This is how it works: the N.S.A. and Britain’s Government Communication’s Headquarters (GCHQ) jointly analyse a wealth of signals intelligence using a search engine called ECHELON. This pinpoints key-words of interest to America or Britain when used in private communications, and then directs the guilty message to operatives for further analysis. The level of computational power at the disposal of the intelligence agencies must be truly awesome. The point is that if you inadvertently sat one of these buzz-words, then your phone call, e-mail, fax, or whatever will be looked into. This is not fiction, but fact. Or at least according to the European Union.This has only come to light because the Brussels administration is becoming increasingly annoyed by the perceived misuse of this system for U.S. economic interest. Complicating this is the role of Britain, an integral member of the European Union. Britain is accused of aiding her ally in economic espionage at the expense of other EU members. This comes at a time when Britain feels more isolated than ever in Europe whilst our economic performance has come into closer alignment with the States.
The signals intelligence from the various stations, however, is only accessible by GCHQ and the NSA. Quite what the other three countries stand to gain from this arrangement is anyone’s guess. This has been the case for many years, with an obvious target in the form of the Soviet Union. Since the demise of the red empire these agencies have remained busy, presumably with the many other hotspots and terrorist threats in the world. But now the EU is convinced that the Americans are using the global spying network to provide information, attained from the private communications of EU companies, to U.S. companies who are directly involved in the creation end implementation of ECHELON. This is clearly a scandalous situation, and puts Britain soundly in the dock for aiding the U.S. at the expense of Britain’s European partners.
The scandal has also upset Congress, as it has become clear through this investigation that the NSA have been able to spy on Americans by use of their facilities at Menwith Hill, England. It is unconstitutional for the Agency to spy on American citizens, but that has been neatly bypassed by using the British intelligence services as middle men. All because of the UKUSA agreement. The NSA have predictably met their political accusers with supreme arrogance, but face a rocky period ahead. It is likely that this previously top secret agency (NSA= No Such Agency) has now passed its sell-by date and already been replaced by another ultra-secret organisation.
Beyond the political repercussions of the EU’s understandable anger at the U.S. and Britain, it is now apparent that “Big Brother” has been a part of our daily lives for years. Yet this story receives little attention in the media. ECHELON has no doubt played an important role in the vital defence interests of the West, and the work of the intelligence agencies here is commendable. But we must again adjust to a further undemocratic infringement of our civil liberties in the quest for a safer world.
"Denmark's ministers can believe whatever they want to. I know Echelon exists, because I helped make the system." For the second day running, former Echelon spy Margaret Newsham tells about the 'Black World' of espionage - and the fatal consequences it is had on her life. Half of her espionage colleagues are dead today.
"The surveillance was incredibly target-oriented. We were capable of singling out an individual or organization and monitoring all electronic communication - real time - and all the time. The person was monitored without ever having a chance to discover it, and most of the information was sent with lightening speed to another station using the enormous digital capacity at our command. Everything took place without a search warrant."
Was all the information forwarded to NSA headquarters at Fort George Meade in Maryland? "Not all of it, but quite a lot."
Does the system use programs that are capable of virtually scouring the airwaves based on certain categories and trigger words? "That's one of the ways it functions, yes. It's like an Internet search engine. By restricting your search to specific numbers, persons or terms, you get results that are all related to whatever you enter."
BREACH OF SECURITY Ekstra Bladet met the former surveillance spy, Margaret Newsham, in her home just outside Las Vegas. By talking to Ekstra Bladet, she chose to break her silence and tell us as much as she considers to be reasonably safe. Because Newsham is still subject to the omertà of the intelligence services. According to this stringent code of silence, she is not allowed to reveal anything about her espionage activities for the NSA.
"But it is hard for me to live with the fact that I sold my life and my freedom of speech to the largest intelligence service of the US government." On the whole, it is difficult for Margaret Newsham to lead a normal life, even though she wants to do that most of all. In 1984, she was dismissed by Lockheed Martin, which built espionage equipment for NSA. Ultimately, she refused to work on a project which she felt was a security risk. She was 'terminated' as they called it - and she sued them for wrongful dismissal.
Was the US Government informed about the clandestine projects? "No. That's why we called them 'Black Programs". The government didn't really know what was happening or what the many billions were actually being used for. And I felt very loyal both to the government and to the American Constitution, which was constantly being infringed. The world of espionage was also called 'The Black World' because most of the operations were carried out in secrecy, beyond any control."Since her dismissal, Margaret Newsham has been under heavy pressure, because her case against Lockheed Martin could mean that an open court case would shed light on the NSA's 'black projects'. Among other things, the case deals with swindling for more than 10 billion DKK (ca. 1.4 billion USD), and for the time being, her lawyer has provided her with legal assistance that is the equivalent of 140 million DKK (ca. 20 million USD).
"It didn't help any when my husband asked for a divorce after I had survived my cardiac arrest. He is chief of security at Lockheed Martin and has also been under a lot of pressure. He was grossly harassed because of his affiliation with me," Newsham says.
She lives alone now and has struggled to maintain contact with her three children and six grandchildren. Today, she lives in a quiet Las Vegas suburb. Not even her neighbors know about her past.
"NSA's activities have not only affected me, but also my former espionage colleagues at Lockheed. Nearly half of the people I worked with on clandestine projects are either dead or mortally ill today. For example, my former boss on the Echelon project, Robert Looper, died prematurely of heart failure, and Kay Nickerson, who worked on developing the Stealth bomber, died of brain damage." But how could half of your former colleagues die prematurely?"
"I don't know how to explain it, but at one point we discovered that Lockheed's headquarters in Sunnyvale are built on top of a highly radioactive dumping ground."
What did they die of? "Heart failure, cancer, inexplicable seizures and brain damage. Even I am going to die of cancer before my time. But I have my lawyers, my doctor and my children and grandchildren to support me. They are the people I am fond of."
What gives you the courage to continue? "The fact that the NSA, CIA and NRO (National Reconnaissance Organization) are carrying on illegal espionage against the rest of the world. They say they are doing it to catch drug criminals, gunrunners and the like. But that doesn't give them the right to do what they're doing. They are constantly breaking the law."
"Now they can read about me then. I am living proof of Echelon's existence. I configured and ran a lot of Echelon's programs." Margaret Newsham shows us the order that stationed her at Menwith Hill, the specifications for some Echelon programs and other internal documents. We found discarded computer remnants at the Aflandshage Listening Post in Denmark designated "VAX RED".
Does that mean anything to you? "Yes, as a matter of fact it means two things. You see, I worked on VAX computers myself, and they were used on the Echelon project. The color RED probably refers to the classification level. Because the security system is based on the fact that only very few people have an overall picture of everything that goes on. Therefore, some employees have red tags, some purple, some blue and so on. That means that they are only allowed to work with certain parts of the projects, i.e. the ones that are classified under the same color. As a result, very few employees have a complete picture of what is really going on. Since my tag had all the colors, I had a good overview. I was also the one who made the back-up files."
Is there anything you would you have done differently? "Not for a second. It is important for the truth to come out. I don't believe we should put up with being controlled by 'Big Brother' in the future. But we put up with it now."
The ‘signals intelligence’ that is picked up by the Anglo-American intelligence gathering agencies can thus be searched for specific words or phrases that might indicate a threat to society, either through terrorism or illegal activities such as drug-smuggling. Communications highlighted by the ‘Echelon’ system can then be looked at more closely by intelligence officers in order to substantiate whether the source of that message is indeed a threat.Here’s the problem: Everyone’s telephone conversations, e-mails and Faxes are potentially capable of being monitored by the authorities. The secretive intelligence-gathering machinery that is in place involves some of the most powerful and sophisticated information technology available. The extent of the system’s coverage can only be guessed at. Other countries, who are allies of the US and the UK are taking notice, and there are some dissatisfied rumblings, particularly in the European Union.
In your capacity as Gloucester’s MP, I am writing to you for advice and, potentially, help, on a matter of long-standing importance.
For several years, I have become increasingly concerned about the trespassing of the security and intelligence services into our daily lives. Whilst recognising they have a vital role to play in our National Security interests, their work is increasingly seen as infringing upon our civil liberties domestically. The failure of the recent Electronic Communications Act to introduce new, sweeping powers for the security services, to monitor electronic communications domestically, is a tremendous relief to me, and prior to this climb-down I had been scrutinising the attitudes of several of the Prospective Parliamentary candidates for Gloucester on this issue. However, the fact remains that a Labour Government was trying to introduce these types of measures, and my confidence in the whole establishment has been sorely tested.
You will no doubt be aware of the on-going fuss about the Echelon surveillance system, which was in the news this week, bringing this intelligence set-up into the light of day, for the majority of Britons, for the first time. As the Sunday Telegraph put it on 13th February 2000:
and the US are facing unprecedented legal and political challenges from their
European allies over a secret Anglophone spy network. Newly declassified
documents last week provided the first official confirmation that the global
electronic eavesdropping operation exists.”
There is strong reason to believe that Echelon came into being through the highly secret UK/USA agreement, where 5 English-speaking nations agreed to share Signals Intelligence, with Britain and the USA being the senior partners over Canada, Australia and New Zealand at the start of the Cold War. Echelon, itself, has been in existence for a couple of decades now. It is alleged, by the EU, to currently have the capability to monitor millions of satellite communications every day, using ‘dictionary’ computers and possibly ‘word spotting’ programmes, and is used in monitoring general lines of communication, both international and domestic. These include telephone calls, faxes and e-mails. The computer systems available to the American NSA and GCHQ are some of the best in the world. There is little doubt that they are able to cope with this feat, and the recent Bill seems to bear this out.
My concern is whether this Echelon system is being used domestically at this time. I am aware that the law prohibits ‘tapping’ of domestic communications without the authorisation of the Home Secretary, but it is widely understood that this obstacle is skirted around by a reciprocal arrangement between the British and the Americans. In other words, the Americans monitor our communications, and the British monitor those in the US. The results are traded, and therefore avoid the problems of domestic tapping.
How do I go about discovering the truth of the matter? In the absence of a strong FOIA, is it possible to table Parliamentary questions which will elicit whether such activity takes place?
This isn’t just a problem for the Europeans, but one for citizens of this country, too. These allegations of wide-spread monitoring of communications, without effective over-sight by democratically elected bodies, creates the impression of a ‘Big Brother’ state out of control, fundamentally harming the public’s faith in the democratic process. Cynicism is already wide-spread amongst voters, and, in my opinion, more open government would go a long way towards preventing things deteriorating further. That does not appear to be forth-coming in any substantial capacity, despite the manifesto commitment of this Government.
I sincerely hope that you feel you may be able to help me here. I am quite willing to write to the appropriate bodies, but have no real idea where to begin. I would be extremely grateful if you were able to pursue this matter on my behalf, although I recognise that it may not have the sense of urgency attached to it that some of your case-load undoubtedly has.
Thank you for your time, and I hope that this letter finds you well.
I wrote another letter after 3 months to chase the matter up, and this was also forwarded onto the Home Office. After nearly 6 months, Tess received a reply from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, although she had originally made representations on my behalf to the Home Office. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw had forwarded my correspondence to Keith Vaz, the Minister for Europe. This was presumably because of the European Parliament’s current interest in this matter. Here is the ministerial reply from Keith Vaz MP, dated 5th December 2000:
That aside, this letter from Keith Vaz is as interesting for what is not said. He does not make any denial of the points I had made with regard to the global electronic eaves-dropping network Echelon, the UK/USA agreement or the sharing of intelligence between the Agencies of the Anglophone countries involved. He had ample opportunity to do so. Although operational procedures are avoided in such discussions, my bold statements were deserved of strong denial if they were incorrect. The implicit conclusion is that this information is generally accurate, and worthy of discussion at the highest levels of government.
This is an important point. Keith Vaz in no way dismisses my concerns, instead focussing on the parliamentary oversight of GCHQ’s activities, and the fundamental importance of the Human Rights issue, a point I raised in my second letter. He is at pains to indicate that the Agencies knowingly operate within the law.
Other important points he makes are about the reasons for the existence of such a surveillance system, which are entirely reasonable as I had noted myself, and the importance of proper, lawful regulation of electronic surveillance. He points out that an Agency of one country would not undertake information gathering on behalf of another Agency who are barred from such activity due to the unlawfulness of this activity in its own country. This is as close Mr Vaz gets to refuting any of my claims, and is somewhat reassuring. This is the exact point that is such a problem for the European countries that find themselves subject to American surveillance through the ‘domestic’ activities of the British GCHQ. That the Americans do gain information from European countries through British intelligence gathering is not in dispute, only the legality of this activity. Mr Vaz iterates clearly the lawfulness of the appropriate use of this activity in the UK and the US.
This matter is an undeniably complicated issue, underlining the complexity of Britain’s bi-lateral affiliation with the US and the EU. It is little wonder that the Europeans are twitchy about this subject, and the British tight-lipped. Given this context, Mr Vaz’s reply is remarkably informative. Personally, I am somewhat reassured by this, although questions remain unanswered about the extent to which this system has been used. That information is presumably classified, and one must take on faith the fact that the oversight by the judicial Commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee includes reasonably good access to this information when they collate their unclassified reports to Parliament.
© Andy Lloyd
27th December 2000