Monday, June 17, 2013

Before PRISM: The Curious History of the US World-Wide Surveillance Network- Part Two

In Part One of this three-part series we examined one small aspect of the long history of illegal surveillance conducted by the US government on its own citizens. 

Project SHAMROCK was not a small operation, however. 
Back in the 1970s, the Church Committee- which had investigated illegal snooping activity by the CIA and NSA- concluded that in its 30-year life, Shamrock constituted “the largest government interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken." 

Like PRISM, Project SHAMROCK laid the groundwork for the same kind of shady collaboration between government and corporation to the cost of everybody's privacy.  
Findings by the Congressional committees would lead to the creation of new legislation called Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which sought to provide some kind of accountability, some kind of formal process.

As we shall see, by the end of the millennium, with the coming of technological advances like the Internet, those laws were becoming less and less effective.

The Temptations
Being able to listen to private conversations is, of course, a great temptation even under normal conditions. For a president faced with immense challenges any one of which hold the potential for catastrophic errors, the lust of more and more information must be addictive. During wartime or during a national or international emergency, that temptation becomes quite irresistible.

Author Bob Woodward in the book, Veil-The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987, recounts one instance in which timely surveillance (not of an enemy but of a key regional ally) provided key information that led to one of the America’s most astounding victories against terrorism.



On October 7, 1985, the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship, with 438 passengers and crew on board was hijacked by four PLO terrorists. The following day President Reagan learned that the terrorists had been refused permission by the Syrian government to dock at Tartus. In response, A elderly Jewish-American Leon Klinghoffer, was shot and his body and wheelchair thrown overboard.

The cruise ship, still held hostage by the hijackers, then docked in Egypt. The incident was clearly a hot potato for the Egyptian strongman, Hosni Mubarak. On one hand, he understood the implications of not assisting the Americans, and on the other hand, many Muslims in his own country would not accept turning over Palestinians to Israel’s ally. Woodward picks up the story:
Mubarak hated the secure phone system that had been supplied to him by the United States…. So Mubarak used an ordinary phone. Stepped-up U.S intelligence-gathering in Egypt, particularly by the NSA and satellites, has been ordered. Early on the morning of Thursday, October 10, Mubarak was intercepted and the information arrived at the White House situation room within a half hour in a top-secret code-word message. It was a short transcript of a conversation between Mubarak and his Foreign Minister. Mubarak had been saying publicly that the four PLO hijackers had left Egypt. The intercept told a different story.

In the intercepted conversation, Mubarak told his foreign minister that the hijackers were still in Egypt. He shouted that George Schultz was “crazy” to think that Egypt could ever turn over hijackers to the United States.
It wasn't simply a betrayal of his alliance with the USA. Mubarak feared he would be eaten alive by the majority of Egyptians who supported the Palestinian cause.
The White House took a more realpolitik view. Mubarak was, in their eyes, merely an excellent source of vital information about what was really going on behind closed Egyptian doors.
But that’s only half of the story.
The following morning, the NSA picked up another intercept. In that message, Mubarak unknowingly gave the Americans a key piece of information: the number of the plane, the flight plan and the name of the airport which the hijackers were to use to leave Egypt.

As far as useful actionable information, Woodward points out, the White House staffers considered it as good as being in the "same room" as Mubarak. (But invisible, of course.)

Later that same afternoon, four US F-14s from the USS Saratoga intercepted the Egyptair Boeing 737 with the four terrorists and forced it to land at Naval Air Station Sigonella, a NATO base in Sicily, where the hijackers were arrested by the Italians.
As far as Mubarak knew the Americans had a lucky break and in a way, it had. But probably not in the way he was thinking. Had he not accidentally provided the Americans with this precious information, the terrorists would most certainly have vanished into thin air.

In any case, there’s no denying it was a coup for the NSA and the White House. Whether it was a rare event or one of many incidents in which intelligence was key, you and I will never know.

The Darker Side
And yet, there is a darker side to listening to the private calls of your allies. The argument that by obtaining critical information- unable to be obtained in any other way- information that could have a real effect on the ground is a slippery one.
The ethical questions are pretty easy to dismiss when it comes to listening in on corrupt leader’s phones in order to bring terrorist to justice. But can we so easily dismiss these questions if private information of world leaders, especially our allies, could be used to advance US foreign policy?

If we learned that a certain Prime Minister had billion dollar Swiss bank accounts that he accumulated from secret deals with, say Iran, would it be right to blackmail him to advance American interests? Or, on the other hand, would it be right to offer that information to opposition leaders in the same country to affect regime change? In short, could any president ever guarantee that this kind of power would never be used in a corrupt way?
It seems very doubtful.
There will always be some rationalization, some excuse to set a precedent and the next time will be even easier.Once you have the technology, you naturally want to use it, and once you obtain the information, you must decide how it might serve a purpose.

While all of these scenarios are likely hypothetical, it could explain the wild overreaction in some quarters to the Wikileaks controversy. If everybody knows what the NSA has learned, people might begin asking how they came by the information and how they are making use of it. More importantly, they might ask why this information hasn’t been made public.
The answer to that is pretty simple.
Complete openness, of course, destroys all leverage that this super-secret info once might have had. Thus, NSA had always had an equal motivation to hide as well as expose information.

This much power in the hands of a corrupt leader is, as we have seen in the Nixon era, both addictive and a threat to the democratic process. Primarily because of blackmail or other forms of intimidation. What is to stop a president from threatening to selectively leak personal and highly incriminating information gathered by the NSA to a friendly news network like Fox or other mainstream news organizations? In short what’s to stop a president from repeating the same abuses Nixon made?
True, there were the FISA limits but how well were they enforced during the subsequent Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations remains to be seen. Russell Tice, a former NSA analyst said
"It is a kangaroo court with a rubber stamp."
Indeed, that view is supported by the handful of FISA applications that the court has rejected since 1979 while it has approved of thousands.

As far as the Mubarak incident, we can be sure on one point.
Back in 1985, the intelligence community during the Reagan years saw the potential for expanding the computerized electronic surveillance network. What developed from those efforts was first called, Project P415, but later it would go by the more impressive name of ECHELON.

Birth of The Echelon Network
Officially, ECHELON has never existed. 
America and British intelligence agencies had long scoffed that a global eavesdropping network was pure James Bond. Or at least highly exaggerated.
Nevertheless, intelligence analysts surmised that ECHELON did (and does) indeed exist and that it is capable of tracking telephones, faxes and computers, even bank accounts. Information it retrieves is stored in state of the art computers which are able to keep vast amounts of data on individuals.

The earliest mention of the system in the mass media comes from "The New Statesman," dated 12 August 1988. The article gives us a snapshot of the state of the electronic spying art at that time.
Although it is impossible for analysts to listen to all but a small fraction of the billions of telephone calls, and other signals which might contain "significant" information, a network of monitoring stations in Britain and elsewhere is able to tap all international and some domestic communications circuits, and sift out messages which sound interesting. Computers automatically analyse every telex message or data signal, and can also identify calls to, say, a target telephone number in London, no matter from which country they originate.
Incidentally, that report also provided an example of how politicians could become targets of ECHELON eavesdropping. In this case, the system targeted the telephone calls of a staunch Reagan support, Senator Strom Thurmond. (The "hows" and "whys" are not explained.)

For his part, Thurmond refused to believe it but later Congressional officials uncovered an independent and reliable source who confirmed the Thurmond intercept. That witness, she herself told committee members, actually heard the transmission with her own ears.
In an echo of the Nixon era, the Thurmond incident raised the real possibility that ECHELON could be used for political purposes, indeed as a political weapon against opposition.
As we shall see, the advances in computer technology widened the capabilities of ECHELON enormously. President Reagan guaranteed that the project would remain hush-hush.
Because of the special Executive Order signed by President Reagan, US intelligence operatives who know about such politically sensitive operations face jail sentences if they speak out--despite the constitutional American protection of freedom of speech and of the press.
Around that time the British, America's closest partner in this kind of intel-gathering, drafted similar laws under the Official Secrets Act.
Thus, for ten years, nearly all information about ECHELON was sealed off from both the press public discussion. Without this key information, the average citizen had no idea how far his privacy had been violated and therefore lived in blissful ignorance. (If anybody needs proof that the "stratospheric" security classification was effective, just look at the reaction of the Snowden leak today.)

Ironically the very advances in computer technology- which would make ECHELON into a formidable challenge to everyone's privacy- would also help to unravel the secrets of its existence. At the end of the century, with the coming of Internet, people were beginning to wake up.
Awake and hungry for information. And unlike the NSA, they were quite willing to share with the world what they had learned.

But, with computer technology advancing, in terms of storage capacity, in speed and in hardware,  at an exponential rate, ECHELON was up for that challenge.

ECHELON At the End of the Century
We, as mere private citizens, will have all of the details, but here's what was being said about ECHELON at the end of the century.
Back in the summer of 2001, The Guardian’s Jane Perrone offered  this account of the history of the system:
The US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand created Echelon as part of an Anglo-Saxon club, set up by secret treaty in 1947. The five countries divided up the world to share the product of global eavesdropping.
According to sources, listening stations, scattered around the world. There were actually two sites in the People's Republic of China (which are used only for monitoring the USSR). In the 1988 Statesman article:
The western intelligence agencies have not yet resolved the question of how to replace the recently upgraded British intelligence listening station at Chung Hom Kok in Hong Kong (which at the moment listens to China itself) when the colony is handed back to China next decade.
How that situation was handled is not known. This snippet of information certainly raises questions about the Chinese leaders "shock" about the revelations regarding PRISM. It's obvious that there is more to this than meets the eye.

According to the  2001 BBC report about ECHELON:
During the cold war, Echelon's attentions were focused on military and diplomatic communications. But increasingly sophisticated computers mean Echelon can monitor industrial targets and private individuals.

The Echelon operation is based at Fort Meade in Maryland, America, and at GCHQ in Cheltenham. Agencies from the five countries exchange intercepted transmissions, using supercomputers to flag up any messages containing key words listed in the so-called Echelon 'dictionaries'. These transmissions are recorded and transcribed for future analysis.
Therefore the process is now fairly automated and only when transmissions are flagged only when key words trigger the computers. (That’s of course a very simplistic explanation and there is undoubtedly far more filters involved.)

In fact, information about ECHELON had actually begun to leak out a few years before. In 1999, in an article about one politician’s attempt to get attempts to get some specifics about global surveillance. U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga had added an amendment into the national-security budget in order to quiz the NSA about ECHELON.

In that article,  journalists Jack Anderson and Douglas Cohn outlined how the Echelon system functioned:
The project has five "ear-in-the-sky" satellites capable of monitoring sounds from thousands of miles away. They allow Echelon to intercept virtually any internationally-transmitted phone call, fax, e-mail or data transfer for the ostensible purpose of tracking international terrorist groups or drug cartels. But unlike many spying relics of the Cold War, Echelon is aimed at surveillance of civilian communications, such as business and personal e-mails. Barr’s office estimates Echelon intercepts up to 2 million transmissions per hour.

While the NSA will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the Echelon system, a report commissioned by the European Parliament last year confirmed that every communication in Europe has been subject to surveillance for years and the system can decode any clever encryptions.
British journalists were also beginning to peek into the murky world of ECHELON. Here’s an example from the BBC:
The power of the network, codenamed Echelon, is astounding.
Every international telephone call, fax, e-mail, or radio transmission can be listened to by powerful computers capable of voice recognition. They home in on a long list of key words, or patterns of messages. They are looking for evidence of international crime, like terrorism.
By 2000, even 60 minutes aired a segment on Echelon. Mike Frost, who for 20 years was a spy for the CSE, the Canadian equivalent of the National Security Agency was interviewed by host Steve Kroft. It was alleged that "virtually every signal radiated across the electromagnetic spectrum is being collected and analyzed."
How much of the world? he was asked.
Frost was emphatic:
The entire world, the whole planet--covers everything. Echelon covers everything that's radiated worldwide at any given instant.. Everything from--from data transfers to cell phones to portable phones to baby monitors to ATMs...
The 60 Minutes segment also gave an example how innocent civilians (simply because they unknowingly used "trigger" words in emails or in telephone conversations were targeted by Echelon. (Their source stated that it was not merely a danger in theory but that it had actually happened in the past.)

According to other statements by Frost before 1996:
"[T]he NSA has computers called Oratory that can ‘listen’ to telephone calls and recognise when keywords are spoken. Just as we can recognise words spoken in all the different tones and accents we encounter, so, too, can these computers. Telephone calls containing keywords are automatically extracted from the masses of other calls and recorded digitally on magnetic tapes to be listened to by analysts back in the agency headquarters"
In fact, Frost has many allegations about the use of ECHELON. CBS News reported in 2000, for example, how back in 1983, (when ECHELON was in its very rudimentary stages), British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, displeased with two of her ministers for challenging her on unidentified policy matters, requested that they be placed under electronic surveillance. Because it is illegal for British intelligence to monitor its own citizens, the operation was, according to Frost, handed over to the CSE, Canada’s national security agency. Basically- to skirt the British laws, the Thatcher government contracted out the spy service to a member of its Commonwealth. Frost told reporters:
"She wanted to find out not what they were saying, but what they were thinking."
Another former spy chief, former NSA official Wayne Madsen completes the picture:
“Anybody who is politically active will eventually end up on the NSA’s radar screen.”
Additionally according to the London Times in February 2000, Madsen stated that the NSA routinely monitors charities and human rights organizations operating overseas because they often have access to information about regimes opposed to Western interests. The list includes the Pope, Mother Teresa, Amnesty International, Christian Aid, and others.
Madsen believes the NSA spied on [Princess] Diana because of her human rights work; he says that “undisclosed material held in US government files on Princess Diana was collected because of her work with the international campaign to ban landmines.” Mark Thatcher [son of the Prime Minister] was monitored in the 1980s because of his work on the huge al-Yamamah arms contract being negotiated between Britain and Saudi Arabia. The NSA also monitored conversations by officials of the Panavia consortium, which builds the Tornado fighter plane. British Aerospace is a major partner in the consortium.
This brings us to another startling claim made by journalists including the producers of 60 minutes.

Something a bit more shocking than all of the rest. According to a European report, Echelon was being used for "corporate and industrial espionage as well, gathering sensitive information on European corporations, then turning it over to American competitors so they can gain an economic advantage."

The Unethical Edge?
 Most Americans might, for the sake of public security might accept begrudgingly intrusions into their privacy. However if the certain allegations are true, there’s a lot more to the story than merely national security.
…the system is so widespread all sorts of private communications, often of a sensitive commercial nature, are hoovered up and analysed.

Journalist Duncan Campbell has spent much of his life investigating Echelon. In a report commissioned by the European Parliament he produced evidence that the NSA snooped on phone calls from a French firm bidding for a contract in Brazil. They passed the information on to an American competitor, which won the contract.
The Anderson/Cohn article made the same accusation:
More alarmingly, European business intelligence has been known to leak from the NSA to American businesses, providing American businesses with illicit information on mergers, take-overs and bids.
Citing information found in an 11 July 2001 report by the European Parliament’s Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System, Campbell elaborated on his claims that US corporations were often beneficiaries of the surveillance network:
In his statement to the Temporary Committee, made on 22 January 2001, Campbell expressed the view that the USA used its intelligence services to help US firms win contracts. Relevant information was passed on to firms via the CIA with the assistance of the Advocacy Center and the Office of Executive Support in the Department of Commerce. In support of this argument he put forward documents providing evidence of intervention by the Advocacy Center to the benefit of US firms; moreover, much of the information concerned can be found on the homepage of the Advocacy Center.
 That 60 minutes segment also cited the European Parliament's report:
The European Parliament report alleges that the NSA 'lifted all the faxes and phone calls' between the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus and Saudi Arabian Airlines, and that the information helped two American companies, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, win a $ 6 billion contract. The report also alleges that the French company Thomson-CSF lost a $ 1.3 billion satellite deal to Raytheon the same way.
If these claims are true, such misuse of private information would potentially fracture the Western alliance. By mixing commercial advantages with national security, America’s relationship with its allies would be jeopardized.

The report did add, however, one important point worth mentioning.
The claim that the success of the Advocacy Center is based on the interception of communications is speculation and is not supported by the documents.[emphasis mine]
Indeed, James Bamford, author of The Puzzle Palace”-which investigated the ECHELON system-disputed the Campbell allegations. The report noted:
In the course of 20 years' research, Bamford had never uncovered evidence of the NSA passing on intelligence to US firms, even though it intercepts communications from private firms, for example with a view to monitoring compliance with embargoes.
The final European Parliament’s report on ECHELON was approved on September 5, 2001.   Less than a week later, hijacked planes crashed head-on with the Twin Towers and the Pentagon’s front door. Somehow, despite the vast network of surveillance like ECHELON, few in the NSA seemed to have been clued in. 
How could it have happened? Is it plausible that given such awesome surveillance capabilities nobody would have had advanced knowledge of a terrorist operation.

Nevertheless, less than a week after the European Parliament's report was released, the world abruptly changed. All of the arguments about protecting individual privacy, arguments about guaranteeing civil liberties were unexpectedly turned to gritty gray dust.
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