by Eric Margolis
CANNES, FRANCE -- I used to cringe every time Dr. T, a senior Libyan
diplomat, called me from New York. His calls were merely friendly, personal
chats, but I knew they got my name into every counter-intelligence black
book there was.
With typical Arab politeness, he would always begin: "My dear friend Eric,
how is your mother?" To the NSA, CIA, FBI, DIA, NYPD, Egyptian Mukhabarat,
Mossad, British MJ6, and God knows what other intelligence agencies that
were intercepting his calls, "how is your mother" was obviously code for
"we have the missiles with the purple death toxins ready to destroy the
Zionist aggressors and their imperialist lackeys in Washington!!!"
Walls... and telephones... have ears. Big Brother, or, more likely, Uncle
Sam and his Anglo-Saxon pals, are listening to your conversation or reading
your email by means of an electronic intelligence (ELINT) system known as
France and the European Union are so irate over Echelon they recently
opened parliamentary investigations of the "Anglo" eavesdropping network.
Here in France, the national counter-intelligence agency, DST, has been
ordered to dig into Echelon. Paris is in an uproar.
During the Cold War, the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand
established UKSA, an electronic intelligence system that intercepted most
military and civilian communications worldwide. Echelon was a subsystem
aimed at the civilian sector. The top-secret US National Security Agency
(NSA), which is considerably larger than CIA, oversaw UKSA, joined by
Britain's Government Communications HQ, Canada's Communications Security
Establishment, and counterparts in Australia and New Zealand.
Echelon consists of six major ground stations in the member nations and 120
secret geostationary ELINT satellites that intercept virtually all
telephone, fax, and email communications around the globe. The spy system,
said to cost US $4 billion annually, also intercepts communications by
tapping land lines, cell-phone and microwave transmissions. Ground dishes
pick up all satellite phone and high-speed data links.
Ultra-high speed computers process and filter millions of messages hourly,
searching for key words, such as "bomb," "heroin" or "Osma Bin Ladeen" that
trigger recall and display of the intercept. Few malefactors are stupid
enough to use such terms when communicating in the clear, but NSA's Cray
super-computers can identify suggestive phrases and tag "double-entendre"
meanings, which are then evaluated by its 40,000 analysts.
The US insists Echelon is used only to fight terrorism, drug dealers and
other crimes, but Europe doesn't buy this story. The problem with Echelon
is that it hoovers up everything indiscriminately, from calls by Colombian
"narcoterroristas" to late-night chats with Mademoiselle Fifi in Paris.
French government ministers are not at all pleased that calls to their
mistresses are being listened into by Washington and, horror or horrors,
"the perfidious anglais."
In spite of August vacation, a time when all France goes into deep lethargy
and government shuts down, French investigators are examining claims by
industry that the wicked Anglo-Saxons are using Echelon to eavesdrop on
details of their major international arms and commercial deals. According
to the French, information from Echelon intercepts passed on to US and
British defense and telecom firms was used to underbid French companies.
French claims are probably correct. Multi-billion dollar international
contracts are a rough, no-holds-barred business. However, the irate French
are hardly wounded innocents. Exquisite blonde courtesans from Madame
Claude's renowned Paris house of pleasure were routinely used to induce
African and Arab potentates to sign on the dotted line for millions worth
of French arms. According to US intelligence, first class seats on Air
France flights were hard-wired for sound to pick up conversations of
American and British business executives and diplomats.
CIA riposted by mounting a series of clownish honey-trap ops in which
attractive American female agents were employed to seduce senior French
officials to obtain through pillow talk details on upcoming commercial and
military contracts. A depressed American Mata Hari exposed the operations,
to Washington's enormous embarrassment.
Now, France accuses the British, who are supposedly their partners in the
European Union, of acting as American cat's paws, eavesdropping on their
commo and sending sensitive info back to NSA. A big potential French arms
sale to the Saudis was leaked by Britain to the Americans, who ended up
winning the contract. "Euro-Treason" thunder the angry French, who are
still deeply upset over Waterloo. The British, no slouches at name-calling,
retort with nasty quips about Vichy France.
NSA and its allies pick up titanic amounts of electronic data, but they are
able to process only a tiny fraction of the cascade of incoming material.
All intelligence agencies are swamped by information overload. Data
evaluation remains the real problem. At best, Echelon acquires occasional
nuggets of use flu information from a sea of chatter, but this till makes
non-Echelon members very nervous.
Echelon also gleans details of mergers and acquisitions, currency and
commodity trades, and sensitive corporate data. Some Echelon personnel must
surely be tempted to do a little side trading or arbitrage in financial
markets. One suspects a few intelligence agencies may be doing the same to
generate "special" funds for black ops.
The Mafia was right: the only safe way to deliver an important message is
to whisper into someone's ear.
Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster, and
author of the just released War at the Top of
the World - The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet which was reviewed in
The Economist, May 13, 2000
[A Jan. 31, 2006, lawsuit alleged major violations of the Fourth Amendment right
to be free from warrantless searches and seizures. Such a sweeping breach seemed
Yet months after the lawsuit was lodged, the Electronic Frontier Foundation
produced internal AT&T documents allegedly outlining secret rooms in AT&T
offices connected to the NSA, which was siphoning all internet traffic, from
e-mails to Voice Over Internet Protocol phone conversations.
But four years and a mountain of court briefs and rulings later, the legal
system has never addressed the merits of the allegations Ñ and likely never
will. Even Congress has weighed in and passed legislation to prevent the
allegations from being heard.--David Kravets, "Courts, Congress Shun Addressing Legality of Warrantless
Eavesdropping," wired.com, January 29, 2010]
"Exposed: Inside the NSA's Largest and Most Expansive Secret Domestic Spy
Center in Bluffdale, Utah," democracynow.org, March 21, 2012
Copyright © 2000 Eric Margolis - All Rights