NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY
AND GLOBAL ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE
From an article by Duncan Campbell, which appeared
in the New Statesman on August 12, 1988
They've got it taped
In the booming surveillance industry they spy on whom they wish,
when they wish, protected by barriers of secrecy, fortified by billions
of pounds worth of high, high-tech technology. Duncan Campbell reports
from the United States on the secret Anglo-American plan for a global
electronic spy system for the 21st century capable of listening
in to most of us most of the time.
American, British and Allied intelligence agencies are soon to
embark on a massive, billion-dollar expansion of their global electronic
surveillance system. According to information given recently in
secret to the US Congress, the surveillance system will enable the
agencies to monitor and analyse civilian communications into the
21st century. Identified for the moment as Project P415, the system
will be run by the US National Security Agency (NSA). But the intelligence
agencies of many other countries will be closely involved with the
new network, including those from Britain, Australia, Germany and
Japan - and, surprisingly, the People's Republic of China.
New satellite stations and monitoring centres are to be built
around the world, and a chain of new satellites launched, so that
the NSA and its British counterpart, the Government Communications
Headquarters (GCHQ) at Cheltenham, may keep abreast of the burgeoning
international telecommunications traffic.
The largest overseas station in the Project P415 network is the
US satellite and communications base at Menwith Hill, near Harrogate
in Yorkshire. It is run undercover by the NSA and taps into all
Britain's main national and international communications networks
(New Statesman, 7 August 1980). Although high technology stations
such as Menwith Hill are primarily intended to monitor international
communications, according to US experts their capability can be,
and has been, turned inwards on domestic traffic. Menwith Hill,
in particular, has been accused by a former employee of gross corruption
and the monitoring of domestic calls.
The vast international global eavesdropping network has existed
since shortly after the Second World War, when the US, Britain,
Canada, Australia and New Zealand signed a secret agreement on signals
intelligence, or SIGNIT. It was anticipated, correctly, that electronic
monitoring of communications signals would continue to be the largest
and most important form of post-war secret intelligence, as it had
been through the war.
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.
A secret listening agreement, called UKUSA (UK-USA), assigns parts
of the globe to each participating agency. GCHQ at Cheltenham is
the co-ordinating centre for Europe, Africa and the Soviet Union
(west of the Ural Mountains).
The NSA covers the rest of the Soviet Union and most of the Americas.
Australia - where another station in the NSA listening network is
located in the outback, coordinates the electronic monitoring of
the South Pacific, and South East Asia.
With 15,000 staff and a budget of over ?500 million a year (even
without the planned new Zircon spy satellite), GCHQ is by far the
largest part of British intelligence. Successive UK governments
have placed high value on its eavesdropping capabilities, whether
against Russian military signals or the easier commercial and private
Both the new and existing surveillance systems are highly computerised.
They rely on near total interception of international commercial
and satellite communications in order to locate the telephone or
other messages of target individuals. Last month, a US newspaper,
the Cleveland Plain Dealer, revealed that the system had
been used to target the telephone calls of a US Senator, Strom Thurmond.
The fact that Thurmond, a southern Republican and usually a staunch
supporter of the Reagan administration, is said to have been a target
has raised fears that the NSA has restored domestic, electronic,
surveillance programmes. These were originally exposed and criticised
during the Watergate investigations, and their closure ordered by
After talking to the NSA, Thurmond later told the Plain Dealer
that he did not believe the allegation. But Thurmond, a right-wing
Republican, may have been unwilling to rock the boat. Staff members
of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said that staff
were "digging into it" despite the "stratospheric security classification"
of all the systems involved.
The Congressional officials were first told of the Thurmond interception
by a former employee of the Lockheed Space and Missiles Corporation,
Margaret Newsham, who now lives in Sunnyvale, California. Newsham
had originally given separate testimony and filed a lawsuit concerning
corruption and mis-spending on other US government "black" projects.
She has worked in the US and Britain for two corporations which
manufacture signal intelligence computers, satellites and interception
equipment for NSA, Ford Aerospace and Lockheed. Citing a special
Executive Order signed by President Reagan, she told me last month
that she could not and would not discuss classified information
with journalists. But according to Washington sources (and the report
in the Plain Dealer) she informed a US Congressman that the Thurmond
interception took place at Menwith Hill, and that she personally
heard the call and was able to pass on details.
Since then, investigators have subpoenaed other witnesses and
asked them to provide the complete plans and manuals of the ECHELON
system and related projects. The plans and blueprints are said to
show that targeting of US political figures would not occur by accident,
but was designed into the system from the start.
While working at Menwith Hill, Newsham is reported to have said
that she was able to listen through earphones to telephone calls
being monitored at the base. Other conversations that she heard
were in Russian. After leaving Menwith Hill, she continued to have
access to full details of Menwith Hill operations from a position
as software manager for more than a dozen VAX computers at Menwith
which operate the ECHELON system.
Newsham refused last month to discuss classified details of her
career, except with cleared Congressional officials. But it has
been publicly acknowledged that she worked on a large range of so-called
"black" US intelligence programmes, whose funds are concealed inside
the costs of other defence projects. She was fired from Lockheed
four years ago after complaining about the corruption, and sexual
Lockheed claimed she had been a pook [as written] timekeeper,
and has denied her charges of corruption on "black" projects. But
the many charges she is reported to have made - such as the use
of top secret computers for football pools, or to sell a wide range
of merchandise from their offices, and deliberate and massive overcharging
and waste by the company - are but small beer in a continuing and
wider scandal about defence procurement. Newsham's testimony about
overcharging by contractors is now the subject of a major congressional
From US sources not connected with Margaret Newsham, we have obtained
for the first time a list of the major classified projects in operation
at Menwith Hill. The base currently has over 1,200 staff, more than
two thirds of them Americans. Other than the ECHELON computer network,
the main projects at Menwith Hill are code-named SILKWORTH, MOONPENNY,
SIRE, RUNWAY and STEEPLEBUSH. The station also receives information
from a satellite called BIG BIRD.
Project SILKWORTH is, according to signals intelligence specialists,
the code-name for long-range radio monitoring from Menwith Hill.
MOONPENNY is a system for monitoring satellite communications; RUNWAY
is thought to be the control network for an eavesdropping satellite
called VORTEX, now in orbit over the Soviet Union. The base earlier
controlled a similar series of satellites called CHALET. The new
STEEPLEBUSH control centre appears connected with the latest and
biggest of the overhead listening satellites. These are code-named
MAGNUM, according to US intelligence sources.
BIG BIRD, which is not usually connected with Menwith Hill, is
a low-orbiting photographic reconnaissance satellite. But investigators
have worked out, from details of the clearances necessary to know
about BIG BIRD, that this satellite - and indeed, many other satellites,
variously disguised as "weather satellites" - also carry listening
equipment. One such SIGNIT package is said to have been aboard the
doomed space shuttle Challenger, despite its ostensibly civilian
Recently published US Department of Defense 1989 budget information
has confirmed that the Menwith Hill spy base will be the subject
of a major $26 million expansion programme. Information given to
Congress in February listed details of plans for a four-year expansion
of the main operation building and other facilities at Menwith Hill.
Although the testimony referred only to a "classified location",
the base can be identified because of references to STEEPLEBUSH.
According to this testimony, the new STEEPLEBUSH II project will
cost $15 million between now and 1993. The expansion is required
to avoid overcrowding and "to support expanding classified missions".
During the Watergate affair, it was revealed that the NSA, in
collaboration with GCHQ, had routinely intercepted the international
communications of prominent anti-Vietnam war leaders such as Jane
Fonda and Dr Benjamin Spock. Another target was former Black Panther
leader Eldridge Cleaver. Then in the late 1970s, it was revealed
that President Carter had ordered the NSA to stop obtaining "back
door" intelligence about US political figures through swapping intelligence
data with GCHQ Cheltenham.
Among important stations being developed in the new P415 network,
sources indicated, are Bude in Cornwall, mainly run by GCHQ, Bad
Aibling in Germany, and two sites in the People's Republic of China
(which are used only for monitoring the USSR). 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.
In Australia three months ago, New Zealand Defence Minister Bob
Tizard revealed that two Australasian interception stations planned
for the early 1990s will be targeted on new communications satellites
launched by third world countries such as India and Indonesia. The
new satellite spy bases are at Geraldton in northern Australia and
Blenheim, New Zealand. The similar British spy base at Morwenstow,
near Bude, Cornwall, has been continuously expanded throughout the
1980s, including the provision of massive US analysis computers.
If Margaret Newsham's testimony is confirmed by the ongoing Congressional
investigation, then the NSA has been behaving illegally under US
law - unless it can prove either that Thurmond's call was intercepted
completely accidentally, or that the highly patriotic Senator is
actually a foreign spy or terrorist. Moreover NSA's international
phone tapping operations from Menwith Hill and at Morwenstow, Cornwall,
can only be legal in Britain if special warrants have been issued
by the Secretary of State to specify that American intelligence
agents are persons to whom information from intercepts must or should
be given. This can not be established, since the government has
always refused to publish any details of the targets or recipients
of specific interception warrants.
When the Menwith Hill base was first set up there was no British
law controlling phone tapping, or making unauthorised interception
(such as by foreign intelligence agencies) illegal. Now there is,
and telecommunications interception by the Americans from British
territory would clearly be illegal without the appropriate warrant.
When the new Interception of Communications Act was passed in
1985, however, it was obviously designed to make special provision
for operations like ECHELON or Project P415 to trawl all international
communications to and from Britain. A special section of the Act,
Section 3(2), allows warrants to be issued to intercept any general
type of international messages to or from Britain if this is "in
the interests of national security" or "for the purpose of safeguarding
the economic well-being of the United Kingdom". Such warrants also
allow GCHQ to tap any or all other communications on the same cables
or satellites that may have to be picked up in order to select out
the messages they want. So whether or not a British government warrant
can legally allow American agents to intercept private British communications,
there is no doubt that British law as well as British bases have
been designed to encourage rather than inhibit the booming industry
in international telecommunications surveillance.
Both British and American domestic communications are also being
targeted and intercepted by the ECHELON network, the US investigators
have been told. The agencies are alleged to have collaborated not
only on targeting and interception, but also on the monitoring of
domestic UK communications.
Special teams from GCHQ Cheltenham have been flown in secretly
in the last few years to a computer centre in Silicon Valley near
San Francisco for training on the special computer systems that
carry out both domestic and international interception.
The centre near San Francisco has also been used to train staff
from the "Technical Department" of the People's Liberation Army
General Staff, which is the Chinese version of GCHQ. The Department
operates two ultra-secret joint US-Chinese listening stations in
the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, close to the Soviet Siberian
border. Allegedly, such surveillance systems are only used to target
Soviet or Warsaw Pact communications signals, and those suspected
of involvement in espionage and terrorism. But those involved in
ECHELON have stressed to Congress that there are no formal controls
over who may be targeted. And I have been told that junior intelligence
staff can feed target names into the system at all levels, without
any check on their authority to do so. Witnesses giving evidence
to the Congressional inquiry have discussed whether the Democratic
presidential contender Jesse Jackson was targeted; one source implied
that he had been. Even test engineers from manufacturing companies
are able to listen in on private citizens' communications, the inquiry
But 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. And in Britain, as we know, the government is in the
process of tightening the Official Secrets Act to make the publication
of any information from intelligence officials automatically a crime,
even if the information had already been published, or had appeared
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