Spy Station Hears All, Tells Little
By JAMES LONG
c.2002 Newhouse News Service
YAKIMA, Wash. -- A secret electronic spy station near Yakima is combing the airwaves for the likes of Osama bin Laden.
The station sits on the edge of a U.S. Army base 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 international communications:
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.
The National Security Agency was created in 1952 to handle the nation's electronic intelligence-gathering. Even 18 years later, when it built the Yakima station, most Americans still had never heard of the agency.
The NSA's preoccupation with secrecy was such that members of Congress, frustrated by their inability to learn how the NSA was spending tens of billions of dollars, complained that "NSA" stood for "No Such Agency."
But the Yakima 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 a mile and a half, 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.
The NSA rebuffed or ignored all public queries about the Yakima station until this past March, when it confirmed to The Oregonian newspaper in Portland 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 Defense."
What sort of research she wouldn't say. And she declined a request for a visit, saying, "It's a secure facility, especially now."
The NSA has about 38,000 employees and is bigger than the CIA and all other U.S. intelligence agencies combined. Its payroll includes 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.
No one outside the government knows with certainty what goes on at the Yakima station. 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 international satellites.
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.
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-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 do this in several ways, including the use of keyword filters similar to those of Internet search engines, Pike said.
"They have names, addresses, words and phrases that they're searching for," he 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 in an interview that the agency is 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 says, 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 (National Security Adviser) Condoleezza Rice or (Secretary of State) 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," Odom said by phone from the Hudson Institute in Washington, where he is now director of national security studies. "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 other 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 such as a porn site that gets millions of hits, 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, Pike 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 Yemen.
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."
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 restraint.
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. Though 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 basis for 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 has improved."
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 eavesdropped on foreign businesses to gather evidence of their bribing foreign officials to cut U.S. competitors out of contracts.
Bamford said he knows of no instance, however, 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."