[ISN] Listening In (Echelon/sniffing/NSA)

From: mea culpa (jerichoat_private)
Date: Sat Aug 15 1998 - 16:36:32 PDT

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    Listening In
    Suppose, this past weekend, you sent an e-mail to a friend overseas. 
    There's a reasonable possibility your communication was intercepted by a
    global surveillance system--especially if you happened to discuss last
    week's bombings in East Africa. 
    Or suppose you're stuck in traffic and in your road rage you whip out a
    cell phone and angrily call your congressman's office in Washington. 
    There's a chance the government is listening in on that conversation, too
    (but only for the purposes of "training" new eavesdroppers). 
    Or suppose you're on a foreign trip--vacation, business, relief work--and
    you send off a fax to some folks that Washington doesn't view too keenly.
    Your message could be taken down and analyzed by the very same system. 
    That system is called ECHELON and it is controlled by the U.S. National
    Security Agency (NSA). In America, it is the Intelligence Network That
    Dare Not Be Acknowledged. Questions about it at Defense Department
    briefings are deftly deflected.  Requests for information about it under
    the Freedom of Information Act linger in bureaucratic limbo.  Researchers
    who mention possible uses of it in the presence of intelligence officials
    are castigated. Members of Congress--theoretically, the people's
    representatives who provide oversight of the intelligence
    community--betray no interest in helping anyone find out anything about
    it. Media outlets (save the award-winning but low-circulation Covert
    Action Quarterly) ignore it.  In the official view of the U.S. 
    Government, it doesn't exist. 
    But according to current and former intelligence officials, espionage
    scholars, Australian and British investigative reporters, and a dogged New
    Zealand researcher, it is all too real. Indeed, a soon-to-be finalized
    European Parliament report on ECHELON has created quite a stir on the
    other side of the Atlantic.  The report's revelations are so serious that
    it strongly recommends an intensive investigation of NSA operations. 
    The facts drawn out by these sources reveal ECHELON as a powerful
    electronic net--a net that snags from the millions of phone, fax, and
    modem signals traversing the globe at any moment selected communications
    of interest to a five-nation intelligence alliance.  Once intercepted
    (based on the use of key words in exchanges), those communiqués are sent
    in real time to a central computer system run by the NSA; round-the-clock
    shifts of American, British, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand
    analysts pour over them in search of . . .  what? 
    Originally a Cold War tool aimed at the Soviets, ECHELON has been
    redirected at civilian targetsworldwide. In fact, as the European
    Parliament report noted, political advocacy groups like Amnesty
    International and Greenpeace were amongst ECHELON's targets. The system's
    awesome potential (and potential for abuse) has spurred some traditional
    watchdogs to delve deep in search of its secrets, and even prompted some
    of its minders within the intelligence community to come forward. "In some
    ways," says Reg Whittaker, a professor and intelligence scholar at
    Canada's York University, "it's probably the most useful means of getting
    at the Cold War intelligence-sharing relationship that still continues." 
    While the Central Intelligence Agency--responsible for covert operations
    and human-gathered intelligence, or HUMINT--is the spy agency most people
    think of, the NSA is, in many respects, the more powerful and important of
    the U.S.  intelligence organizations. Though its most egregious excesses
    of 20 years ago are believed to have been curbed, in addition to
    monitoring all foreign communications, it still has the legal authority to
    intercept any communication that begins or ends in the U.S., as well as
    use American citizens' private communications as fodder for trainee spies.
    Charged with the gathering of signals intelligence, or SIGINT--which
    encompasses all electronic communications transmissions--the NSA is
    larger, better funded, and infinitely more secretive than the CIA. Indeed,
    the key document that articulates its international role has never seen
    the light of day. 
    That document, known as the UKUSA Agreement, forged an alliance in 1948
    among five countries--the U.S., Britain, Australia, Canada, and New
    Zealand--to geographically divvy up SIGINT-gathering responsibilities,
    with the U.S. as director and main underwriter. Like the NSA--hardly known
    until the Pike and Church congressional investigations of the '70s--the
    other four countries' SIGINT agencies remain largely unknown and
    practically free of public oversight. While other member nations conduct
    their own operations, there has "never been any misunderstanding that
    we're NSA subsidiaries," according to Mike Frost, an ex-officer in
    Canada's SIGINT service, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). 
    Moreover, all the signatory countries have NSA listening posts within
    their borders that operate with little or no input from the local agency. 
    [snip... please see URL for rest of article.]
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