Electronic spying gleans world's 'top level secrets'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A new book published in New Zealand today is likely to irritate Western intelligence chiefs, with its detailed account of the global electronic intelligence network being used by the English-speaking nations to spy on the world's communications - from top-level diplomatic and military messages to babble on the Internet.

The book, Secret Power, by political campaigner Nicky Hager, is based on interviews with past and present intelligence employees who have worked on the top secret new system, called Echelon. The system is used by Britain's electronic spy agency GCHQ, as well as by its American, Australian and Canadian counterparts.

To avoid the risks of another Spycatcher legal action by the British government or by the New Zealand government on its behalf, the publishers of Secret Power maintained a news blackout about their plans until last night, when copies were released in New Zealand cities.

The New Zealand whistleblowers describe Echelon as an automated international surveillance system, which integrates secret monitoring stations across the globe using the intelligence agencies' own network of satellites and listening bases. At each base, computers known as Echelon Dictionaries automatically search through intercepted messages according to target lists of subjects and people.

The significance of the new system, says Hager, is that before Echelon different countries and different stations knew what was being intercepted and to whom it was being sent. Now, even security cleared operators may not know what raw information is being sent out, or to whom.

The Dictionary computers hold lists of different categories of intercept available on the system, identified by code. The targets in the South Pacific include Japanese commercial and diplomatic messages as well as regional communications and the operations of Russian fishing boats and Antarctic bases.

According to operators, Dictionary search results appear "almost instantaneously".

By 1992, according to a former national security agency chief, the overall international system was processing 2 million intercepted messages every hour. An unnamed New Zealand Echelon operator says that while the Americans have access to everything collected by its allies, they do not share all their information. "The [intelligence] agencies can all apply for numbers on each other's Dictionaries. The hardest to deal with are the Americans. [There are] more hoops to jump through, unless it is in their interest in which case they'll do it for you."

The operatives say that Dictionary computers have been installed throughout the world at listening stations and intelligence agency headquarters. GCHQ's London Dictionary computers scan telex and data messages passing through British Telecom's international network.

In a foreword to the book, David Lange, who was Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1984-89, says that much of the book's information has come as a surprise to him, despite having taken a decision which allowed the Echelon project to go ahead in New Zealand.

"An astonishing number of people," Mr Lange says, had told the author "things that I as Prime Minister in charge of the intelligence services was never told... It is an outrage that I and other ministers were told so little. This raises the question of to whom those concerned saw themselves ultimately answerable."

Mr Lange admits that he grudgingly authorised the construction of a New Zealand satellite monitoring station in 1984 but says he had no idea that thereby "we had been committed to an international integrated electronic network".

The importance of the new Pacific stations linking into the Echelon system, says Hager, was that after the late 1980s, Britain and America could no longer listen to all the world's communications solely from stations on their own territories.

Comments