The "Echelon" spy system explained. G.C.H.Q. and N.S.A. amongst others.


by Nicky Hager


“For 40 years, New Zealand’s largest intelligence agency, the Government
Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) the nation’s equivalent of the
US National Security Agency (NSA) had been helping its Western
allies to spy on countries throughout the Pacific region, without the
knowledge of the New Zealand public or many of its highest elected
officials. What the NSA did not know is that by the late 1980s, various
intelligence staff had decided these activities had been too secret for
too long, and were providing me with interviews and documents exposing
New Zealand’s intelligence activities. Eventually, more than 50 people
who work or have worked in intelligence and related fields agreed to be

The activities they described made it possible to document, from the
South Pacific, some alliance-wide systems and projects which have been
kept secret elsewhere. Of these, by far the most important is ECHELON.

Designed and coordinated by NSA, the ECHELON system is used to
intercept ordinary e-mail, fax, telex, and telephone communications
carried over the world’s telecommunications networks. Unlike many of
the electronic spy systems developed during the Cold War, ECHELON is
designed primarily for non-military targets: governments,
organizations, businesses, and individuals in virtually every country.
It potentially affects every person communicating between (and
sometimes within) countries anywhere in the world.

It is, of course, not a new idea that intelligence organizations tap
into e-mail and other public telecommunications networks. What was new
in the material leaked by the New Zealand intelligence staff was
precise information on where the spying is done, how the system works,
its capabilities and shortcomings, and many details such as the

The ECHELON system is not designed to eavesdrop on a particular
individual’s e-mail or fax link. Rather, the system works by
indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communications
and using computers to identify and extract messages of interest from
the mass of unwanted ones. A chain of secret interception facilities
has been established around the world to tap into all the major
components of the international telecommunications networks. Some
monitor communications satellites, others land-based communications
networks, and others radio communications. ECHELON links together all
these facilities, providing the US and its allies with the ability to
intercept a large proportion of the communications on the planet.

The computers at each station in the ECHELON network automatically
search through the millions of messages intercepted for ones containing
pre-programmed keywords. Keywords include all the names, localities,
subjects, and so on that might be mentioned. Every word of every
message intercepted at each station gets automatically searched
whether or not a specific telephone number or e-mail address is on the

The thousands of simultaneous messages are read in “real time” as they
pour into the station, hour after hour, day after day, as the computer
finds intelligence needles in telecommunications haystacks.

SOMEONE IS LISTENING The computers in stations around the globe are
known, within the network, as the ECHELON Dictionaries. Computers that
can automatically search through traffic for keywords have existed
since at least the 1970s, but the ECHELON system was designed by NSA to
interconnect all these computers and allow the stations to function as
components of an integrated whole. The NSA and GCSB are bound together
under the five-nation UKUSA signals intelligence agreement. The other
three partners all with equally obscure names are the Government
Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Britain, the Communications
Security Establishment (CSE) in Canada, and the Defense Signals
Directorate (DSD) in Australia.

The alliance, which grew from cooperative efforts during World War II
to intercept radio transmissions, was formalized into the UKUSA
agreement in 1948 and aimed primarily against the USSR. The five UKUSA
agencies are today the largest intelligence organizations in their
respective countries. With much of the world’s business occurring by
fax, e-mail, and phone, spying on these communications receives the
bulk of intelligence resources. For decades before the introduction of
the ECHELON system, the UKUSA allies did intelligence collection
operations for each other, but each agency usually processed and
analyzed the intercept from its own stations.

Under ECHELON, a particular station’s Dictionary computer contains not
only its parent agency’s chosen keywords, but also has lists entered in
for other agencies. In New Zealand’s satellite interception station at
Waihopai (in the South Island), for example, the computer has separate
search lists for the NSA, GCHQ, DSD, and CSE in addition to its own.
Whenever the Dictionary encounters a message containing one of the
agencies’ keywords, it automatically picks it and sends it directly to
the headquarters of the agency concerned. No one in New Zealand
screens, or even sees, the intelligence collected by the New Zealand
station for the foreign agencies. Thus, the stations of the junior
UKUSA allies function for the NSA no differently than if they were
overtly NSA-run bases located on their soil.

The first component of the ECHELON network are stations specifically
targeted on the international telecommunications satellites (Intelsats)
used by the telephone companies of most countries. A ring of Intelsats
is positioned around the world, stationary above the equator, each
serving as a relay station for tens of thousands of simultaneous phone
calls, fax, and e-mail. Five UKUSA stations have been established to
intercept the communications carried by the Intelsats.

The British GCHQ station is located at the top of high cliffs above the
sea at Morwenstow in Cornwall. Satellite dishes beside sprawling
operations buildings point toward Intelsats above the Atlantic, Europe,
and, inclined almost to the horizon, the Indian Ocean. An NSA station
at Sugar Grove, located 250 kilometers southwest of Washington, DC, in
the mountains of West Virginia, covers Atlantic Intelsats transmitting
down toward North and South America. Another NSA station is in
Washington State, 200 kilometers southwest of Seattle, inside the
Army’s Yakima Firing Center. Its satellite dishes point out toward the
Pacific Intelsats and to the east. *1

The job of intercepting Pacific Intelsat communications that cannot be
intercepted at Yakima went to New Zealand and Australia. Their South
Pacific location helps to ensure global interception. New Zealand
provides the station at Waihopai and Australia supplies the Geraldton
station in West Australia (which targets both Pacific and Indian Ocean
Intelsats). *2

Each of the five stations’ Dictionary computers has a codename to
distinguish it from others in the network. The Yakima station, for
instance, located in desert country between the Saddle Mountains and
Rattlesnake Hills, has the COWBOY Dictionary, while the Waihopai
station has the FLINTLOCK Dictionary. These codenames are recorded at
the beginning of every intercepted message, before it is transmitted
around the ECHELON network, allowing analysts to recognize at which
station the interception occurred.

New Zealand intelligence staff has been closely involved with the NSA’s
Yakima station since 1981, when NSA pushed the GCSB to contribute to a
project targeting Japanese embassy communications. Since then, all five
UKUSA agencies have been responsible for monitoring diplomatic cables
from all Japanese posts within the same segments of the globe they are
assigned for general UKUSA monitoring.3 Until New Zealand’s integration
into ECHELON with the opening of the Waihopai station in 1989, its
share of the Japanese communications was intercepted at Yakima and sent
unprocessed to the GCSB headquarters in Wellington for decryption,
translation, and writing into UKUSA-format intelligence reports (the
NSA provides the codebreaking programs).

system intercepts a range of satellite communications not carried by
Intelsat.In addition to the UKUSA stations targeting Intelsat
satellites, there are another five or more stations homing in on
Russian and other regional communications satellites. These stations
are Menwith Hill in northern England; Shoal Bay, outside Darwin in
northern Australia (which targets Indonesian satellites); Leitrim, just
south of Ottawa in Canada (which appears to intercept Latin American
satellites); Bad Aibling in Germany; and Misawa in northern Japan.

A group of facilities that tap directly into land-based
telecommunications systems is the final element of the ECHELON system.
Besides satellite and radio, the other main method of transmitting
large quantities of public, business, and government communications is
a combination of water cables under the oceans and microwave networks
over land. Heavy cables, laid across seabeds between countries, account
for much of the world’s international communications. After they come
out of the water and join land-based microwave networks they are very
vulnerable to interception. The microwave networks are made up of
chains of microwave towers relaying messages from hilltop to hilltop
(always in line of sight) across the countryside. These networks shunt
large quantities of communications across a country. Interception of
them gives access to international undersea communications (once they
surface) and to international communication trunk lines across
continents. They are also an obvious target for large-scale
interception of domestic communications.

Because the facilities required to intercept radio and satellite
communications use large aerials and dishes that are difficult to hide
for too long, that network is reasonably well documented. But all that
is required to intercept land-based communication networks is a
building situated along the microwave route or a hidden cable running
underground from the legitimate network into some anonymous building,
possibly far removed. Although it sounds technically very difficult,
microwave interception from space by United States spy satellites also
occurs.4 The worldwide network of facilities to intercept these
communications is largely undocumented, and because New Zealand’s GCSB
does not participate in this type of interception, my inside sources
could not help either.

NO ONE IS SAFE FROM A MICROWAVE A 1994 expos of the Canadian UKUSA
agency, Spyworld, co-authored by one of its former staff, Mike Frost,
gave the first insights into how a lot of foreign microwave
interception is done (see p. 18). It described UKUSA “embassy
collection” operations, where sophisticated receivers and processors
are secretly transported to their countries’ overseas embassies in
diplomatic bags and used to monitor various communications in foreign
capitals. *5

Since most countries’ microwave networks converge on the capital city,
embassy buildings can be an ideal site. Protected by diplomatic
privilege, they allow interception in the heart of the target country.
*6 The Canadian embassy collection was requested by the NSA to fill
gaps in the American and British embassy collection operations, which
were still occurring in many capitals around the world when Frost left
the CSE in 1990. Separate sources in Australia have revealed that the
DSD also engages in embassy collection. *7 On the territory of UKUSA
nations, the interception of land-based telecommunications appears to
be done at special secret intelligence facilities. The US, UK, and
Canada are geographically well placed to intercept the large amounts of
the world’s communications that cross their territories.

The only public reference to the Dictionary system anywhere in the
world was in relation to one of these facilities, run by the GCHQ in
central London. In 1991, a former British GCHQ official spoke
anonymously to Granada Television’s World in Action about the agency’s
abuses of power. He told the program about an anonymous red brick
building at 8 Palmer Street where GCHQ secretly intercepts every telex
which passes into, out of, or through London, feeding them into
powerful computers with a program known as “Dictionary.” The operation,
he explained, is staffed by carefully vetted British Telecom people:
“It’s nothing to do with national security. It’s because it’s not legal
to take every single telex. And they take everything: the embassies,
all the business deals, even the birthday greetings, they take
everything. They feed it into the Dictionary.” *8 What the documentary
did not reveal is that Dictionary is not just a British system; it is

Similarly, British researcher Duncan Campbell has described how the US
Menwith Hill station in Britain taps directly into the British Telecom
microwave network, which has actually been designed with several major
microwave links converging on an isolated tower connected underground
into the station.9

The NSA Menwith Hill station, with 22 satellite terminals and more than
4.9 acres of buildings, is undoubtedly the largest and most powerful in
the UKUSA network. Located in northern England, several thousand
kilometers from the Persian Gulf, it was awarded the NSA’s “Station of
the Year” prize for 1991 after its role in the Gulf War. Menwith Hill
assists in the interception of microwave communications in another way
as well, by serving as a ground station for US electronic spy
satellites. These intercept microwave trunk lines and short range
communications such as military radios and walkie talkies. Other
ground stations where the satellites’ information is fed into the
global network are Pine Gap, run by the CIA near Alice Springs in
central Australia and the Bad Aibling station in Germany. *10 Among
them, the various stations and operations making up the ECHELON network
tap into all the main components of the world’s telecommunications
networks. All of them, including a separate network of stations that
intercepts long distance radio communications, have their own
Dictionary computers connected into ECHELON.

In the early 1990s, opponents of the Menwith Hill station obtained
large quantities of internal documents from the facility. Among the
papers was a reference to an NSA computer system called Platform. The
integration of all the UKUSA station computers into ECHELON probably
occurred with the introduction of this system in the early 1980s. James
Bamford wrote at that time about a new worldwide NSA computer network
codenamed Platform “which will tie together 52 separate computer
systems used throughout the world. Focal point, or `host environment,’
for the massive network will be the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade.
Among those included in Platform will be the British SIGINT
organization, GCHQ.” *11

LOOKING IN THE DICTIONARY The Dictionary computers are connected via
highly encrypted UKUSA communications that link back to computer data
bases in the five agency headquarters. This is where all the
intercepted messages selected by the Dictionaries end up. Each morning
the specially “indoctrinated” signals intelligence analysts in
Washington, Ottawa,Cheltenham, Canberra, and Wellington log on at their
computer terminals and enter the Dictionary system. After keying in
their security passwords, they reach a directory that lists the
different categories of intercept available in the data bases, each
with a four-digit code. For instance, 1911 might be Japanese diplomatic
cables from Latin America (handled by the Canadian CSE), 3848 might be
political communications from and about Nigeria, and 8182 might be any
messages about distribution of encryption technology.

They select their subject category, get a “search result” showing how
many messages have been caught in the ECHELON net on that subject, and
then the day’s work begins. Analysts scroll through screen after
screen of intercepted faxes, e-mail messages, etc. and, whenever a
message appears worth reporting on, they select it from the rest to
work on. If it is not in English, it is translated and then written
into the standard format of intelligence reports produced anywhere
within the UKUSA network either in entirety as a “report,” or as a
summary or “gist.”

INFORMATION CONTROL A highly organized system has been developed to
control what is being searched for by each station and who can have
access to it. This is at the heart of ECHELON operations and works as

The individual station’s Dictionary computers do not simply have a long
list of keywords to search for. And they do not send all the
information into some huge database that participating agencies can dip
into as they wish. It is much more controlled.

The search lists are organized into the same categories, referred to by
the four digit numbers. Each agency decides its own categories
according to its responsibilities for producing intelligence for the
network. For GCSB, this means South Pacific governments, Japanese
diplomatic, Russian Antarctic activities, and so on.

The agency then works out about 10 to 50 keywords for selection in each
category. The keywords include such things as names of people, ships,
organizations, country names, and subject names. They also include the
known telex and fax numbers and Internet addresses of any individuals,
businesses, organizations, and government offices that are targets.
These are generally written as part of the message text and so are
easily recognized by the Dictionary computers.

The agencies also specify combinations of keywords to help sift out
communications of interest. For example, they might search for
diplomatic cables containing both the words “Santiago” and “aid,” or
cables containing the word “Santiago” but not “consul” (to avoid the
masses of routine consular communications). It is these sets of words
and numbers (and combinations), under a particular category, that get
placed in the Dictionary computers. (Staff in the five agencies called
Dictionary Managers enter and update the keyword search lists for each

The whole system, devised by the NSA, has been adopted completely by
the other agencies. The Dictionary computers search through all the
incoming messages and, whenever they encounter one with any of the
agencies’ keywords, they select it. At the same time, the computer
automatically notes technical details such as the time and place of
interception on the piece of intercept so that analysts reading it, in
whichever agency it is going to, know where it came from, and what it
is. Finally, the computer writes the four-digit code (for the category
with the keywords in that message) at the bottom of the message’s
text. This is important. It means that when all the intercepted
messages end up together in the database at one of the agency
headquarters, the messages on a particular subject can be located
again. Later, when the analyst using the Dictionary system selects the
four- digit code for the category he or she wants, the computer simply
searches through all the messages in the database for the ones which
have been tagged with that number.

This system is very effective for controlling which agencies can get
what from the global network because each agency only gets the
intelligence out of the ECHELON system from its own numbers. It does
not have any access to the raw intelligence coming out of the system to
the other agencies. For example, although most of the GCSB’s
intelligence production is primarily to serve the UKUSA alliance, New
Zealand does not have access to the whole ECHELON network. The access
it does have is strictly controlled. A New Zealand intelligence officer
explained: “The agencies can all apply for numbers on each other’s
Dictionaries. The hardest to deal with are the Americans. … [There
are] more hoops to jump through, unless it is in their interest, in
which case they’ll do it for you.”

There is only one agency which, by virtue of its size and role within
the alliance, will have access to the full potential of the ECHELON
system the agency that set it up. What is the system used for?
Anyone listening to official “discussion” of intelligence could be
forgiven for thinking that, since the end of the Cold War, the key
targets of the massive UKUSA intelligence machine are terrorism,
weapons proliferation, and economic intelligence. The idea that
economic intelligence has become very important, in particular, has
been carefully cultivated by intelligence agencies intent on preserving
their post-Cold War budgets. It has become an article of faith in much
discussion of intelligence. However, I have found no evidence that
these are now the primary concerns of organizations such as NSA.

QUICKER INTELLIGENCE,SAME MISSION A different story emerges after
examining very detailed information I have been given about the
intelligence New Zealand collects for the UKUSA allies and detailed
descriptions of what is in the yards-deep intelligence reports New
Zealand receives from its four allies each week. There is quite a lot
of intelligence collected about potential terrorists, and there is
quite a lot of economic intelligence, notably intensive monitoring of
all the countries participating in GATT negotiations. But by far, the
main priorities of the intelligence alliance continue to be political
and military intelligence to assist the larger allies to pursue their
interests around the world. Anyone and anything the particular
governments are concerned about can become a target.

With capabilities so secret and so powerful, almost anything goes. For
example, in June 1992, a group of current “highly placed intelligence
operatives” from the British GCHQ spoke to the London Observer: “We
feel we can no longer remain silent regarding that which we regard to
be gross malpractice and negligence within the establishment in which
we operate.” They gave as examples GCHQ interception of three
charitable organizations, including Amnesty International and Christian
Aid. As the Observer reported: “At any time GCHQ is able to home in on
their communications for a routine target request,” the GCHQ source
said. In the case of phone taps the procedure is known as Mantis. With
telexes it is called Mayfly. By keying in a code relating to Third
World aid, the source was able to demonstrate telex “fixes” on the
three organizations. “It is then possible to key in a trigger word
which enables us to home in on the telex communications whenever that
word appears,” he said. “And we can read a pre-determined number of
characters either side of the keyword.”12 Without actually naming it,
this was a fairly precise description of how the ECHELON Dictionary
system works. Again, what was not revealed in the publicity was that
this is a UKUSA-wide system. The design of ECHELON means that the
interception of these organizations could have occurred anywhere in the
network, at any station where the GCHQ had requested that the
four-digit code covering Third World aid be placed.

Note that these GCHQ officers mentioned that the system was being used
for telephone calls. In New Zealand, ECHELON is used only to intercept
written communications: fax, e-mail, and telex. The reason, according
to intelligence staff, is that the agency does not have the staff to
analyze large quantities of telephone conversations.

Mike Frost’s expos of Canadian “embassy collection” operations
described the NSA computers they used, called Oratory, that can
“listen” to telephone calls and recognize when keywords are spoken.
Just as we can recognize words spoken in all the different tones and
accents we encounter, so too, according to Frost, can these computers.
Telephone calls containing keywords are automatically extracted from
the masses of other calls and recorded digitally on magnetic tapes for
analysts back at agency headquarters. However, high volume voice
recognition computers will be technically difficult to perfect, and my
New Zealand-based sources could not confirm that this capability
exists. But, if or when it is perfected, the implications would be
immense. It would mean that the UKUSA agencies could use machines to
search through all the international telephone calls in the world, in
the same way that they do written messages. If this equipment exists
for use in embassy collection, it will presumably be used in all the
stations throughout the ECHELON network. It is yet to be confirmed how
extensively telephone communications are being targeted by the ECHELON
stations for the other agencies.

The easiest pickings for the ECHELON system are the individuals,
organizations,and governments that do not use encryption. In New
Zealand’s area, for example, it has proved especially useful against
already vulnerable South Pacific nations which do not use any coding,
even for government communications (all these communications of New
Zealand’s neighbors are supplied, unscreened, to its UKUSA allies). As
a result of the revelations in my book, there is currently a project
under way in the Pacific to promote and supply publicly available
encryption software to vulnerable organizations such as democracy
movements in countries with repressive governments. This is one
practical way of curbing illegitimate uses of the ECHELON

One final comment. All the newspapers, commentators, and “well placed
sources” told the public that New Zealand was cut off from US
intelligence in the mid-1980s. That was entirely untrue. The
intelligence supply to New Zealand did not stop, and instead, the
decade since has been a period of increased integration of New Zealand
into the US system. Virtually everything the equipment, manuals,
ways of operating, jargon, codes, and so on, used in the GCSB
continues to be imported entirely from the larger allies (in practice,
usually the NSA). As with the Australian and Canadian agencies, most of
the priorities continue to come from the US, too.

The main thing that protects these agencies from change is their
secrecy. On the day my book arrived in the book shops, without prior
publicity, there was an all-day meeting of the intelligence bureaucrats
in the prime minister’s department trying to decide if they could
prevent it from being distributed. They eventually concluded, sensibly,
that the political costs were too high. It is understandable that they
were so agitated.

Throughout my research, I have faced official denials or governments
refusing to comment on publicity about intelligence activities. Given
the pervasive atmosphere of secrecy and stonewalling, it is always hard
for the public to judge what is fact, what is speculation, and what is
paranoia. Thus, in uncovering New Zealand’s role in the NSA-led
alliance, my aim was to provide so much detail about the operations
the technical systems, the daily work of individual staff members, and
even the rooms in which they work inside intelligence facilities that
readers could feel confident that they were getting close to the truth.
I hope the information leaked by intelligence staff in New Zealand
about UKUSA and its systems such as ECHELON will help lead to change.” 


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