Echelon System: FAQs and website links
Reporter: Ross Coulthart


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

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

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.


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

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

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.

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.

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

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)

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

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

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

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

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.]

(c) 1997/1998 ninemsn Pty Limited. All Rights Reserved.
Sunday May 23, 1999

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