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"Secret Power" by Nicky Hager, 1996, ISBN 0-908802-35-8

GCSB is New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau.


It was with some apprehension that I learned Nicky Hager was researching the activity of our intelligence community. He has long been a pain in the establishment's neck. There are many things in the book with which I am familiar. I couldn't tell him which was which. Nor can I tell you. But it is an outrage that I and other ministers were told so little [yea NSA] and this raises the question of to whom those concerned saw themselves ultimately responsible.

David Lange, Prime Minister of New Zealand 1984-89


Another aspect of the Second World War that carried over into the Cold War era was the close co-operation between five countries - the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - formalized with the UKUSA Security Agreement of 1948.

Although the treaty has never been made public, it has become clear that it provided not only for a division of collecting tasks and sharing of the product, but for common guidelines for the classification and protection of the intelligence collected as well as for personnel security.


New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, on June 12 1984, admitted the GCSB liaised closely with Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States - the closest the government has ever come to talking about the secret five-nation signals intelligence alliance of which the GCSB is part.


The New Zealand analysts have a high level of contact with the overseas agencies, including overseas staff training, postings and exchanges. In the early 1990s the GCSB began conducting its own training courses, teaching them the special procedures and regulations governing the production of signals intelligence reports for the UKUSA network.

It is at these courses where the analysts are told about the UKUSA agreement, which is described by senior staff as the 'foundation stone' of all the arrangements with the 'partner' agencies.


The GCSB introduces the new trainees to the world of codebreaking by advising them to read two of the greatest exposes of signals intelligence: James Bamford's 'The Puzzle Palace' and David Kahn's 'The Code Breakers'.


In 1984, Glen Singleton of the NSA was formally appointed GCSB's Deputy Director of Policy and Plans. Having an American inside the GCSB serving as a foreign liaison officer would be one thing: allowing an officer from another country to direct policy and planning seems extraordinary.

[ Unless you think of the NSA as the New World Order. ]


Intelsat 7s can carry 90,000 individual phone or fax circuits at once. All 'written' messages are currently exploited by the GCSB. The other UKUSA agencies monitor phone calls as well.

The key to interception of satellite communications is powerful computers that search through these masses of messages for ones of interest.

The intercept stations take in millions of messages intended for the legitimate earth stations served by the satellite and then use computers to search for pre-programmed addresses and keywords.

In this way they select out manageable numbers (hundreds or thousands) of messages to be searched through and read by the intelligence analysis staff.

Many people are vaguely aware that a lot of spying occurs, maybe even on them, but how do we judge if it is ubiquitous or not a worry at all? Is someone listening every time we pick up the telephone? Are all Internet or fax messages being pored over continuously by shadowy figures somewhere in a windowless building? There is almost never any solid information with which to judge what is realistic concern and what is silly paranoia.

What follows explains as precisely as possible - and for the first time in public - how the worldwide system works, just how immense and powerful it is and what it can and cannot do. The electronic spies are not ubiquitous, but the paranoia is not unfounded.

The global system has a highly secret codename - ECHELON.

The intelligence agencies will be shocked to see it named and described for the first time in print.

Each station in the ECHELON network has computers that automatically search through millions of intercepted messages for ones containing pre-programmed keywords or fax, telex and email addresses. Every word of every message is automatically searched: they do not need your specific telephone number or Internet address on the list.

All the different computers in the network are known, within the UKUSA agencies, as the ECHELON Dictionaries.

Computers that can search for keywords have existed since at least the 1970s, but the ECHELON system has been designed to interconnect all these computers and allow the stations to function as components of an integrated whole.

Under the ECHELON system, a particular station's Dictionary computers contain not only its parent agency's chosen keywords, but also a list for each of the other four agencies. For example, each New Zealand site has separate search lists for the NSA, GCHQ [British], DSD [Australia], and CSE [Canada] in addition to its own.

So each station collects all the telephone calls, faxes, telexes, Internet messages and other electronic communications that its computers have been pre-programmed to select for all the allies and automatically send this intelligence to them.

This means that New Zealand stations are being used by the overseas agencies for their automatic collecting - while New Zealand does not even know what is being intercepted from the New Zealand sites for the allies. In return, New Zealand gets tightly controlled access to a few parts of the system.

The GCSB computers, the stations, the headquarter operations and, indeed, GCSB itself function almost entirely as components of this integrated system.

Each station in the network - not just the satellite stations - has Dictionary computers that report to the ECHELON system


United States spy satellites, designed to intercept communications from orbit above the earth, are also likely to be connected into the ECHELON system.

These satellites either move in orbits that criss-cross the earth or, like the Intelsats, sit above the Equator in geostationary orbit.

They have antennae that can scoop up very large quantities of radio communications from the areas below.

A final element of the ECHELON system are facilities that tap directly into land-based telecommunications systems, completing a near total coverage of the world's communications.

The microwave networks are made up of chains of microwave towers relaying messages from hilltop to hilltop (always within line of sight) across the countryside. These networks shunt large quantities of communications across a country. Intercepting them gives access to international underseas communications (once they surface) and to international communication trunk lines across continents.

They are also an obvious target for large-scale interception of domestic communications. Of course, when the microwave route is across one of the UKUSA countries' territory it is much easier to arrange interception.


The ECHELON system has created an awesome spying capacity for the United States, allowing it to monitor continuously most of the world's communications.

It is an important component of its power and influence in the post-Cold War world order, and advances in computer processing technology continue to increase this capacity.

The NSA pushed for the creation of this system and has the supreme position within it. It has subsidized the allies by providing the sophisticated computer programs used in the system, it undertakes the bulk of the interception operations and, in return, it can be assumed to have full access to the allies' capabilities.

On December 2 1987, when Prime Minister David Lange announced plans to build a new spy station, he issued a press statement explaining that the station would provide greater independence in intelligence matters: "For years there has been concern about our dependence on others and all that implies. This government is committed to standing on its own two feet."

Lange believed the statement. Even as Prime Minister, no one had told him about the ECHELON Dictionary system and the way the new station would fit in.


His first experience of the UKUSA alliance was its security 'indoctrination' (they really use this word). The indoctrination was done by GCSB security officer Don Allan, and consisted of a strict lecture about never, for the rest of his life, talking about his job with anyone except other indoctrinated people. GCSB workers are forbidden to say anything about their work, even to their partners.

The indoctrination concluded with Holmes signing the two page indoctrination form, which refers to New Zealand laws for punishing infringements (in the Crimes Act) but which originates primarily in UKUSA regulations. Equivalent forms must be signed by staff throughout the UKUSA alliance.


In the middle of 1994 Holmes got his first overseas posting - and a prestigious one at that. He is on a three-year posting to the center of the UKUSA alliance, the enormous NSA headquarters at Fort George G. Meade.

This posting was the first ever by a GCSB analyst to the NSA. Before he left New Zealand his daily work, like that of all analysts, revolved entirely around that most striking manifestation of GCSB's links with the NSA: the ECHELON Dictionary system.

Each morning the signals intelligence analysts in New Zealand log on at their computer terminals and enter the Dictionary system, just as their equivalents do in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

What follows is a precise description of how the system works, the first time it has been publicly described. [Buy the book for full details]

After entering their security passwords, the analysts reach a directory that lists the different categories of intercept available, each with a four digit code; 4066, for instance, might be Russian fishing trawlers, 5535 Japanese diplomatic traffic in the South Pacific, 4959 communications from South Pacific countries and so on.

They type in the code for the category they want to use first that day.

As soon as they make a selection, a 'search result' appears, stating the number of documents which have been found fitting that category.

The day's work begins, reading through screen after screen of intercepted messages.

If a message appears worth reporting on, the analyst can select it from the rest and work on it out of the Dictionary system.

He or she then translates the message - either in its entirety or as a summary called a 'gist' - and writes it into the standard format of all intelligence reports produced anywhere within the UKUSA network.

This is the 'front end' of the Dictionary system, using a commercially available program (called BRS Search). It extracts the different categories of intercepted messages (known just as 'intercept') from the large GCSB computer database of intercept from the New Zealand stations and overseas agencies.

[ I interrupt this book excerpt to bring you retrieval results for "BRS Search" from the search engine:

BRS/Search is designed to manage large collections of unstructured information, allowing multiple users to quickly and efficiently search, retrieve and analyze stored documents simply by entering a word, concept, phrase, or combination of phrases, in any length. The product offers the most powerful indexing structure available today, with users able to pinpoint critical information in seconds, even across millions of documents in numerous databases.

Hmmm. Sounds like the search engine I just used.

You give the search engine keywords to search for, and can specify exclusion logic keywords. e.g. "digital AND NOT watch"]

Before anything goes into the database, the actual searching and selection of intercepted messages has already occurred - in the Dictionary computers at the New Zealand and overseas stations.

This is an enormous mass of material - literally all the business, government and personal messages that the station catches.

The computers automatically search through everything as it arrives at the station.

This is the work of the Dictionary program.

It reads every word and number in every single incoming message and picks out all the ones containing target keywords and numbers.

Thousands of simultaneous messages are read in 'real time' as they pour into the station, hour after hour, day after day, as the computer finds intelligence needles in the telecommunications haystack.

Telephone calls containing keywords are automatically extracted from the masses of other calls and digitally recorded to be listened to by analysts back in the agency headquarters.

The implications of this capability are immense.

The UKUSA agencies can use machines to search through all the telephone calls in the world, just as they do for written messages.

It has nothing to do with whether someone is deliberately tapping your phone, simply whether you say a keyword or combination of keywords that is of interest to one of the UKUSA agencies.


The keywords include such things as names of people, ships, organizations, countries and subjects. They also include the known telex and phone numbers and Internet addresses of the individuals, businesses, organizations and government offices they may want to target.

The agencies also specify combinations of these keywords to help sift out communications of interest.

For example, they might search for diplomatic cables containing both the words 'Suva' and 'aid', or cables containing the word 'Suva' but NOT the word 'consul' (to avoid the masses of routine consular communications).

It is these sets of words and numbers (and combinations of them), under a particular category, that are placed in the Dictionary computers.

The whole system was developed by the NSA.


The only known public reference to the ECHELON system was made in relation to the Menwith Hill station. In July 1988, a United States newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, published a story about electronic monitoring of phone calls of a Republican senator, Strom Thurmond. The alleged monitoring occurred at Menwith Hill.

Margaret Newsham worked at Menwith Hill as a contract employee of Lockheed Space and Missiles Corporation. She is said to have told congress staff that, while at Menwith, she was able to listen through earphones to telephone calls being monitored.

When investigators subpoenaed witnesses and sought access to plans and manuals for the ECHELON system, they found there were no formal controls over who could be targeted; junior staff were able to feed in target names to be searched for by the computers without any check of their authorization to do so.

None of this is surprising and it is likely to be insignificant compared with official abuse of the system.

The capabilities of the ECHELON system are so great, and the secrecy surrounding it makes it so impervious to democratic oversite, that the temptation to use it for questionable projects seems irresistible.

In June 1992 a group of current 'highly placed intelligence operatives' from the British GCHQ spoke to the paper Observer: 'We feel we can no longer remain silent regarding that which we regard to be gross malpractice and negligence within the establishment in which we operate.'

They gave as examples GCHQ interception of three charitable organizations, including Amnesty International and Christian Aid. As the Observer reported:

"At any time GCHQ is able to home in on their communications for a routine target request," the GCHQ source said. In this case of phone taps the procedure is known as Mantis. With the telexes this is called Mayfly. By keying in a code relating to Third World aid, the source was able to demonstrate telex 'fixes' on the three organizations.

We can then sift through those communications further by selecting keywords to search for.

Without actually naming it, this was a fairly precise description of how the ECHELON Dictionary system works.

Note that it was being used for telephone calls.

Again, what was not revealed in the publicity was that this is a UKUSA-wide system. The design of the ECHELON system means that the interception of these organizations could have occurred anywhere in the network, at any station where the GCHQ had requested that the four digit code covering the necessary keywords and exclusion logic for Third World aid be placed.


In a further misuse of ECHELON, a former intelligence employee revealed that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had personally ordered interception of the Lonrho company, owners of the Observer newspaper, after that newspaper published a series of articles in 1989 exposing events surrounding a multi- billion dollar British arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

The newspaper said the deal had been pushed strongly by Mrs. Thatcher, and it was alleged that massive bribes were made to middlemen, including her son, Mark, who was said to have received a 10 million Pound commission.

The former employee of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, Robin Robison, broke his indoctrination oaths and told the Observer that, as part of his job, which involved sorting intelligence reports from the British intelligence agencies, he personally forwarded GCHQ transcripts of intercepted communications about Lonrho to Mrs. Thatcher's office.


Intelligence is not just neutral information; it can be powerful and dangerous. Intelligence gathering and military force are two sides of the same coin. Both are used by countries and groups within countries to advance their interests, often at the expense of others. To influence or defeat an opponent, knowledge can be more useful than military force.

The type of intelligence described in this book, signals intelligence (SIGINT), is the largest, most secret and most expensive source of secret intelligence in the world today.


Like the British examples, and Mike Frost's Canadian examples, these stories will only be the tip of the iceberg.

There is no evidence of a UKUSA code of ethics or a tradition of respect for Parliament or civil liberties in their home countries.

The opposite seems to be true: that anything goes as long as you do not get caught. Secrecy not only permits but encourages questionable operations.

Three observations need to be made about the immense spying capability provided by the ECHELON system.

The first is that the magnitude of the global network is a product of decades of intense Cold War activity. Yet with the end of the Cold War it has not been demobilized and budgets have not been significantly cut.

Indeed the network has grown in power and reach. Yet the public justifications, for example that 'economic intelligence is now more important', do not even begin to explain why this huge spy system should be maintained. In the early 1980s the Cold War rhetoric was extreme and global war was seriously discussed and planned for.

In the 1990s, the threat of global war has all but disappeared and none of the allies faces the remotest serious military threat.

The second point about the ECHELON capabilities is that large parts of the system, while hiding behind the Cold War for their justification, were never primarily about the Cold War at all.

The UKUSA alliance did mount massive operations against the Soviet Union and other 'communists', but other elements of the worldwide system, such as the interception of Intelsat communications, microwave networks and many regional satellites, were not aimed primarily at the Russians, the Iraqis or the North Koreans.

Then, and now, they are targeting groups which do not pose any physical threat to the UKUSA allies at all.

But they are ideal to use against political opponents, economic competitors, countries where the allies may want to gain some advantage (especially access to cheap resources) and administrations (like Nicaragua's Sandinista government) which do not fit an American-dominated world order.

The third observation is that telecommunications organizations - including the telephone companies - are not blameless in all of this.

These companies, to which people pay their monthly bills believing that the phone calls they make and the faxes they send are secure, should well be aware of the wholesale interception of 'private' communications that has been occurring for decades.

Yet they neither invest in encryption technology nor insist that organizations such as the Washington-based Intelsat Corporation provide encryption.

They do not let their customers know that their international communications are open to continuous interception. Wittingly or unwittingly, this lack of action assists large-scale spying against the individuals, businesses and government and private organizations that innocently entrust their communications to these companies.

ECHELON is a staggeringly comprehensive and highly secret global spying system. Around the world there are networks of spy stations and spy satellites which can intercept communications anywhere on the planet.


Over the last 10 years a lot has been heard in New Zealand about the dangers of 'bureaucratic capture', about senior officials controlling their ministers rather than the other way around. The area of government activity described in this book is the ultimate example of bureaucratic capture.

Politicians, whom the public has presumed will be monitoring the intelligence organizations on their behalf, have been systematically denied the information required to do that job.

If a democratic society wants to control its secret agencies, it is essential that the public and politicians have the information and the will to do so.


Good encryption systems, such as PGP, developed privately by American Phil Zimmerman, are publicly available, although they are still used only by relatively few people in the know.

The UKUSA agencies have been attempting to curb the spread of this technology, which is a major threat to their influence, so far without enough success to stop it.

It remains to be seen how much the public can find a technological answer to maintaining privacy in a world with systems like ECHELON.

*** end of 'Secret Power' excerpt

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