Global Policy Forum

US Gets Bigger Ears in the Sky


By Alan Boyd*

Asia Times
February 22, 2007

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 communications. 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.

Comprehensive coverage

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 intelligence agencies.

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.

Commercial applications

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 Philippines.

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."

About the Author: Alan Boyd is a Sydney-based correspondent.

More Information on Empire?
More General Analysis on US Military Expansion and Intervention
More Information on US Military Expansion and Intervention


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.