Monday, November 8, 2010


By Sherwood Ross

The United States and three of its good buddies are operating “a network of massive, highly automated interception stations” codenamed ECHELON that is eavesdropping on the entire world, a distinguished Washington journalist reports.

“Like a mammoth vacuum cleaner in the sky, the National Security Agency(NSA) sucks it all up: home phone, office phone, cellular phone, email, fax, telex...satellite transmissions, fiber-optic communications traffic, microwave links, voice, text images (that are) captured by satellites continuously orbiting the earth and then processed by high-powered computers,” writes William Blum in his book “Rogue State”(Common Courage Press).

Calling it “the greatest invasion of privacy” ever, Blum says the ceaseless, illegal spy system sucks up perhaps billions of messages daily, including those of prime ministers, the Secretary-General of the UN, the pope, embassies, Amnesty International, Christian Aid, and transnational corporations and that “if God has a phone, it's being monitored.” As for messages sent via underwater cable, U.S. submarines have been attaching tapping pods to them for decades.

Launched in the 1970s to spy on Soviet satellite communications, the NSA and its junior partners in Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand operate this network of massive, highly automated interception stations covering the globe. “In multiple ways, each of the countries involved is breaking its own laws, those of other countries, and international law,” Blum writes, noting that “the absence of court-issued warrants permitting surveillance of specific individuals is but one example.”

Apart from targeted individuals and institutions, ECHELON works by gobbling up huge quantities of communications and using computers to identify and extract those messages of interest. “Every intercepted message---all the embassy cables, the business deals, the sex talk, the birthday greetings---is searched for keywords, which could be anything the searchers think might be of interest,” Blum writes. Messages selected from the mass are then listened to by humans

Blum also said that during the countdown to its invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. listened in on the conversations of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, "and all the members of the UN Security Council...when they were deliberating about what action to take in Iraq."

ECHELON is operated “without official acknowledgment of its existence, let alone any democratic oversight or public or legislative debate as to whether it serves a decent purpose,” Blum writes. For example, when Members of Parliament have raised questions about the NSA and its sprawling, 560-acre base in Menwith Hill, North Yorkshire, “the government has consistently refused to supply any information” and members of the U.S. Congress “have not even raised questions.” When the European Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee challenged the operation in the 1990s, Blum said, it denounced Britain's role as a double-agent, spying on its own European partners.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has continued to expand ECHELON in Europe in part “because of heightened interest in commercial espionage---to uncover industrial information that would provide American corporations with an advantage over foreign rivals,” Blum points out. When ine German firm, the wind generator-maker Enercon, applied for a patent on what it thought was a secret invention, its U.S. rival Kenetech disclosed it had already patented a near-identical development. During the ensuing court battle, an NSA employee appeared in silhouette on German TV to reveal how he had stolen Enercon's secrets by tapping its telephone and computer link lines and passing the data on to ECHELON, Blum writes.

Again, in 1994, Thomson S.A., located in Paris, and Airbus Industrie, of Blagnac Cedex, France, also lost lucrative contracts to U.S. rivals “aided by information covertly collected by NSA and CIA,” Blum writes, and the same agencies “also eavesdropped on Japanese representatives during negotiations with the U.S. in 1995 over auto parts trade.” One German official worried the U.S. through its massive radar and communications complex at Bad Aibling, near Munich, was picking up secret information. He was right to worry as the complex was, in fact, an NSA intercept station, Blum says.

Reporter Blum resigned his post at the U.S. State Department because of his opposition to the Viet Nam war and co-founded the Washington Free Press. In 1999, he received a Project Censored award for “exemplary journalism” for a story about how the U.S. gave Iraq material to develop chemical and biological warfare. He currently publishes the monthly “Anti-Empire Report.” To obtain copies of his book “Rogue State” contact him at .

(Sherwood Ross is the Miami-based director of Anti-War News Service. He has worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and as a columnist for wire services. To contact him or contribute to his Anti-War News Service email: )

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