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Echelon System : FAQs and website links


Since Sunday first posted its interest in the Echelon system on the Sunday website over a year ago, we have received many calls, letters and emails from interested viewers, including those who are working or have worked in intelligence services here or overseas. We have found there are a number of consistent questions that people ask us about this fascinating area of espionage and we include this FAQ list on the site for that reason.

Q Is there any evidence that Australia's Defence Signals Directorate is doing anything improper or illegal with the spying resources at its disposal?
If DSD's up to no-good, no-one's provided us with any evidence that that's the case. And we can assure you, we've looked for it. Generally, our impressions of DSD are pretty good but we can't say we have the same confidence with either the NSA or the British GCHQ, which if you've read our story transcript stand accused of appalling abuses of privacy and private commercial dealings of other nations.
To be fair to DSD, our impressions of the organisation are that it is doing an important intelligence job well and staff have told us how strict management are about respecting the privacy obligations laid out in the classified SigInt Rules. If there are concerns, it's more to do with what happens to intelligence from communications intercepted on Australian soil that then get passed on to our UK-USA partners which are the concerns we canvassed in the program.

Q Do we know what the Americans are using the Echelon system facilities on Australian soil for?
The Geraldton facility in Western Australia is Australia's arm of the Echelon system. Based on information from good DSD sources, we understand that at the moment a large amount of the US interest via Geraldton is focussed on North Korea. The reason we know this is because, while the Americans generally get the use of about 70-80 percent of Geraldton's intercept capability, it is Australians who do the tasking of Geraldton's dictionary computer. So we effectively control where it is that any UK-USA partner looks via Australia's Geraldton facility. In the case of North Korea for example the dictionary would probably be tasked with key words such as the names of key officials in the North Korean ballistic missile program or specific telephone numbers or fax lines.
This does mean then that Australia does have some limited oversight because it gets to see what America is programming into the Australian-based computers. What concerns many critics of the Echelon system, including some inside DSD, is that we do not get to scrutinise the "take" that America gets out of Geraldton. The bulk of it gets sent back to the USA. Because many of the communications targeted by key-word intercepts are broad information conduits such as names or phone numbers, it is concerning to many people we spoke to that in that raw "take" there may be commercial intelligence for example that America passes on to US companies. If it is so used, we would never know because the whole system is automated.

Q Aren't the Americans really pulling the strings in all the other Australian Sigint bases and isn't it the case (as has been written before) that even Australians are banned from some areas of these Australian joint facilities?
No. There are Americans in Pine Gap and Nurrangar, as well as at Geraldton. But we learned to our surprise that Australians now head up all these facilities. It did use to be the case that the communications rooms for America and Australia at Pine Gap for example were off-limits to each other's country. The communications rooms were where all the directions for tasking and discussions about interceptions took place. But now Sunday understands Australians are not only running these facilities, they are also no longer denied access to any areas, including the American communications rooms. The fact that Australians now head up all these bases is not a battle Australia's defence mandarins won easily with the Americans. The US took some convincing, as US spy writer Jeff Richelson has revealed in his latest book.
The Shoal Bay intercept base near Darwin is totally Australian owned and operated although some overseas UK-USA personnel do visit there on exchanges. This is where Australia does much of its interception of Indonesian communications and it is Australians who process all the intercepted intelligence into reports. It is also Australians who decide whether that intelligence gets passed on to our US or British allies. Intelligence from Shoal Bay is not sent on automatically to any other UK-USA partners as it is via the Echelon facility at Geraldton.

Q If everyone else is doing it then why isn't Australia using its SigInt facilities to spy on her neighbours to obtain useful commercial intelligence for Australian companies?
Australia's intelligence gathering is still committed to servicing the needs of government, not business. We don't have the resources to devote huge slabs of Geraldton's time to searching for commercial intelligence, even if we wanted to. All our informants made it clear to Sunday that Australia may well head up the Geraldton facility but the US gets priority on the tasking and it gets by far the largest amount of time devoted to its interception needs. We can't spare what Australia gets left to do anything other than service Australia's defence and foreign policy needs.
There's also a more practical problem which is how would a spy service decide which businesses get the benefit of such intelligence? In the course of our research Sunday spoke to the head of one major Australian-based defence contractor who complained that our intelligence services are not using these spy facilities anywhere near enough to help Australian businesses. This, the contractor argued, was putting Australia at a considerable disadvantage in competition against countries like France and, he claimed, the US whom he alleged were heavily involved in providing top companies with useful intelligence.
Sunday understands that Australia does do economic intelligence gathering, as all intelligence services do. But, on occasion, we have used our intelligence services, including DSD's SigInt intercept abilities, to assist in procuring useful commercial intelligence where we perceive an Australian industry is being treated unfairly by improper or illegal overseas anti-competitive behaviour. The Japanese cartels that club together to keep Australia's iron ore prices low come to mind as one example, we'd suggest. The rationale for this very limited commercial intelligence-gathering is that we're helping a whole industry and not specific companies overcome an anti-competitive trade disadvantage.

Q What about all these personal satellite phones like the Iridium - Can the spooks listen in to those?
We were very surprised to learn in our research that the Iridium mobile phone is a huge problem for organisations like DSD. They are actually extremely difficult to intercept because the satellites that take the Iridium signal are not geostationary. They actually move very fast. For this reason, we understand the Iridium network phones can only really be effectively tapped if the spooks can get their receivers near the Iridium receiver and because it has a narrow, moving, footprint this still represents a major technological problem.

Q What about Australian companies - Does DSD spy on them?
The Director of DSD Martin Brady told Sunday in a written statement that companies incorporated in Australia are treated in the same way as Australian persons and accorded the protection of the SigInt Rules.
What his answer pointedly did not address however was whether DSD's SigInt Rules give such privacy protections to companies located in Australia that are not incorporated in Australia.
It's clear from talking to a range of sources that the SigInt Rules require Australia's DSD to give the same protections as it does to Australian incorporated companies to companies that are incorporated in any other of the UK-USA alliance countries. This is because of undertakings that the UK-USA countries have given each other. (The evidence would suggest that such undertakings have been broken in the past witness Canadian Mike Frost's evidence in our program, about Canada spying on British politicians for Margaret Thatcher but in principle, and generally in practice, we are told the rules forbid each country spying on each other's companies).
But there is nothing in the SigInt Rules stopping Australia, or any UK-USA nation, from spying on non-UK-USA nation companies that are located here in Australia but not incorporated in Australia. Previous reports on the US National Security Agency have revealed that it targeted French defence contractor Thomson CSF in South America. It would not be unreasonable to assume that our Echelon system facility can and is being tasked to keep an eye on the French although it did not seem to do New Zealand much good when the French Secret Service blew up the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour. New Zealand researcher Nicky Hagar's book Secret Power reveals the NZ Government obtained absolutely no intelligence via its Sigint facilities about this French operation.

Q How do we know that the Americans or the British aren't spying on us? Do we check?
It's largely a matter of trust. Echelon sites like Geraldton are in 24-hour contact with all the other UK-USA bases around the World network. Any time an Australian is intercepted and it does happen the requirement is that UK-USA members follow the SigInt Rules of that citizen's UK-USA country. Generally this means the Australians get contacted and asked what they want done with a communication involving an Australian. Every DSD staffer we spoke to said that Australia follows these rules religiously with other UK-USA countries. Of course this means that all bets are off if you happen to be a civilian from any country we are spying on. And, if you accept what former insiders like Mike Frost and Wayne Madsen told Sunday in the program, even the SigInt Rules are applied less rigorously by the Americans and the British.
It's clear from Sunday's inquiries both with DSD sources and with Australia's Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Bill Blick, that, inside Australia, the importance of protecting the privacy of Australians (and other UK-USA alliance citizens) is treated very seriously. But Australia's inspector-general doesn't get the right to inspect any of the other UK-USA nation's files. Since most of the Echelon intercept from Australia is squirted back to the NSA automatically, we really do have to take them on trust. Several excellent NSA sources, in addition to the ones we featured on the program, told our reporter Ross Coulthart that it would be foolish for us to accept any assurance that the US would never spy on a UK-USA ally.

Q If we have got all these incredible spying resources at our fingertips then why did Australia miss the Sandline organisation's negotiations with the Papua New Guinea Government (to use mercenaries on Bougainville)?
The Sandline affair highlighted the one major weakness of the entire SigInt communications intercept system intelligence can only ever be used effectively if it's identified early enough by the humans who get the intercepted communications. Australia does pull huge amounts of material out of its intercepts with PNG. In the case of Sandline, Sunday understands DSD did intercept some of the PNG Government's discussions with the Sandline organisation but not enough to recognise those discussions as being any different from the numerous imaginative schemes that are often discussed inside the PNG Government. It takes a human analyst to pick intercepted communications as being significant and, in this case, no-one picked the Sandline discussions as being something Australia's policymakers should get to hear about. It was a failure but, in the context of everything Australia gets to hear from PNG, an understandable one.


[Last updated April 1999] There's a mountain of material on the WWW about the Echelon system and some of it is a tad whacko, global-conspiracy-world government-fears kind of stuff. So we've included some links here that we particularly recommend:

The US magazine Covert Action Quarterly has excerpted extracts from New Zealander Nicky Hagar's book Secret Power, which is by far the best expose yet on the Echelon system:Covert Action Quarterly website

The Federation of American Scientists' website is an excellent general intelligence resource and it has an excellent appraisal of the Echelon system. Take a look also at the intelligence link to a place called Columbia Annexe. This is a British base on American soil that is alleged by FAS to be intercepting US citizens for the USA to circumvent domestic anti-spying laws. If the Brits and the Americans are doing that, then it would be an outrageous intrusion into the privacy of every American citizen and if they're doing it there, what are they up to closer to home you may well ask? FAS' researchers, including John Pike, have a formidable reputation for ferreting out extremely accurate information on spook programs from a huge range of public sources. Federation of American Scientists website

Just a few days before our story was broadcast, this article appeared in The London Daily Telegraph, alleging that the US was using its Menwith Hill facility for commercial espionage against German firms. Notably, it mentions an NSA employee appearing on German TV to confirm he stole secrets off a company called Enercon, which were passed on by the NSA to an American competitor. Link to story at London Daily Telegraph online

The FAS site includes this translation of an important article which appeared in French magazine Le Point, revealing the French are moving into an Echelon-style system. Crucially, it reveals how the French Secret Service, the DGSE, has a system to pass on intercepted commercial intelligence to French companies: Link to story at FAS site

Australia's very own arm of the UK-USA alliance, the Defence Signals Directorate, has recently revamped its website, we understand, in anticipation of the publicity it receives from our program. (We understand they've also considerably improved their firewall against computer hackers so don't even try it, they'll know who you are). The DSD has even put a puzzle on-line for anyone game enough to try to crack it the enticement is that if you are clever enough to know how to break the puzzle then you may want to consider a career in DSD. (We are assured it's not a bad place to work the only problem is you can never tell the family what you did at the office):Link to Defense Signals Directorate website

The US National Security Agency has a very impressive website, as you would expect from a multi-billion dollar intelligence agency. Note particularly how Americans are allowed to ask for material under the US Freedom of Information laws. These laws recently allowed media to reveal that both Lady Diana and Jacques Cousteau have extensive files inside the NSA from intercepted communications. Australia of course has excluded the DSD from the operations of the FOI Act so any interested people are not even allowed to know if the DSD has a file on them: Link to US National Security Agency website

The British UK-USA arm the Government Communications Headquarters, CCHQ, also has a website which, among other things, details the statutory footing on which GCHQ is currently operating unlike Australia's DSD. In an extraordinary display of openness, the GCHQ recently provided intercept of Bosnia war crimes evidence to the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague. But it still remains one of Britain's most secretive government organisations: Link to Government Communications Headquarters website

The first ever public disclosure about the existence of the Echelon system then known by the codeword Project 415 was by Scottish investigative journalist Duncan Campbell in the New Statesman magazine. As usual the British tried (unsuccessfully) to prosecute him and the very funny account of how barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC defended Campbell and his colleagues against absurd British secrecy laws can be found in Robertson's new book The Justice Game. Campbell remains one of the world's foremost authorities on Sigint: Link to article by Duncan Campbell

The controversial European Parliament report Appraisal of the Technologies of Political Control, which has fuelled much of the most recent concern about Echelon, can be found at: Link to European Parliament Report

The American newspaper Village Voice did an excellent piece on Echelon in August 1998: Link to Village Voice website

This May 1998 article in the London Sunday Times featured an interview with the former head of German counter-espionage Herr Joseph Karkowski (The ST misspelt his name as Tarkowski but it is Karkowski). Karkowski claims the NSA intercepted communications inside the German car company Opel which were provided to an American car manufacturer in flagrant breach of US assurances that it is not collecting commercial intelligence. What is particularly interesting about Karkowski's claims is that he says the Germans obtained the actual tapes that were provided to the American company. The German concerns about such bugging have to be taken with a considerable grain of salt however because evidence suggests that the French and Germans are running their own Echelon-style interception system themselves: Link to article at Sunday Times online

This UK Sunday Times article was one feature that detailed the French Echelon-style system that the French have established to rival the UK-USA facility at Menwith Hill in the UK: Link to Sunday Times article

If you're skeptical that it's possible to read your faxes going through a satellite, then read this gentleman's claims that he actually did an amateur version of Echelon interception. This was part of a series published in a satellite communications magazine in 1997. This Dr Dish site is an eye-opening technical explanation of just what's possible with readily available retail technology. Dr Dish ran a series in the German press, revealing what he was able to intercept off various telecommunications satellites, including evidence of breaches by Western countries of the Iraqi trade embargo. The clever fellow actually built his own mini-Echelon intercept system, plugging into the phone calls coming via satellite out of Iraq. [WARNING: Some countries, including Australia, have very strict laws banning either the construction or use of unlicensed devices used to intercept telecommunications and it is not something we encourage by linking you to this site. We only want you to know about it.]: Link to Dr Dish website