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Global spy system ECHELON confirmed at last – by leaked Snowden files

Origins of automated surveillance

ECHELON, the world's satellites, and the Snowden files

In December 2014, I asked fellow Scottish journalist and Intercept reporter Ryan Gallagher to check the documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Was there evidence of ECHELON?

There was: the documents included details of the "ECHELON agreement", and more – a batch of GCHQ and NSA documents confirming what whistleblower Margaret Newsham had revealed 27 years ago.

ECHELON was indeed "a system targeting communications satellites" beginning in 1966, secret summaries of NSA history reveal, according to a 2011 newsletter published by the NSA’s Yakima Research Station:

In 1966, NSA established the FROSTING program, an umbrella program for the collection and processing of all communications emanating from communication satellites. FROSTING’s two sub-programs were TRANSIENT, for all efforts against Soviet satellite targets, and ECHELON, for the collection and processing of INTELSAT communications.

Another report, published in the NSA's SID Today newsletter in 2005, stated "the extensive story of ECHELON will be part of the forthcoming history initiative."

A 2010 GCHQ report indicates that the NSA was still financing ECHELON at the time, noting that "NSA has been a large source of funding for COMSAT. Many current COMSAT assets were purchased by NSA and are supported by GCHQ under the Echelon Agreement." The documents also confirm the role of ECHELON Dictionaries, as "text keyword scanning engines.” They reveal that CARBOY, whose expansion plans Newsham gave me, was the very first GCHQ ECHELON site, at Bude.

The most shocking part of ECHELON, confirmed by the Snowden documents, is that it was built to target Intelsat satellites, which in the early years were used primarily by Western countries: the United States itself was the largest owner and user. The Soviet Union, China and their allies didn't have ground stations, nor the equipment to connect to Intelsat, until years later.

One document confirms that the Yakima site started operating in May 1973 and was “established under the ECHELON program to collect and process INTELSAT communications during the height of the Cold War.”

One more GCHQ document linked Snowden's archive to back to where my journey first began, with John Berry and the ABC case. The GCHQ station in Cyprus where Berry served has the cover-name "SOUNDER.” Here, too, the NSA was heavily involved: "Under the ECHELON Agreement, NSA provides 50 per cent of the funding for the SOUNDER Comsat facility."

The document concludes that the agency showed arrogance in evading public scrutiny. It recounts how ECHELON "caught the ire of Europeans", prompting a European Parliament investigation in 2000. The NSA writer suggested jokingly that when a European delegation came to Washington to visit the NSA and other agencies, their appointments were cancelled. “Our interests, and our SIGINT partners' interests, were protected throughout the ordeal,” reads the report.

The NSA claimed that "the final report of the EU Commission [sic] reflected not only that NSA played by the rules [and] that those characteristics were lacking when the Commission applied its investigatory criteria to other European nations." According to the NSA writer, the Europeans were "pigs":

"The 'pig rule' applied when dealing with this tacky matter: Don't wrestle in the mud with the pigs. They like it, and you both get dirty."

Attitudes like this have made the secret dirty world of electronic mass surveillance difficult to expose, and more difficult to get changed. Even today, neither GCHQ nor NSA will comment on ECHELON or other specific issues raised in the Snowden documents. ("It is long standing policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters," GCHQ said in a statement.)

But change has happened, and at increasing speed.

Two years after Snowden's revelations were first published, I was invited on behalf of a former "C" – Chief of the UK's Secret Intelligence Service – to co-introduce a conference on intelligence, security and privacy. Nearly three decades after almost going to prison for allegedly exposing GCHQ's secrets, my partner in starting the conference was the agency's newly appointed director, Robert Hannigan.

No one present argued against greater openness. Thanks to Snowden and those who courageously came before, the need for public accountability and review has become unassailable. ®

This story is also published by The Intercept.

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