid across seabeds between countries, account for much of the world’s international communications. After they come out of the water and join land-based microwave networks they are very vulnerable to interception.
The microwave networks are made up of chains of microwave towers relaying messages from hilltop to hilltop (always in line of sight) across the countryside.
These networks shunt large quantities of
communications across a country. Interception of them gives access
to international undersea communications (once they surface) and to
international communication trunk lines across continents. They are
also an obvious target for large-scale interception of domestic
The worldwide network of facilities to
intercept these communications is largely undocumented, and because
New Zealand’s GCSB does not participate in this type of
interception, my inside sources could not help either.
A 1994 expos of the Canadian UKUSA agency, Spyworld, co-authored by one of its former staff, Mike Frost, gave the first insights into how a lot of foreign microwave interception is done (see p. 18).
It described UKUSA "embassy
collection" operations, where sophisticated receivers and processors
are secretly transported to their countries’ overseas embassies in
diplomatic bags and used to monitor various communications in
The Canadian embassy collection was requested by the NSA to fill gaps in the American and British embassy collection operations, which were still occurring in many capitals around the world when Frost left the CSE in 1990. Separate sources in Australia have revealed that the DSD also engages in embassy collection.
the territory of UKUSA nations, the interception of land-based
telecommunications appears to be done at special secret intelligence
facilities. The US, UK, and Canada are geographically well placed to
intercept the large amounts of the world’s communications that cross
In 1991, a former British GCHQ official spoke anonymously to Granada Television’s World in Action about the agency’s abuses of power. He told the program about an anonymous red brick building at 8 Palmer Street where GCHQ secretly intercepts every telex which passes into, out of, or through London, feeding them into powerful computers with a program known as "Dictionary."
The operation, he explained, is staffed by carefully vetted British Telecom people:
What the documentary did not reveal is that
Dictionary is not just a
British system; it is UKUSA-wide.
Menwith Hill assists in the interception of microwave communications in another way as well, by serving as a ground station for US electronic spy satellites. These intercept microwave trunk lines and short range communications such as military radios and walkie talkies.
Other ground stations where the satellites’ information is fed into the global network are Pine Gap, run by the CIA near Alice Springs in central Australia and the Bad Aibling station in Germany.
Among them, the various stations and operations making up the
ECHELON network tap into all the main components of the world’s
telecommunications networks. All of them, including a separate
network of stations that intercepts long distance radio
communications, have their own Dictionary computers connected into
James Bamford wrote at that time about a new worldwide NSA computer network codenamed Platform,
The Dictionary computers are connected via highly encrypted UKUSA communications that link back to computer data bases in the five agency headquarters.
This is where all the intercepted messages selected by the Dictionaries end up. Each morning the specially "indoctrinated" signals intelligence analysts in Washington, Ottawa, Cheltenham, Canberra, and Wellington log on at their computer terminals and enter the Dictionary system.
keying in their security passwords, they reach a directory that
lists the different categories of intercept available in the data
bases, each with a four-digit code. For instance, 1911 might be
Japanese diplomatic cables from Latin America (handled by the
Canadian CSE), 3848 might be political communications from and about
Nigeria, and 8182 might be any messages about distribution of
Analysts scroll through screen after screen of intercepted faxes, e-mail messages, etc. and, whenever a message appears worth reporting on, they select it from the rest to work on.
If it is not in English, it is translated and
then written into the standard format of intelligence reports
produced anywhere within the UKUSA network either in entirety as a
"report," or as a summary or "gist."
A highly organized system has been developed to control what is being searched for by each station and who can have access to it.
This is at the heart of ECHELON
operations and works as follows.
For GCSB, this means South Pacific governments, Japanese
diplomatic, Russian Antarctic activities, and so on.
It is these sets of
words and numbers (and combinations), under a particular category,
that get placed in the Dictionary computers. (Staff in the five
agencies called Dictionary Managers enter and update the keyword
search lists for each agency.)
At the same time, the computer automatically notes technical details such as the time and place of interception on the piece of intercept so that analysts reading it, in whichever agency it is going to, know where it came from, and what it is. Finally, the computer writes the four-digit code (for the category with the keywords in that message) at the bottom of the message’s text. This is important.
It means that when all the
intercepted messages end up together in the database at one of the
agency headquarters, the messages on a particular subject can be
located again. Later, when the analyst using the Dictionary system
selects the four- digit code for the category he or she wants, the
computer simply searches through all the messages in the database
for the ones which have been tagged with that number.
It does not have any access to the raw intelligence coming out of the system to the other agencies. For example, although most of the GCSB’s intelligence production is primarily to serve the UKUSA alliance, New Zealand does not have access to the whole ECHELON network.
The access it does have is strictly controlled.
A New Zealand intelligence officer explained:
There is only one agency which, by virtue of its size and role within the alliance, will have access to the full potential of the ECHELON system the agency that set it up. What is the system used for?
Anyone listening to official "discussion" of intelligence could be forgiven for thinking that, since the end of the Cold War, the key targets of the massive UKUSA intelligence machine are terrorism, weapons proliferation, and economic intelligence. The idea that economic intelligence has become very important, in particular, has been carefully cultivated by intelligence agencies intent on preserving their post-Cold War budgets. It has become an article of faith in much discussion of intelligence.
However, I have found no
evidence that these are now the primary concerns of organizations
such as NSA.
A different story emerges after examining very detailed information I have been given about the intelligence New Zealand collects for the UKUSA allies and detailed descriptions of what is in the yards-deep intelligence reports New Zealand receives from its four allies each week.
There is quite a lot of intelligence collected about potential terrorists, and there is quite a lot of economic intelligence, notably intensive monitoring of all the countries participating in GATT negotiations.
But by far, the main priorities of the intelligence alliance
continue to be political and military intelligence to assist the
larger allies to pursue their interests around the world. Anyone and
anything the particular governments are concerned about can become a
They gave as examples GCHQ interception of three charitable organizations, including Amnesty International and Christian Aid.
As the Observer reported:
With telexes it is called Mayfly.
By keying in a code relating to Third World aid, the source was able to demonstrate telex "fixes" on the three organizations.
Without actually naming it, this was a fairly precise description of how the ECHELON Dictionary system works.
was not revealed in the publicity was that this is a UKUSA-wide
system. The design of ECHELON means that the interception of these
organizations could have occurred anywhere in the network, at any
station where the GCHQ had requested that the four-digit code
covering Third World aid be placed.
Telephone calls containing keywords are automatically extracted from the masses of other calls and recorded digitally on magnetic tapes for analysts back at agency headquarters. However, high volume voice recognition computers will be technically difficult to perfect, and my New Zealand-based sources could not confirm that this capability exists.
But, if or when it is perfected, the implications would be immense.
It would mean that the UKUSA agencies could use machines to search through all the
international telephone calls in the world, in the same way that
they do written messages. If this equipment exists for use in
embassy collection, it will presumably be used in all the stations
throughout the ECHELON network. It is yet to be confirmed how
extensively telephone communications are being targeted by the
ECHELON stations for the other agencies.
As a result of the revelations in my book, there is
currently a project under way in the Pacific to promote and supply
publicly available encryption software to vulnerable organizations
such as democracy movements in countries with repressive
governments. This is one practical way of curbing illegitimate uses
of the ECHELON capabilities.
Virtually everything the equipment, manuals, ways of operating, jargon, codes, and so on, used in the GCSB continues to be imported entirely from the larger allies (in practice, usually the NSA).
As with the Australian and Canadian
agencies, most of the priorities continue to come from the US, too.
On the day my book arrived in the book shops, without prior
publicity, there was an all-day meeting of the intelligence
bureaucrats in the prime minister’s department trying to decide if
they could prevent it from being distributed. They eventually
concluded, sensibly, that the political costs were too high. It is
understandable that they were so agitated.
Thus, in uncovering New Zealand’s role in the NSA-led alliance, my aim was to provide so much detail about the operations the technical systems, the daily work of individual staff members, and even the rooms in which they work inside intelligence facilities that readers could feel confident that they were getting close to the truth.
I hope the information leaked by intelligence staff in New Zealand about UKUSA and its systems such as ECHELON will help lead to change.