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Jason Leopold: 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 said.

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 Online.

"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 invesigation, and will be a regular contributer to t r u t h o u t.

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