Sunday, January 15, 2006

The NSA Spy Engine: Echelon

The NSA Spy Engine: Echelon
By Jason Leopold
t r u t h o u t | Investigative Report
Monday 09 January 2006

A clandestine National Security Agency spy program
code-named Echelon was likely responsible for tapping
into the emails, telephone calls and facsimiles of
thousands of average American citizens over the past
four years in its effort to identify people suspected
of communicating with al-Qaeda terrorists, according
to half-a-dozen current and former intelligence
officials from the NSA and FBI.

The existence of the program has been known for
some time. Echelon was developed in the 1970s
primarily as an American-British intelligence sharing
system to monitor foreigners - specifically, during
the Cold War, to catch Soviet spies. But sources said
the spyware, operated by satellite, is the means by
which the NSA eavesdropped on Americans when President
Bush secretly authorized the agency to do so in 2002.

Another top-secret program code-named Tempest,
also operated by satellite, is capable of reading
computer monitors, cash registers and automatic teller
machines from as far away as a half-mile and is being
used to keep a close eye on an untold number of
American citizens, the sources said, pointing to a
little known declassified document that sheds light on
the program.

Echelon has been shrouded in secrecy for years. A
special report prepared by the European Parliament in
the late 1990s disclosed explosive details about the
covert program when it alleged that Echelon was being
used to spy on two foreign defense contractors - the
European companies Airbus Industrie and Thomson-CSF -
as well as sifting through private emails, industrial
files and cell phones of foreigners.

The program is part of a multinational spy effort
that includes intelligence agencies in Canada,
Britain, New Zealand and Australia, also known as the
Echelon Alliance, which is responsible for monitoring
different parts of the world.

The NSA has never publicly admitted that Echelon
exists, but the program has been identified in
declassified government documents. Republican and
Democratic lawmakers have long criticized the program
and have, in the past, engaged in fierce debate with
the intelligence community over Echelon because of the
ease with which it can spy on Americans without any
oversight from the federal government.

Mike Frost, who spent 20 years as a spy for the
CSE, the Canadian equivalent of the National Security
Agency, told the news program 60 Minutes in February
2000 how Echelon routinely eavesdrops on many average
people at any given moment and how, depending on what
you say either in an email or over the telephone, you
could end up on an NSA watch list.

"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," Frost said. "The computer
spit that conversation out. The analyst that was
looking at it was not too sure about what the
conversation 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."

Ironically, during the first Bush administration,
a woman named Margaret Newsham, who worked for
Lockheed Martin and was stationed at the NSA's Menwith
Hill listening post in Yorkshire, England, told
Congressional investigators that she had firsthand
knowledge that the NSA was illegally spying on
American citizens.

While a Congressional committee did look into
Newsham's allegations, it never published a report.
However, a British investigative reporter named Duncan
Campbell got hold of some committee documents and
discovered that Newsham was telling the truth. One of
the documents described a program called "Echelon"
that would monitor and analyze "civilian
communications into the 21st century."

As of 2000, sources said, the NSA had Echelon
listening posts located in: Menwith Hill, Britain;
Morwenstow, Britain; Bad Aibling, Germany; Geraldton
Station, Australia; Shoal Bay, Australia; Waihopai,
New Zealand; Leitrim, Canada; Misawa, Japan; Yakima
Firing Center, Seattle; Sugar Grove, Virginia.

A January 1, 2001, story in the magazine Popular
Mechanics disclosed details of how Echelon works.

"The electronic signals that Echelon satellites
and listening posts capture are separated into two
streams, depending upon whether the communications are
sent with or without encryption," the magazine
reported. "Scrambled signals are converted into their
original language, and then, along with selected
"clear" messages, are checked by a piece of software
called Dictionary. There are actually several
localized "dictionaries." The UK version, for example,
is packed with names and slang used by the Irish
Republican Army. Messages with trigger words are
dispatched to their respective agencies."

Electronic signals are captured and analyzed
through a series of supercomputers known as
dictionaries, which are programmed to search through
each communication for targeted addresses, words,
phrases, and sometimes individual voices. The
communication is then sent to the National Security
Agency for review. Some of the more common sample key
words that the NSA flags are: terrorism, plutonium,
bomb, militia, gun, explosives, Iran, Iraq, sources

Because Echelon can easily spy on Americans
without any oversight or detection, and because
Echelon covers such a wide spectrum of communication,
many current and former NSA officials said that it's
likely the agency used its satellites to target
Americans, Mark Levin, a former chief of staff to
Edwin Meese during the Reagan administration, wrote
last month in a blog post on the National Review

"Under the ECHELON program, the NSA and certain
foreign intelligence agencies throw an extremely wide
net over virtually all electronic communications
world-wide. There are no warrants. No probable cause
requirements. No FISA court. And information is
intercepted that is communicated solely between US
citizens within the US, which may not be the purpose
of the program but, nonetheless, is a consequence of
the program."

Jason Leopold spent two years covering
California's electricity crisis as Los Angeles bureau
chief of Dow Jones Newswires. Jason has spent the last
year cultivating sources close to the CIA leak
investigation, and is a regular contributer to t r u t
h o u t.

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