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[infowar.de] AT 22.02.07: US gets great big new ears in the sky
Feb 22, 2007
US gets bigger ears in the sky
By Alan Boyd
SYDNEY - A new US military communications base planned for Western
Australia will draw Asia more deeply into the clandestine signals war being
waged by security agencies across the globe.
The facility, to be built at Geraldton, 400 kilometers north of Perth, will
relay intelligence data from a new generation of satellites to ground
forces in Asia and the Middle East, with the US-led alliance fighting in
Iraq and Afghanistan likely to be the chief recipient. It will be located
alongside an existing US-Australian base that intercepts mobile telephone
signals and other communications in an area stretching from the South
Pacific to Northern Europe, including all Asian countries.
Security analysts say the new complex, which is expected to pass on
intelligence collected from Geraldton and elsewhere, will control the two
most important of five geostationary satellites that are being launched by
the US armed forces. Both will be positioned directly above the Indian
Ocean to allow maximum coverage of the Middle East and the autonomous area
between Pakistan and Afghanistan where al-Qaeda leaders are believed to be
directing their terrorist networks.
"Geraldton is as far west as you can get on the Australian land mass. That
means they can put the satellite as far west as possible so that the Middle
East, particularly the Persian Gulf and South Asia, will fall within its
footprint," said Dr Philip Dorling, a visiting fellow at the Australian
Defense Force Academy.
On a broader level, the base will form another link in the mysterious
global signals-eavesdropping web known as ECHELON that the US operates with
four allies - the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand - under
the UKUSA Agreement for intercepting and processing international
Established in 1947 by Washington and London, UKUSA arose from a conviction
by World War II signals analysts, later realized, that the emerging Cold
War with communism would be defined by access to intelligence information -
political, military and commercial.
Researcher and writer Duncan Campbell has revealed that by the 1980s,
independent signals intelligence networks operated by the three former
British colonies had been added, while other countries, including Norway,
Denmark, Germany and Turkey, became "third party" participants. The format
chosen was ECHELON, an interception technology capable of sifting through
messages from the Internet, e-mails, fax machines, telephones, radio
transmissions and communications equipment inside embassies, as well as
satellites that could be used to monitor signals anywhere on Earth.
Even undersea cables, now one of the key transcontinental international
communication links, were tapped in the days of copper wiring. The US used
specially designed submarines, the USS Halibut and USS Parche, to wrap
detection coils around the cables, but was thwarted by the arrival of
optical cables, which do not leak radio signals. A 2001 study by the
European Union found that ECHELON provided 55,000 military and intelligence
operatives with access to data being gathered by 120 spy satellites worldwide.
"Every minute of every day, the system is capable of processing 3 million
electronic communications," the EU committee reported. The technology is
based on computer software known as "Dictionary" that automatically selects
keywords or combinations of specific names, dates, places and subject
matter from a database of terrorism, political, security and, it is
rumored, commercial targets.
Collected information, including satellite photos and maps, is encrypted
and forwarded for processing at the Fort Meade headquarters of the National
Security Agency between Washington and Baltimore, which is the main US
partner in the operation. At the intelligence level, useful data are fed
into a form of intranet for use by mainstream intelligence organizations
such as the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Britain's
Secret Intelligence Service.
Military units tap in via the British Skynet communications satellites and
the US Milstar system. Even submarines have access, through two facilities
in Western Australia - the Northwest Cape relay base and a naval
communications station near Exmouth. The Exmouth facility sends very
low-frequency radio to US and Australian submarines and has the most
powerful transmitter in the Southern Hemisphere.
Regions of the world are carved up among the ECHELON partners, with Britain
covering Africa and much of Europe, the US the rest of Europe and the
Americas, and Canada northern latitudes and polar regions. Australia
handles Asia and the Pacific in conjunction with listening posts and ground
stations in Hawaii, the mainland US, Japan, New Zealand, Guam and Korea.
The system is unique in that it offers - technically, at least - a complete
surveillance capability and is the first involving comprehensive
cooperation among a range of different countries that share the proceeds.
It is based around a triangular grid of ground stations at Geraldton, the
British defense facility at Menwith Hill - the world's biggest signals
eavesdropper - and at Yakima in the US state of Washington, supported by
interceptors and transmitters in Japan, South Korea, Germany, Guam, Cyprus,
Hawaii, Canada, Puerto Rica, Denmark, Spain, Ireland and New Zealand, as
well as the US, Britain and Australia.
Satellite interceptions in Asia began in earnest with the launch in 1971
and 1975 of the second generation of civilian Intelsat orbiters, which were
tracked by a base established in Hong Kong in the late 1970s that would
provide a window on the emergence of China after the Cultural Revolution.
By the mid-1990s and the arrival of the seventh generation of Intelsat
satellites, as well as the expanding Inmarsat network, signals interception
bases had been established in Geraldton and Waihopai in New Zealand, while
the existing Pine Gap complex in Australia was being upgraded. Britain's
Government Communications Headquarters transferred its Hong Kong
operations, including all of the transmitters and most personnel, to
Geraldton in 1994 ahead of the return of the territory to China from the UK.
Geraldton became the key listening post for civilian communications from
Intelsat orbiters over the Indian Ocean, backed by Pine Gap, Morwenstow and
Menwith Hill in Britain and Misawa Air Base in Japan. In the Pacific,
Inmarsat transmissions are monitored by Pine Gap, Waihopai in New Zealand,
Misawa, and Yakima in the US. Pine Gap is the main ground station for the
intercepts, with half of its 900 operatives believed to be from the CIA and
US signals agencies.
Misawa, staffed by Japanese and US technicians, specifically intercepts
signals from Russian satellites in the North Pacific, together with bases
in Hawaii, Osan Air Base in South Korea, and the Yakima and Sugar Grove,
West Virginia, ground stations in the mainland United States.
One of the 1970s generation of Intelsat satellites still covers East Asia
exclusively and is tracked from Pine Gap and Kojarena. But the focus since
the 1990s has increasingly been on regional satellites. Palapa, the
Indonesian orbiter that has a footprint covering most of Asia, including
China, is monitored from Shoal Bay, a base in Australia's Northern Territory.
Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson has said the new Geraldton base
will be part of a Mobile User Objective System that the US is developing
that will use satellites to supply ground troops in Asia and the Middle
East with instant intelligence, graphics and maps. Nelson said negotiations
with the US began in 2003.
There is speculation that it may also support Pine Gap's other function of
providing early warning of missile launches as part of the so-called "Son
of Star Wars" defense system. This role was formerly performed by the
US-Australian facility at Nurrungar, South Australia. Until its closure in
1999, Nurrungar was the only ground station capable of monitoring
first-strike missile launches by the Soviet Union.
But a US assessment also found it was one of the highest-priority nuclear
targets. Pine Gap and Nurrungar were crucial to the success of both US-led
invasions of Iraq, providing early warning of Scud missile launches. In an
earlier era, they were used to select and find targets for US bombers in
the Vietnam War.
The success rate of ECHELON is not known, but many analysts doubt that it
is possible to trawl efficiently through billions of items of information
in a time frame that would make it readily available to military forces and
As the EU study noted, satellites generate only a tiny fraction of global
telecommunications transmissions: the more usable material is likely to
come from laborious intercepts of signals or microwave transmissions
obtainable from terrestrial forms of communication. And computers often are
not capable of sorting the wheat from the torrent of chaff.
Researcher Duncan Campbell has even cast doubts on the capability of
intercepting all e-mail, telephone and fax communications. "This has proved
to be erroneous; neither ECHELON nor the signals intelligence system of
which it is part can do this. Nor is equipment available with the capacity
to process and recognize the content of every speech message or telephone
call," he said.
Nevertheless, the ECHELON concept has been copied - on a single-country
basis - by Russia, France and China, among others.
One reason may be that the objective has widened from filtering diplomatic
and military transmissions to getting a head start on commercial
competitors. There is circumstantial evidence that the system has been used
by both the US and Britain to decide the fate of business contracts in Asia.
Documents released in the US suggest it is also used for direct commercial
espionage, often under the guise of monitoring corruption. "It is the new
Cold War. The United States intelligence agencies, facing downsizing after
the fall of the Berlin Wall, have found themselves a new role spying on
foreign firms to help American business in global markets," said Campbell.
In 1990, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel claimed that president George
H W Bush, father of the current US president, had used intercepted messages
between Indonesian authorities and Japan's NEC Corp to stop a US$200
million telecommunications deal. He is said to have insisted that it be
split with a US telecom firm, AT&T.
Boeing landed a $6 billion deal for arms, airliners and maintenance in
Saudi Arabia in 1994 after the National Security Agency reportedly handed
president Bill Clinton evidence from intercepted faxes and phone calls that
the rival European Airbus consortium had discussed the payment of bribes to
government officials. Clinton is also said to have cited intercepted
evidence implicating one of former president Suharto's daughters in a $150
million kickback to gain leverage in a $40 billion package of deals,
including the Paiton power station, signed with Indonesia in 1994.
Washington has even used intercepts against its own ECHELON partners. In
1995 a portfolio compiled by the CIA led to Britain losing a $400 million
contract to build a power station near Bombay (now Mumbai) that went
instead to the United States' Enron, General Electric and Bechtel.
Similarly, the British were pushed out of a major construction deal in the
The ultimate act of commercial espionage may still be working itself
through the system. In 2000, a French intelligence report accused US
intelligence agencies of developing software - in conjunction with
Microsoft - that would enable the CIA to spy on the 90% of computer users
around the world who use Microsoft programs. Briton Brian Gladwell, a
former North Atlantic Treaty Organization computer expert, stated in an
interview after his retirement that the practice was akin to "where we were
250 years ago with pirates on the high seas".
"Governments never admitted they sponsored piracy, yet they all did behind
the scenes. If we now look at cyberspace, we have state-sponsored
information piracy. We can't have a global e-commerce until governments
like the US stop state-sponsored theft of commercial information."
Alan Boyd is a Sydney-based correspondent.
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