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[infowar.de] Neue Echelon Komponente?
The Sunday Oregonian April 28, 2002
NORTHWEST SPY STATION SEES ALL, HEARS ALL -- AND KEEPS IT ALL TO ITSELF
By JAMES LONG
On a blustery April morning in 1941, several truckloads of Depression-era
government workers arrived at a muddy field along Portland's Northeast
Halsey Street near 148th Avenue. They began digging holes, not sure what
for. But the holes had to be very precise.
Three young men with survey equipment checked and rechecked each location,
consulting frequently over a roll of plans they unfurled in the pelting
rain. A tall spruce pole went into each hole. Most had cross-pieces for
wire to be strung in various diamond shapes. Soon the field resembled a
fleet of ships sunk to the mast. This peculiar undertaking drew the
curiosity of the only other human in the area, a turkey farmer who wandered
across the street and asked in a friendly way what the workers were up to.
He never got a clear answer and went back to feeding his turkeys, pondering
the strange ways of government.
The farmer could not have known that he and his gobbling flock were now
neighbors of one of America's most secret electronic spy stations of World
War II and the Cold War that followed. It lasted almost three decades, then
gave way to a newer, far more advanced station near Yakima that combs the
airwaves for the likes of Osama bin Laden.
The new station sits on the edge of a U.S. Army base outside Yakima in the
apple-growing region of central Washington. Experts who follow intelligence
matters say the station is part of something called Echelon, a
controversial effort to gather everything moving through the air in
Every private phone call. Every fax. Every e-mail. Every company memo.
Every merchandise order. Every wired invoice. Every ship-to-shore telex.
Every money transfer. Every bank transaction. Every sales pitch. Every
birthday greeting. Every valentine. Everything resembling a radio wave.
The reason for all this snooping, they say, is that intelligence agencies
realized long before Sept. 11 that not every national security threat comes
from big, lumbering targets like the North Korean missile command.
Private-practice enemies like Mohamed Atta are out there, too, they say,
and may be chatting on their mobile phones.
Location no longer a secret Francis McCann, a Federal Communications
Commission radio engineer who helped design and build the Halsey Street
station, enjoyed telling the story years later and gave the first hint
He mentioned that the Halsey operation's "functions" had been moved "to
another state." He never said where. But this was 1971, which was very
shortly after the National Security Agency opened its post near Yakima.
Since then, the new station's cover has grown so thin that it's possible to
get directions to it from the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau.
"Just go up I-82 toward Ellensburg," advised Dale Spurlock, a travel
counselor who ordinarily hands out tour maps for the area's 200 wineries or
tells where to rent snowmobiles. "It's almost impossible to get near it,
but you can see some of it from the rest stop. Probably the best place,
though, is from the freeway past there."
The station sits in plain sight of the roaring traffic on the western edge
of the Army's Yakima Training Center, a vast tank-and-missile exercise
range where signs advise hunters who use the area not to fool with
unexploded shells they might find.
Several unmemorable buildings, low and windowless and hard to parse from a
distance of about 1-1/2 miles, line up on the rumpled sage with an escort
of nine dish antennas. The eight smaller antennas stand out like Communion
wafers. The ninth is much bigger, maybe big enough to cap a McDonald's.
Few Americans, probably, had even heard of the National Security Agency
when it built the station in 1970. The agency was created in 1952 to take
over the nation's electronic intelligence, and it may have inherited Halsey
Street from the CIA, which got it from the Army, which got it from the FCC.
The NSA's preoccupation with secrecy was such that members of Congress,
frustrated for years by its scant ability to learn how the NSA was spending
tens of billions of dollars, complained that "NSA" stood for "No Such Agency."
The NSA now has about 38,000 employees and is bigger than the CIA and all
other U.S. intelligence agencies combined. Its employees include linguists,
computer scientists and the nation's -- and probably the world's -- largest
staff of mathematicians. It produces much of its own computer technology,
including special-purpose microchips and voice-recognition systems that are
leap years ahead of the commercial market.
The NSA rebuffed or ignored all public queries about the Yakima station
until March, when it confirmed to The Oregonian officially, and for the
first time, its "presence" there.
"The mission," said an NSA spokeswoman in Fort Meade, Md., "is to perform
communications research and development in support of the Department of
What sort of research she wouldn't say. And she declined a request for a
visit, saying "it's a secure facility, especially now."
No one outside the government knows with certainty what goes on at the
However, a European Parliament report in September cited it as a key
component of the vast effort by five major English-speaking countries to
collect and analyze worldwide commercial communications passing through
Martin Brady, director of the Australia Defence Signals Directorate, threw
aside Echelon's already-tattered cover in an interview with Australian
reporters in 1999 by publicly confirming his country's participation.
The United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, according to
the parliamentary report, formed the co-op to take advantage of an ongoing
communications revolution in which satellites bounce phone calls and other
signals from one part of the planet to another.
It was no coincidence, the report said, that the Yakima station sprang up
"at the same time as the first generation of (communications) satellites
were put into orbit."
Since 1995, the report said, the Yakima station has been home to the Air
Intelligence Agency's 544th Intelligence Group, Detachment 4, and
representatives of the Naval Security Group, military units that work
closely with the NSA.
Finding needles of data At least five of Yakima's dishes "look" in the
direction of the Intelsat satellites that hang in geostationary orbit about
22,400 miles over the Pacific. The footprint of the satellites reaches from
the western Americas to eastern Siberia and China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia,
Southeast Asia, and perhaps part of Burma.
Also in view would be the Inmarsat Pacific satellite, one of four that
match the Earth's rotation to handle global maritime communications as well
as satellite-phone service for difficult areas such as Afghanistan, where
Inmarsat customers have ranged from CNN to bin Laden.
Echelon's partners, the report says, funnel their captured signals to the
NSA processing center at Fort Meade, and are allowed, in turn, to dip into
the refined intelligence for their own national requirements.
John Pike, a Washington, D.C.-based defense consultant, says Echelon
essentially uses supercomputers to burn down large haystacks of raw
information very quickly to find the occasional needle of useful intelligence.
The computers, he said, do this in several ways, including the use of
keyword filters similar to those of Internet search engines.
"They have names, addresses, words and phrases that they're searching for,"
Pike said. "Then they immediately throw away essentially everything they
collect because it's boring."
NSA expert James Bamford, a visiting professor at the University of
California at Berkeley, said the agency is, indeed, being challenged by the
exploding growth of commercial and governmental phone calls, e-mails, faxes
and other data exchanges in the past 15 years.
Yakima alone, Bamford said, obtains about 2 million intercepts per hour.
"You can have all the machines in the world to filter them, but in the end
you've got to have some human being who actually reads the (filtered)
messages" and judges their importance before sending them on to officials
in Washington, he said.
"NSA can't send 3,000 messages a day to Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell,"
said Bamford, who wrote "Body of Secrets," a recently published book about
the NSA. "It can send two, maybe."
Retired Army Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, NSA director from 1985 to 1988,
scoffed at any notion that the NSA is being swamped by the increasing
deluge of raw information.
"Have we scooped up too much stuff? The answer's no," said Odom, who is the
director of national security studies at the Hudson Institute in
Washington, D.C. "There's this I would say ill-informed analysis -- a lot
of it by other parts of the intelligence community that don't like NSA."
The privatization of war by groups such as al-Qaida, and the new threats
posed by any number of smaller states such as Iraq, has made the NSA's job
that much harder.
To be effective, search dictionaries would have to contain more than the
most obvious keywords, such as the name of Iraq's defense minister. They
also would have to hold massive lists of things, such as parts numbers for
every component of a MiG-23 fighter jet, and the names, phone numbers and
voiceprints of every arms dealer who might handle the parts, along with
similar information for the dealer's bankers, shippers and go-betweens.
And there would have to be ways to deal with steganography.
Hezbollah and other groups have boasted of communicating by hiding messages
within photos and sounds posted on the Internet. By using a site that gets
millions of hits -- such as one that features porn -- the communicants
think they have little chance of being identified, even if their
steganography is discovered.
The NSA, according to Pike, doesn't necessarily need the contents of
conversations to gain useful intelligence if it has enough communications
to show a pattern.
"The example they always use," he said, "is the Super Bowl. You can
basically tell when the Super Bowl starts and when halftime is by looking
at phone calls. They (NSA sources) claim they can even tell who won simply
by looking at phone calls."
In practical terms, he said, this means the NSA thinks it can predict the
likelihood of a terrorist attack by comparing patterns of communication
with those observed before similar events in the past.
"Even without bothering to read any of those communications, or even if
they're so elliptical that you wouldn't necessarily know what they're
talking about, the theory is you can possibly provide warnings," Pike said.
"If you go back and look at how some of the warnings that (U.S. officials)
put out late last year where they were talking about communications
patterns, that's basically what they were doing."
But the homeland security office's vague terrorist warnings have drawn
criticism, as has the evident failure of the NSA and the rest of the
intelligence community to detect terrorist plots that led to the Sept. 11
attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
And there have been other high-profile failures: Saddam Hussein's 1990
invasion of Kuwait, the first World Trade Center terrorist bombing in 1993,
India's 1998 test of five nuclear weapons, al-Qaida's 1998 bombings of U.S.
embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and the near-sinking of the USS Cole by
al-Qaida in the port of Aden.
Former NSA director Odom said the failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot,
especially, is hard to excuse, and that heads should have rolled at the NSA
and the CIA.
Bamford isn't so sure.
"I'm not defending NSA," he said, "but if bin Laden doesn't talk on the
phone, what are you going to do? You had a group of people, less than 30
around the world, who operated in cells and required no huge money
transfers and no huge weapons transfers. They bought a couple of
box-cutters. I mean, the NSA can't find out if somebody's going to knock
over a gas station."
Practical limitations Obtaining crucial signals wasn't that much of a
problem on Halsey Street at the beginning of the Second World War. U.S.
cryptographers had broken the Japanese Purple Code and were able to tell
the Portland station which radio frequencies to listen to and when to do it.
"We didn't know exactly what we were monitoring," McCann said in 1971. "We
just took the stuff and sent it on."
The results should have given the United States a huge advantage.
In mid-November 1941, McCann and his crew got orders to pay close attention
to a certain Tokyo radio station. The codebreakers had deciphered Special
Message No. 2353 of the Japanese Foreign Ministry ordering its Washington
embassy to "destroy all code papers etc." if the Tokyo station used a
certain phrase in a weather forecast.
"Higashi no Kaze ame" -- "East Wind-Rain" -- would mean that Japan had
decided to attack the United States.
Halsey Street picked up the phrase twice in plain language Nov. 19, and on
Dec. 4 intercepted and forwarded a stream of Japanese Imperial Fleet
Headquarters messages to a task force at sea. One phrase was "Climb Mt.
The Portlanders heard it again during the early hours of Dec. 8, 1941,
Tokyo time, which was Dec. 7 on the U.S. side of the international dateline
at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
McCann, who died in 1980, was proud of his role in intercepting the
messages. But he also acknowledged that, as interesting as the messages
were, they proved of little use to U.S. leaders.
The problem, he said, was not the information but what to do with it.
The Halsey Street site had been kept secret, not just to hide it from the
Japanese but from the Americans. The United States before World War II had
a strong isolationist streak. A majority of citizens in one national poll
favored withdrawing all U.S. troops from Asia.
On Dec. 4, 1941, the very day that the Imperial Fleet messaged "Climb Mt.
Miitaka," the Chicago Tribune denounced President Roosevelt as a war-monger
and published, as proof, secret military plans for defending the country.
McCann said he could barely envision what the national reaction would have
been if Roosevelt, acting on radio intercepts that neither Congress nor the
public had ever heard of, had launched a pre-emptive strike at Japan.
A 1997 Carnegie Commission study made much the same observation about the
practical limitations of intelligence. The problem, the study said, is not
always a shortage of information but uncertainty about its meaning and what
should be done.
Privacy concerns Even in the wake of Sept. 11, many U.S. citizens object to
the NSA's rummaging through private communications.
Critics as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and some of
Congress' most conservative members are wary about the potential for abuse.
The danger, they say, is that incomplete, unclear or misinterpreted
intercepts could get an innocent individual's name placed in a law
enforcement file, with unpredictable consequences.
Even though federal law restricts the NSA's ability to gather or compile
information on U.S. citizens, the NSA's Echelon partners are under no such
The critics argue that the partners could skirt their own laws against
domestic spying by having the other partners do it for them.
Pike, the security consultant, thinks such fears are overblown. Although he
says privacy abuses are possible, he argues that the NSA is far less
interested in who sends a fax to his grandmother than in who does business
with North Korea's rocket builders.
Pike also sees little reality behind the European Parliament's suspicion
that the NSA might use Echelon to steal commercial secrets from European
companies and pass them to U.S. firms for competitive advantage.
"I can't think of too much the French have that's worth stealing," Pike
said, "unless it's cheese. And I haven't seen much evidence that our cheese
Bamford, however, says NSA intercepts of such things as the strategies of
foreign trade negotiators have been used to help American business in general.
And former CIA director John Woolsey has said publicly that the United
States has eavesdropped on foreign businesses to gather evidence of their
bribing foreign officials to cut American competitors out of contracts.
Bamford told The Oregonian, however, he knows of no instance of the NSA
passing information to a particular company.
"I've done two books on NSA and never found it," he said. "Knowing the
culture at NSA, they would be extremely opposed to it."
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