Your Influence Counts ... Use It! The SPOTLIGHT by Liberty Lobby

Reprinted from, home of The SPOTLIGHT archive

Uncle Sam spies on U.S. citizens

  • Nothing is private anymore, as a vast spying system, known as Echelon, can intercept everything from your most confidential financial transactions to communications between senators and congressmen to cables between foreign officials.
By Christopher Petherick

Accusations that the U.S. government spies on foreign governments, or even its own citizens, as well as foreign governments, is certainly nothing new. However, within the past decade, advances in what is called signals intelligence (SIGINT) technology in high-tech surveillance have radically changed the way the system works and its potential for abuse.

With the end of the Cold War, the world's intelligence agencies have taken a new direction, focusing surveillance on "unpopular" political groups and economic activity by directing their surveillance networks to intercept and form of communication anywhere around the world.

According to Patrick S. Poole, deputy director at the Center for Technology Policy in Washington, D.C. and an authority on advanced spy networks, one of today's most powerful global signals intelligence systems is Echelon.

Poole says that echelon is the primary system of surveillance utilized by an alliance of five nations in a still-secret agreement called UKUSA. The agreement brings together the intelligence agencies, under the direction of the National Security Agency, from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

The UKUSA agreement was rooted in an alliance ratified on May 17, 1943, between the United States and the United Kingdom called the BRUSA COMINT (Communications Intelligence. However, it was not until the formation of the Commonwealth SIGINT Organization in 1946 that the remaining three countries, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, were brought together.

One year later, the UKUSA agreement was established, and set its all seeing eyes on Communism and, more specifically, the former U.S.S. R. And with the establishment of the National Security Agency (NSA) in 1952 under Harry Truman, this notorious U.S. agency took the lead in the alliance, which it has resolutely held on to ever since.

Other members reportedly joined shortly thereafter as third parties including Germany, Japan, Norway, South Korea and Turkey. However, according to John Pike, the director for cyberstrategy projects at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, they are only included through specific intelligence alliances and do not have direct access to the system.


Within the past decade, a number of disclosures by intelligence leaks have confirmed this incredible system, and brought the pandemic misuse of it into limited public view.

The London Observer, on June 18, 1992, received confidential information from six British spooks confirming the existence of a giant base on the UK that houses a significant number of NSA staff. The agents told the Observer, "We feel we can no longer remain silent regarding that which we regard to be gross malpractice and negligence with in the establishment in which we operate."

The spies spoke of Menwith Hill -- the largest of the bases which is located in the UK. They disclosed how, among other things, the surveillance equipment is directly tapped into phone lines in Britain and is focused on satellites, listening to all the world's communications, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

In order to prove their claims, the agents then provided intercepted messages from the organizations Amnesty International and Christian Aid.

Later, an article published by Covert Action Quarterly (CAQ) in the winter of 1996 -97, by Nicky Hager, exposed New Zealand's intelligence agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), whereupon an inside source detailed a great deal of specific intelligence information on their involvement in Echelon.

Several U.S. newspapers also received tips and, in some cases, documentation from spies relating similar information.

In two separate instances in the United States, a senator and a congressman expressed their concern in major establishment newspapers when they learned of transcripts of their telephone conversations and intercepted diplomatic cables leaded by the NSA.

Former Maryland Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D) recounted to The Baltimore Sun how his conversations to Nicaraguan officials were recorded by NSA and then leaked to the press.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) Was recorded by NSA officials at Mensith station in the UK in 1988. An agent told the Plain Dealer that she had real-time intercepts of conversations that the senator had with other government officials. A source in the NSA told one reporter that "We's listen to senators, representatives, government agencies, housewives talking to their lovers..."

Officials concede that there is very little a person can do to insure privacy and hide from the likes of spy networks, especially one so effective as Echelon.


Echelon is composed of a complex network of 'listening and reception" stations strategically placed around the world. These bases are responsible for intercepting civilian and commercial traffic, as well as communications from foreign governments.

In the United states, there are two facilities. One is located in Yakima, Wash., code named "cowboy,' which picks up transmissions from the Pacific Ocean in the Northern hemisphere, as well as from parts of the Far East. The other is located at the NSA facility in Sugar Grove, W.V., which intercepts communications from both North and South America. Other stations have been placed in such locations as New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Germany and Japan.

Besides being able to pull communications directly from tapped phone lines and radio transmission, the Echelon facilities focus their radar toward a group of satellites which literally suck electronic communications, telephone and radio transmissions out of the air. Many of the radar are enclosed in structures known as "radomes," which protect the satellite dishes form inclement weather and also keep civilians -- specifically, nosy reporters and activists -- from seeing where the radar are aimed.

Recently, with the missive proliferation of satellites, it has become easier for Echelon to tap into all sorts of global communications. According to the United States Space command, there are presently 2548 satellites orbiting the Earth. Government agencies, including the Department of Defense, and private contractors spend billions of dollars annually improving and replacing the existing systems.

The two primary "downlink" stations, intercepting communications via satellites, are located at the Menwith Hill facility in the UK and at Pine Gap, Australia. These stations are under the strict control of the NSA, with all employees reporting directly back to the United States.

According to Poole, the most important part of this surveillance system, however, is not the series of satellites that the radar home in on, even though the sheer number os satellites in the sky have certainly made spying easier for governments. The key component of this spy network is the extensive computer system known as Dictionaries.

These supercomputers have the ability to sort and flag messages based on certain criteria that have been entered into the system. The radical technology lies in the system's ability to "decrypt, filter examine and codify" huge amounts of information.

Pike told The SPOTLIGHT the computers even have a voice patterns from a data-base, so as to target certain individuals. This last element, however, could not be verified by Hager's New Zealand leak.

The Echelon dictionaries work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, looking for critical information to steal and deliver to agents. Messages are them sorted and given a four-digit code signifying the source or subject. Hager's insider gave examples of number coding, such as 3848 for political communications from Nigeria or 8182 for encryption information.

NSA-trained analysts are present at all facilities and go over the daily intercepts, red flagging the most important transmissions, forwarding them on to superiors at NSA in the United States.

There has been an outcry in Europe. European officials have been especially critical of their own intelligence agencies spying on "behalf of the United States."

Unlike American telecommunications companies have reacted quite differently to UKUSAs indiscriminate surveillance.

A french lawyer representing a group of French defense, aerospace and telecommunications companies remarked: "What is Great Britain, as a member of the European Union, doing participating in a program which, since the end of the cold War, had concentrated on spying on her European neighbors on behalf of the United States?"

In Italy, the head of the parliamentary committee for information and security services, has demanded an explanation of Menwith Hill's activities from the Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

Yet despite all of the growing criticism, the NSA and the Department of Defense (DoD) still will not admit the existence of Echelon, as illustrated by their unwillingness to even address the matter, hiding behind an impenetrable wall for the sake of "national security."

In a recent DoD briefing, the press questioned Capt. Mike Doubleday, a DoD spokesman, about a report in the European parliament concerning Echelon. He curtly responded: "I'm sorry I have absolutely nothing on that."

Press: "Thank you."