by Tom Burghardt
July 12, 2013
People are shocked by the scope of
secret state spying on their private communications, especially in
light of documentary evidence leaked to media outlets by former NSA
While the public is rightly angered by the illegal, unconstitutional
NSA programs which seize and store data for retrospective
harvesting by intelligence and law enforcement officials, including
the content of,
...in secret, and with little in the way
of effective oversight - the historical context of how, and why,
this vast spying apparatus came to be is often given short shrift.
Revelations about NSA spying didn't begin June 5, 2013 however, the
The Guardian published a top secret
FISA Court Order to Verizon, ordering the firm turn over the
telephone records on millions of its customers "on an ongoing daily
PRISM there was
the top secret surveillance
program whose all-encompassing "dictionaries" (high-speed
computers powered by complex algorithms) ingest and sort key
words and text scooped-up by a global network of satellites,
from undersea cables and land-based microwave towers.
Past as Prologue
Confronted by a dizzying array of code-named programs, the casual
observer will assume the spymasters running these intrusive
operations are all-knowing mandarins with their fingers on the pulse
of global events.
Yet, if disastrous US policies from Afghanistan and Iraq to the
ongoing capitalist economic meltdown tell us anything, it is that
the American superpower, in President Nixon's immortal words, really
is "a pitiful, helpless giant."
In fact, the same programs used to surveil the population at large
have also been turned inward by the National Security State (NSA) against
itself and targets military and political elites who long thought
themselves immune from such close attention.
Coupled with Snowden's disclosures, those of former NSA officer
Russell Tice (first reported
here), revealed that the agency - far in excess of the dirt
collected by FBI spymaster J. Edgar Hoover in his "secret and
confidential" black files - has compiled dossiers on their alleged
controllers, for political leverage and probably for blackmail
purposes to boot.
While Tice's allegations certainly raised eyebrows and posed
fundamental questions about who is really in charge of American
policy - elected officials or unaccountable securocrats with deep
ties to private security corporations - despite being deep-sixed by
US media, they confirm previous reporting about the agency.
When investigative journalist Duncan Campbell first blew the lid off NSA's ECHELON program,
his 1988 piece for New Statesman
revealed that a whistleblower, Margaret Newsham, a software designer
employed by Lockheed at the giant agency listening post at Menwith
Hill in North Yorkshire, England, stepped forward and told the House
Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in closed session, that
NSA was using its formidable intercept capabilities,
"to locate the
telephone or other messages of target individuals."
Campbell's reporting was followed in 1996 by New Zealand
investigative journalist Nicky Hager's groundbreaking book,
Secret Power, the first detailed account of NSA's global
A summary of Hager's findings can be found in
the 1997 piece that appeared in
As Campbell was preparing that 1988 article, a report in the
Cleveland Plain Dealer alleged that arch-conservative US Senator
Strom Thurman was one target of agency phone intercepts, raising
fears in political circles that,
"NSA has restored domestic,
electronic, surveillance programs," said to have been dialed-back
in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Ironically enough, congressional efforts to mitigate abuses by the
intelligence agencies exposed by the Church and Pike Committees in
the 1970s, resulted in the 1978 creation of the Foreign Intelligence
The New York Times reported July 7, that court,
"in more than
a dozen classified rulings... has created a secret body of law
giving the National Security Agency the power to amass vast
collections of data on Americans," a "parallel Supreme Court" whose
rulings are beyond legal challenge.
88-page report on ECHELON published in 2000 by the
Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
Newsham said that when she worked on the development of SILKWORTH at
the secret US base, described as,
"a system for processing
information relayed from signals intelligence satellites," she told
Campbell and other reporters, including CBS News'
that "she witnessed and overheard" one of Thurman's intercepted
Like Thomas Drake, the senior NSA official prosecuted by the Obama
administration under the 1917 Espionage Act, for information he
The Baltimore Sun over widespread waste, fraud and abuse in
the agency's failed Trailblazer program, Newsham had testified
before Congress and filed a lawsuit against Lockheed over charges of
"corruption and mis-spending on other US
government 'black' projects."
A year earlier, in a 1999 on the record interview with the Danish
Ekstra Bladet, Newsham spoke to journalists
Bo Elkjaer and
Kenan Seeberg, telling them of her "constant fear" that "certain
elements" within the US secret state would "try to silence her"; a
point not lost on Edward Snowden today.
"As a result," the newspaper reported, "she sleeps with a loaded
pistol under her mattress, and her best friend is Mr. Gunther - a
120-pound German shepherd that was trained to be a guard and attack
dog by a good friend in the Nevada State Police."
"To me," the whistleblower said, "there are only two issues at stake
here: right or wrong. And the longer I worked on the clandestine
surveillance projects, the more I could see that they were not only
illegal, but also unconstitutional."
"Even then," between 1974 and 1984 when she worked on ECHELON, it
"was very big and sophisticated."
"As early as 1979 we could track a specific person and zoom in on
his phone conversation while he was communicating," Newsham averred.
"Since our satellites could in 1984 film a postage stamp lying on
the ground, it is almost impossible to imagine how all-encompassing
the system must be today."
When queried about "which part of the system is named Echelon,"
Newsham told the reporters:
"The computer network itself. The
software programs are known as SILKWORTH and SIRE, and one of the
most important surveillance satellites is named VORTEX. It
intercepts things like phone conversations."
Despite evidence presented in her congressional testimony about
these illegal operations,
"no substantive investigation took place,
and no report was made to Congress," Campbell later wrote.
"Since then," the British journalist averred, "investigators have
subpoenaed other witnesses and asked them to provide the complete
plans and manuals of the ECHELON system and related projects. The
plans and blueprints are said to show that targeting of US
political figures would not occur by accident, but was designed into
the system from the start."
This would explain why members of Congress, the federal Judiciary
and the Executive Branch itself, as Tice alleges, tread lightly when
it comes to crossing NSA.
However, as information continues to
emerge about these privacy-killing programs it should also be clear
that the agency's prime targets are not "terrorists," judges or
politicians, but the American people themselves.
In fact, as Snowden stated in a powerful message published by
"In the end the Obama administration is not afraid of
whistleblowers like me, Bradley Manning or Thomas Drake. We are
stateless, imprisoned, or powerless.
No, the Obama administration is
afraid of you. It is afraid of an informed, angry public demanding
the constitutional government it was promised - and it should be."
How did we get here?
Is there a direct line from Cold War-era
programs which targeted the Soviet Union and their allies, and which
now, in the age of capitalist globalization, the epoch of
planet-wide theft and plunder, now targets the entire world's
Roots - The UKUSA Agreement
Lost in the historical mists surrounding the origins of the Cold
War, the close collaboration amongst Britain and the United States
as they waged war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, by war's
end had morphed into a permanent intelligence-military alliance
which predated the founding of NATO.
With the defeat of the Axis
powers, a new global division of labor was in the offing led by the
undisputed superpower which emerged from the conflagration, the
Self-appointed administrator over Europe's old colonial holdings
across Africa, Asia and the Middle East (the US already
America as its private export dumping ground and source for raw
materials), the US used its unparalleled position to benefit the
giant multinational American firms grown larger and more profitable
than ever as a result of wartime economic mobilization managed by
By 1946, the permanent war economy which later came to be known as
the Military-Industrial Complex, a semi-command economy directed by
corporate executives, based on military, but also on emerging
high-tech industries bolstered by taxpayer-based government
investments, was already firmly entrenched and formed the
political-economic base on which
the so-called "American Century"
While resource extraction and export market domination remained the
primary goal of successive US administrations (best summarized by
the slogan, "the business of government is business"), advances in
technology in general and telecommunications in particular, meant
that the system's overlords required an intelligence apparatus that
was always "on" as it "captured" the flood of electronic signals
coursing across the planet.
The secret British and US agencies responsible for cracking German,
Japanese and Russian codes during the war found themselves in a
Should they declare victory and go home or train their
sights on the new (old) adversary - their former ally, the Soviet
Union - but also on home grown and indigenous communist and
socialist movements more generally?
In opting for the latter, the UK-US wartime partnership evolved into
a broad agreement to share signals and communications intelligence (SIGINT
and COMINT), a set-up which persists today.
In 1946, Britain and the United States signed the United
Kingdom-United States of America Agreement (UKUSA), a multilateral
treaty to share signals intelligence amongst the two nations and
Britain's Commonwealth partners, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Known as the "Five Eyes" agreement, the treaty was such a
closely-guarded secret that Australia's Prime Minister was kept in
the dark until 1973!
In 2010, the British
Archives released previously classified Government
Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) files that provide an important
historical overview of the agreement.
Also in 2010, the National
Security Agency followed suit and published formerly classified
from their archives. Accompanying NSA's release was a 1955
amended version of the treaty.
It's secretive nature is clearly spelled out: "It will be contrary
to this Agreement to reveal its existence to any third party unless
otherwise agreed by the two parties."
Security Archive published a series of previously classified
documents obtained from NSA under the Freedom of Information Act
that revealed agency thinking on a range of subjects, from global
surveillance to cyberwar.
What we have learned from these sources and reporting by Duncan
Campbell and Nicky Hager, are that the five agencies feeding the
Communications Security Establishment (CSE)
Signals Directorate (DSD)
New Zealand's Government
Communications Security Bureau (GCSB),
...are subdivided into first and
second tier partners,
with the US, as befitting a hyperpower,
forming the "1st party"
and the UK, Australia, Canada
and New Zealand forming "2nd party" partners
Under terms of UKUSA, intelligence "products" are defined as,
Collection of traffic
02. Acquisition of communications documents
03. Traffic analysis
Decryption and translation
06. Acquisition of information regarding
communications organizations, procedures, practices and equipment"
"Such exchange," NSA informed us, "will be unrestricted on all work
undertaken except when specifically excluded from the agreement at
the request of either party and with the agreement of the other."
"It is the intention of each party," we're told, "to limit such
exceptions to the absolute minimum and to exercise no restrictions
other than those reported and mutually agreed upon."
This certainly leaves wide latitude for mischief as we learned with
the Snowden disclosures.
Amid serious charges that "Five Eyes" were illegally seizing
industrial and trade secrets from "3rd party" European partners such
as France and Germany, detailed in the European Parliament's 2001 report
The Existence of The ECHELON Interception System
- European Parliament Report), it should be clear by now that since its launch
in 1968 when satellite communications became a practical reality,
ECHELON has evolved into a global surveillance complex under US
Surveillance System Today
The echoes of those earlier secret programs reverberate in today's
The Guardian reported that the "collection of traffic" cited in
UKUSA has been expanded to GCHQ's,
"ability to tap into and store
huge volumes of data drawn from fibre-optic cables for up to 30 days
so that it can be sifted and analyzed. That operation, codenamed
Tempora, has been running for some 18 months."
Then on July 6,
The Washington Post disclosed that NSA has tapped directly into
those fiber optic cables, as AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein described
Wired Magazine in 2006, and now scoops-up petabyte scale
communications flowing through the US internet backbone.
was able to accomplish this due to the existence of,
corporate cell of American citizens with government clearances."
"Among their jobs documents show, was ensuring that surveillance
requests got fulfilled quickly and confidentially."
Following up on July 10, the
Post published a new PRISM slide from the 41-slide deck provided
to the paper by Edward Snowden.
The slide revealed that "two types of collection" now occur.
the PRISM program that collects information from technology firms
such as Google, Apple and Microsoft.
The second source is, "a
separate category labeled 'Upstream,' described as accessing
'communications on fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows
Der Spiegel, reported that NSA averred the agency,
target its 2nd party partners, nor request that 2nd parties do
anything that is inherently illegal for NSA to do."
This is an
outright falsehood exposed by former Canadian Communications
Security Establishment (CSE) officer Mike Frost.
In a 1997 CovertAction Quarterly exposť, Frost recounted how,
operated alone or joined with NSA or GCHQ to:
communications in other countries from the confines of Canadian
embassies around the world with the knowledge of the ambassador
politicians, political parties, or factions in an allied country to
gain partisan advantage
spy on its allies
spy on its own citizens
perform 'favors' that helped its allies evade domestic laws
"Throughout it all," Frost insisted, "I was trained and controlled
by US intelligence which told us what to do and how to do it."
Everyone else, Der Spiegel reports, is fair game.
"For all other
countries, including the group of around 30 nations that are
considered to be 3rd party partners, however, this protection does
not apply. 'We can, and often do, target the signals of most 3rd
party foreign partners,' the NSA boasts in an internal
It should also be clear that targeting isn't strictly limited to the
governments and economic institutions of "3rd party foreign
partners," but extends to the private communications of their
Der Spiegel, citing documents supplied by Snowden,
reported that the agency,
"gathered metadata from some 15 million
telephone conversations and 10 million Internet datasets."
newsmagazine noted that,
"the Americans are collecting from up to
half a billion communications a month in Germany," describing the
surveillance as "a complete structural acquisition of data."
Despite hypocritical protests by European governments, on the
contrary, Snowden disclosed that those "3rd party" partners are
joined at the hip with their "Five Eyes" cousins.
In a recent interview with
Der Spiegel, Snowden was asked if,
"German authorities or German
politicians [are] involved in the NSA surveillance system?"
"Yes, of course. We're in bed together with the Germans the same as
with most other Western countries.
For example, we tip them off when
someone we want is flying through their airports (that we for
example, have learned from the cell phone of a suspected hacker's
girlfriend in a totally unrelated third country) and they hand them
over to us.
They don't ask to justify how we know something, and
vice versa, to insulate their political leaders from the backlash of
knowing how grievously they're violating global privacy."
Disclosing new information on how UKUSA functions today, Snowden
told the German newsmagazine:
"In some cases, the so-called Five Eye
Partners go beyond what NSA itself does. For instance, the UK's
General [sic] Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has a system called
"TEMPORA," the whistleblower averred, "is the signals intelligence
community's first 'full-take' Internet buffer that doesn't care
about content type and pays only marginal attention to the Human
Rights Act. It snarfs everything, in a rolling buffer to allow
retroactive investigation without missing a single bit."
"Right now," Snowden said, "the buffer can hold three days of
traffic, but that's being improved. Three days may not sound like
much, but remember that that's not metadata. 'Full-take' means it
doesn't miss anything, and ingests the entirety of each circuit's
If you send a single ICMP packet and it routes through the
UK, we get it. If you download something and the CDN (Content
Delivery Network) happens to serve from the UK, we get it. If your
sick daughter's medical records get processed at a London call
center... well, you get the idea."
We do; and thanks to Edward Snowden we now know that everyone is a