August 27, 2000
The Toronto Sun

Echelon--Uncle Sam is Listening

by Eric Margolis

CANNES, FRANCE -- I used to cringe every time Dr. T, a senior Libyan diplomat, called me from New York. His calls were merely friendly, personal chats, but I knew they got my name into every counter-intelligence black book there was.

With typical Arab politeness, he would always begin: "My dear friend Eric, how is your mother?" To the NSA, CIA, FBI, DIA, NYPD, Egyptian Mukhabarat, Mossad, British MJ6, and God knows what other intelligence agencies that were intercepting his calls, "how is your mother" was obviously code for "we have the missiles with the purple death toxins ready to destroy the Zionist aggressors and their imperialist lackeys in Washington!!!"

Walls... and telephones... have ears. Big Brother, or, more likely, Uncle Sam and his Anglo-Saxon pals, are listening to your conversation or reading your email by means of an electronic intelligence (ELINT) system known as Echelon.

France and the European Union are so irate over Echelon they recently opened parliamentary investigations of the "Anglo" eavesdropping network. Here in France, the national counter-intelligence agency, DST, has been ordered to dig into Echelon. Paris is in an uproar.

During the Cold War, the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand established UKSA, an electronic intelligence system that intercepted most military and civilian communications worldwide. Echelon was a subsystem aimed at the civilian sector. The top-secret US National Security Agency (NSA), which is considerably larger than CIA, oversaw UKSA, joined by Britain's Government Communications HQ, Canada's Communications Security Establishment, and counterparts in Australia and New Zealand.

Echelon consists of six major ground stations in the member nations and 120 secret geostationary ELINT satellites that intercept virtually all telephone, fax, and email communications around the globe. The spy system, said to cost US $4 billion annually, also intercepts communications by tapping land lines, cell-phone and microwave transmissions. Ground dishes pick up all satellite phone and high-speed data links.

Ultra-high speed computers process and filter millions of messages hourly, searching for key words, such as "bomb," "heroin" or "Osma Bin Ladeen" that trigger recall and display of the intercept. Few malefactors are stupid enough to use such terms when communicating in the clear, but NSA's Cray super-computers can identify suggestive phrases and tag "double-entendre" meanings, which are then evaluated by its 40,000 analysts.

The US insists Echelon is used only to fight terrorism, drug dealers and other crimes, but Europe doesn't buy this story. The problem with Echelon is that it hoovers up everything indiscriminately, from calls by Colombian "narcoterroristas" to late-night chats with Mademoiselle Fifi in Paris. French government ministers are not at all pleased that calls to their mistresses are being listened into by Washington and, horror or horrors, "the perfidious anglais."

In spite of August vacation, a time when all France goes into deep lethargy and government shuts down, French investigators are examining claims by industry that the wicked Anglo-Saxons are using Echelon to eavesdrop on details of their major international arms and commercial deals. According to the French, information from Echelon intercepts passed on to US and British defense and telecom firms was used to underbid French companies.

French claims are probably correct. Multi-billion dollar international contracts are a rough, no-holds-barred business. However, the irate French are hardly wounded innocents. Exquisite blonde courtesans from Madame Claude's renowned Paris house of pleasure were routinely used to induce African and Arab potentates to sign on the dotted line for millions worth of French arms. According to US intelligence, first class seats on Air France flights were hard-wired for sound to pick up conversations of American and British business executives and diplomats.

CIA riposted by mounting a series of clownish honey-trap ops in which attractive American female agents were employed to seduce senior French officials to obtain through pillow talk details on upcoming commercial and military contracts. A depressed American Mata Hari exposed the operations, to Washington's enormous embarrassment.

Now, France accuses the British, who are supposedly their partners in the European Union, of acting as American cat's paws, eavesdropping on their commo and sending sensitive info back to NSA. A big potential French arms sale to the Saudis was leaked by Britain to the Americans, who ended up winning the contract. "Euro-Treason" thunder the angry French, who are still deeply upset over Waterloo. The British, no slouches at name-calling, retort with nasty quips about Vichy France.

NSA and its allies pick up titanic amounts of electronic data, but they are able to process only a tiny fraction of the cascade of incoming material. All intelligence agencies are swamped by information overload. Data evaluation remains the real problem. At best, Echelon acquires occasional nuggets of use flu information from a sea of chatter, but this till makes non-Echelon members very nervous.

Echelon also gleans details of mergers and acquisitions, currency and commodity trades, and sensitive corporate data. Some Echelon personnel must surely be tempted to do a little side trading or arbitrage in financial markets. One suspects a few intelligence agencies may be doing the same to generate "special" funds for black ops.

The Mafia was right: the only safe way to deliver an important message is to whisper into someone's ear.

Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster, and author of the just released War at the Top of the World - The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet which was reviewed in The Economist, May 13, 2000

[A Jan. 31, 2006, lawsuit alleged major violations of the Fourth Amendment right to be free from warrantless searches and seizures. Such a sweeping breach seemed far-fetched.

Yet months after the lawsuit was lodged, the Electronic Frontier Foundation produced internal AT&T documents allegedly outlining secret rooms in AT&T offices connected to the NSA, which was siphoning all internet traffic, from e-mails to Voice Over Internet Protocol phone conversations.

But four years and a mountain of court briefs and rulings later, the legal system has never addressed the merits of the allegations and likely never will. Even Congress has weighed in and passed legislation to prevent the allegations from being heard.--David Kravets, "Courts, Congress Shun Addressing Legality of Warrantless Eavesdropping,", January 29, 2010]

"Exposed: Inside the NSA's Largest and Most Expansive Secret Domestic Spy Center in Bluffdale, Utah,", March 21, 2012

William Blum, "Snowden, the latest histleblower to shed light on the US's rogue snooping establishment,", June 27, 2013

Lorenzo F-B, "The 10 Biggest Revelations From Edward Snowden's Leaks,", June 5, 2014

[US and German intelligence used this Swiss company's encoding devices to spy on other countries-- Imogen Foulkes, "Swiss Crypto AG spying scandal shakes reputation for neutrality,", February 16, 2020]

"Snowden Revelations,"

Copyright © 2000 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved
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