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[infowar.de] Canada listens to world as partner in spy system
Canada listens to world as partner in spy system
When a former cabinet minister recently charged that British spies had
listened in on U.N. chief Kofi Annan in the countdown to the Iraq War,
Prime Minister Tony Blair stonewalled.
Clare Short said she'd seen transcripts of Annan's conversations. A
furious Blair refused to confirm or deny the accusation, but blasted
Short for going public.
The allegation came as no surprise to anyone at the United Nations.
It's a given that the New York headquarters are bugged and always have
been, by friend and foe alike. It's technically illegal and officials
don't like it. But there is nothing they can do but register a
complaint and enjoy the squirming when a country gets caught
The public may not be so blasé about the fact that "good" countries,
not just "bad," practice espionage ? routine, all-pervasive,
electronic espionage. But it's naive to think otherwise. All nations
spy on friends as well as enemies.
Not that anyone broke into Annan's office and planted a
Watergate-style bugging device.
What Short likely saw were intercepts from a little-known surveillance
system called Echelon, which automatically monitors virtually all of
the world's communications.
Every day, billions of telephone calls, e-mails, faxes, radio
transmissions, even Internet downloads are captured by orbiting
satellites monitoring signals on Earth, then processed by high-powered
computers. A minute percentage of the traffic is "tagged" for
transcription, translation if necessary, and analysis.
The ordinary messages of ordinary people get caught up in the sweep,
but aren't generally tagged. The likes of a U.N. secretary-general
"Echelon is an electronic vacuum cleaner, but it is finely tuned,"
says Canadian intelligence specialist Wesley Wark. "They have to be
precise to get what they want."
But who is "they?"
The high-tech Echelon system is operated by five nations known as the
UKUSA alliance: the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New
Referred to in some circles as the "Anglo-Saxon Mafia," the U.S.-led
network has existed for 58 years, emerging out of the Allies'
successful signals-intelligence, or "sigint," operations during World
Its original primary job was to spy on the Soviet Union and win the
Cold War. Today, it is counterterrorism.
In a series of still-classified bilateral agreements ? each country
has a deal with the U.S. ? UKUSA members pledged to jointly acquire
and share all signals and communications intelligence. Common
procedures, targets, equipment and methods were spelled out, along
with a commitment to secrecy about the alliance's operations.
The world was split into regions: Britain got Africa and Europe east
to the Urals; Australia and New Zealand got Oceania; and the U.S. got
the Soviet Union and wherever else it wanted.
As of 1946, Canada, through the newly created Communications Security
Establishment (CSE), would home in on the northern latitudes and polar
regions. It had shown its expertise there during the war.
"In the war, Canada had the best antennas for listening to the Soviet
Union," says John Thompson, president of the Mackenzie Institute, an
anti-global violence think tank in Toronto. "And we had prime
listening posts, such as Alert."
Canadian Forces Station Alert, on Ellesmere Island in present-day
Nunavut, is still an important ground station in the Canada's network
of "sigint" posts. It mainly intercepts satellite military
The other three are CFS Leitrim, south of Ottawa, which intercepts
diplomatic traffic in and out of Canada; CFS Masset off the coast of
B.C., and Canadian Forces Base Gander, Nfld., both of which primarily
tap into maritime transmissions.
The high-tech Echelon listening system was devised in 1971 by the
American National Security Agency (NSA), which was, and remains, the
dominant UKUSA member and contributor of technology.
Today, it is believed to operate 120 intercept stations in up to a
dozen countries; their giant antennas all point at the communications
satellites continuously circling the planet.
With the end of the Cold War, Echelon's priorities moved to monitoring
rogue states and international organized crime. Since the 9/11
attacks, however, its emphasis is on fighting terrorism, and all that
comes under that rubric ? attitudes inside the U.N. Security Council
toward the Iraq War, for example.
The intelligence gleaned is shared among the five alliance partners
and often with other participants: Germany, Norway, Denmark, and
Turkey have all signed secret "third-party" UKUSA agreements.
Though Echelon is by far the biggest monitoring network in the world,
other nations have their own satellite-based listening systems.
Russia, China, France, Israel, India and Pakistan all use "sigint" as
a major source of intelligence.
"Everybody listens to everybody else non-stop," says John Thompson.
"The public does not realize it, but Canada has been doing it for
decades. It's an important part of our defence." The only countries
that don't monitor global communications, he says, are "the poor ones
who can't afford the technology."
Canada's low-profile CSE collects foreign intelligence in the name of
national security, but also attempts to block electronic interception
by other states.
After the Anti-terrorist Act was passed in 2001, the agency's budget
was boosted to about $300 million. Its staff ? known as "291ers" after
their military occupation code ? was increased to 1,300, making it the
country's second biggest spy force, after the Canadian Security
More computer power was added to headquarters and its other properties
in Ottawa, and extra antennas were installed at some of the listening
stations. Leitrim now has six.
`The terrorist act gave the
CSE new powers. It now has carte blanche to intercept in Canada.'
Wesley Wark, intelligence specialist
Though it all may sound like Big Brother, there is no need for the
public to "get paranoid that the government is listening to them,"
says Thompson. "That's not the case. They can't `read' a fraction of
what they pick up."
In fact, less than 2 per cent of the transmissions are ever seen by
human eyes. Artificial intelligence does the bulk of the listening and
The Echelon computer process used to filter messages is codenamed
"Dictionary," according to Duncan Campbell, a British journalist who
authored a report on UKUSA for the European Parliament in 2000.
Each alliance partner has its own dictionary of key names, phrases,
people, places and words (bomb, for example), but all five are used at
each country's listening posts.
The computer scans all messages for these words, flags those that
contain them, and eliminates the vast majority that don't. If
something is picked up containing a key word in another member's
dictionary, it is forwarded on to that country. Everything ends up at
NSA headquarters in Virginia.
Echelon has also devised an advanced voice-recognition system. Still
imperfect, it's thought to be in use only at Menwith Hill, the U.S.
forces base in northern England that is the world's largest listening
The system's biggest challenge, says Campbell's report, is to find a
way of intercepting fibre-optic telecommunications that use light
pulses to transmit data and are not collected by satellites.
That, and combating encryption. Campbell also says "information
warfare" personnel at NSA are working to fight its ever-increasing use
by directly interfering with targeted computers:
"The methods remain controversial, but include information-stealing
viruses (to) data bugs and pre-emptive tampering with software or
Any UKUSA partner can ask any of the others to intercept domestic
communications. It then can truthfully say it does not spy on its own
citizens, ? illegal in all five countries.
That's what happened in 1983, according to former Canadian
intelligence officer Mike Frost. His 1994 book, Spyworld, claimed that
Britain asked the CSE to monitor two of then-prime minister Margaret
Thatcher's cabinet ministers whom she suspected of disloyalty. The
agency carried out the intercepts.
"We never stopped to question the morality of doing what amounted to
dirty tricks for a partisan politician in a foreign land. After all,
we weren't spying on Canadians, that time, anyway."
Ottawa has vehemently denied that it listens in on citizens. But
experts say it doesn't have to when the UKUSA alliance, mainly the
U.S., can monitor targeted individuals on its behalf.
That may be over, says Wesley Wark, because it is now fully legal for
the CSE to turn its computers on to Canadians' conversations, faxes
and e-mails ? provided there is a foreign link.
To be precise, the agency's post-9/11 mandate allows it "to collect
the communications of a legitimate foreign-intelligence target located
abroad if those communications enter or depart Canada."
"Like all secret and sensitive systems, it is subject to abuses," says
Wark. "Of course, that didn't concern us when it was the Soviets we
were spying on."
The CSE has a commissioner, former chief justice Antonio Lamer, whose
role is to ensure it obeys the law. But Wark says he doesn't have the
power that the Security Intelligence Review Committee has over CSIS.
"It's doubtful his presence does anything but stop the most egregious
abuses," Wark says.
The agency isn't accountable to Parliament or the public. It comes
under the umbrella of the Department of National Defence, but its
chief, Keith Coulter, reports solely to the Privy Council and the
"The terrorist act gave the CSE new powers," says Wark. "It now has
carte blanche to intercept in Canada."
Its access to Echelon provides it the same means worldwide. No
international law prohibits or governs the system's use, says Wark,
and there is little oversight in any of the member states.
In fact, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations
technically prohibits the interception of transmissions in and out of
embassies and the U.N.
But it is widely accepted, if not acknowledged, that the convention is
ignored, says intelligence specialist Bill Robinson, who compiled a
comprehensive report on the CSE in the mid-'90s for Project
Ploughshares, the anti-war coalition.
"I see the value of intelligence for our country," he says, "but it
makes me uncomfortable to see an international law flouted."
It makes Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector in pre-war Iraq,
more than uncomfortable.
He suspected Echelon had eavesdropped on him last year, and the Clare
Short affair in Britain confirmed it for him.
He had expected to be bugged by the Iraqis, but being spied on by "the
same side" was, Blix said, "disgusting."
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