Updated February 4, 2006








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By Richard Walker

While President George W. Bush has been forced to publicly defend giving the National Security Agency (NSA) authority to spy within the United States it is unlikely he will ever be able to reveal the true scope of this massive spy network’s operations inside this country and across the globe.

The NSA is one of the most secret organizations on the planet and was established in 1952 by President Harry Truman under a still classified presidential directive. It has been argued it is even more secretive than the CIA. Its very existence was denied until 1957 and since then its mission has never been made public.

The spy agency uses a global electronic spy system called Echelon that has yet to be acknowledged by any U.S. administration, despite mountains of evidence including a mention of it in recently declassified national security documents.

Its headquarters are at Fort Meade, Md., 30 miles outside Washington. At
this location, it has not only some of the most sophisticated intercept and encryption technology ever created but also many of the best minds money
can buy.

The NSA uses part of its massive budget, known to be in the billions of dollars, to recruit the most brilliant mathematicians, technicians and linguists
who provide a range of skills.

For example, mathematicians devise powerful encryption codes to protect
sensitive communications from all levels of the U.S. government and the military. Those same mathematicians also invent ways to break the codes of foreign powers on which we regularly spy.

NSA technicians try to keep one step ahead of digital technologies, constantly designing new devices for intercepting global communications. As a result, the agency has the most up-to-date supercomputers, satellites, undersea “sniffers” to seek out and hack into fiber-optic cables, and a host of ground radar stations.

Linguists are employed to listen to critical intercepted communications, analyze and identify the most relevant sections of them and then translate them for the president and parts of the intelligence community. Foreign communications constantly reach NSA linguists and analysts reportedly span more than 100 languages.

Until 1975, the NSA had managed to operate under the radar of the public, the media and Congress. But in that year, the NSA was thrust into the spotlight when the Church Committee, headed by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), discovered that the NSA had been spying on U.S. citizens for more than two decades.

It wasn’t until January 1998 that the NSA again came under public scrutiny. A report by the European Parliament claimed the NSA was “routinely” intercepting all email, faxes and telephone communications by Europeans.

The report told EU citizens, and especially EU companies, to use encryption methods to foil the NSA, which had been accused of engaging in industrial espionage.

The French government weighed in with a charge that the NSA was using its technology to spy on EU companies in order to pass their secrets to American competitors. A German parliamentarian claimed the spying cost EU businesses $20 billion in lost contracts.

British journalist Duncan Campbell, a respected authority on the role of the NSA in Europe, provided EU investigators with evidence that NSA spying had cost a French company a contract in Brazil and that European Airbus had lost a $6 billion contract to Boeing. Campbell also presented evidence that Microsoft, IBM and a major American chipmaker were among several U.S. corporations helping the NSA with its data interception capabilities.

But the EU report’s most explosive findings were related to the top secret program known as Echelon, the NSA’s global electronic spy network and Britain’s role in it. Echelon was originally set up at the start of the Cold War to eavesdrop on telephone communications between Soviet bloc nations.

But, according to the EU report, it was later directed at individuals and

Even though the NSA was headquartered at Fort Meade, the report noted that the agency’s electronic tentacles stretched across a world-wide network supported by Britain and its partners, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Each of those nations was a vital link in the Echelon global listening chain with Britain’s listening center at GCHQ Cheltenham the most significant link beyond U.S. shores.

Echelon’s vast array of supercomputers at major centers, supported by smaller listening stations worldwide, were capable of intercepting millions of electronic communications every day. At Fort Meade an Echelon dictionary’s “key words” were constantly updated and circulated within the
network so that interconnected computers could sift through millions upon millions of pieces of data every day.

If a word like jihad or the name of an explosive compound was used by someone, somewhere in the world the chances were the Echelon system would detect it, isolate it and find out who was using the word.

Once the existence of Echelon was out of the bag in Europe, there was public uproar with Britain declaring it had not used the system to spy on Europeans.

Concern was also raised in the United States that the NSA was spying on American citizens. However, several prominent members of Congress quickly pointed out that the agency routinely abided by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, established after the Church Committee hearings, which forbade eavesdropping on American citizens without a warrant from a secret federal court.

Controversy subsided somewhat in the United States and also in Europe following the 9-11 attacks. However, with recent allegations that Bush breached the law by permitting the NSA to spy inside the United States without court warrants, the role of the NSA is back in the spotlight—something the agency cannot be happy about.

There is also a risk, given Europe’s anger over the CIA’s rendition policy, that the debate about the NSA’s use of Echelon in Europe could be re-ignited and could hamper the British role in the program, which is critical to the network’s global workings.

Additionally, some critics in the United States may be more inclined to wonder if the NSA spies on Europeans on behalf of the British wouldn’t the British use their Echelon capability to target U.S. citizens, thus providing legal cover for the NSA?

Echelon is so interlinked that if U.S. citizens regularly had their emails, faxes and phone calls intercepted, it would be almost impossible for a congressional oversight committee to determine who did the spying—the NSA or the British or the Australians or the New Zealanders.

A president’s assurance that the NSA can be trusted may not be enough to keep it free from increasing public and congressional scrutiny.

(Issue #7, February 23, 2006)

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