Global Policy Forum

The Sorrows of Empire – Echelon


By Chalmers Johnson

The following text is an excerpt from Johnson, Chalmers "The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism,
Secrecy and the End of the Republic," 2004, Metropolitan Books, pp165-167

January 2004

Since 1948, a highly classified agreement among the intelligence agencies of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand allows them to exchange information not just about target countries but also about one another. This arrangement permits the United State's National Security Agency, Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Canada's Communications Security Establishment, Australia's Defense Signals Directorate, and New Zealand's General Communications Security Bureau to swap information with one another about their own citizens – including political leaders – without formally violating national laws against domestic spying. Even though the US government, for example, is prohibited by law from spying on its own citizens except under a court-ordered warrant, as are all the other countries in the consortium, the NSA can, and often does, ask on of its partners to do so and pass the information its way. One former employee of the Canadian Communications Security Establishment revealed that, at the request of Prime Minister Thatcher of Britain, the GCHQ asked the Canadians to monitor certain British political leaders for them.(1)

Since at least 1981, what had once been an informal covert intelligence-sharing arrangement among the English-speaking countries has been formalized under the code name "Echelon." Up until then the consortium exchanged only "finished" intelligence reports. With the advent of Echelon, they started to share raw intercepts. Echelon is, in fact, a specific program for satellites and computers designed to intercept nonmilitary communications of governments, private organizations, businesses, and individuals on behalf of what is known as the "UKUSA signals intelligence alliance." Each member of the alliance operates its own satellites and creates its own "dictionary" of supercomputers that list key words, names, telephone numbers and anything else that can be made machine-readable. They then search the massive downloads of information the satellites bring in every day. Each country exchanges its daily intake and its analyses with the others. One member may request the addition to another's dictionary of a word or name it wants to target. Echelon monitors or operates approximately 120 satellites worldwide.

The system, which targets international civil communications channels, is so secret that the NSA has refused even to admit it exists or to discuss it with delegations from the European Parliament who have come to Washington to protest such surveillance. France, Germany, and other European nations accuse the United States and Britain, the two nations that originally set up Echelon, with commercial espionage – what they call "state-sponsored information piracy." There is some evidence that the United States has used information illegally collected form Echelon to help advise its negotiators in trade talks with the Japanese and to help Boeing sell airplanes to Saudi Arabia in competition with Europe's Airbus. In January 1995, the CIA used Echelon to track British moves to win a contract to build the 700-megawatt power station near Bombay, India. As a result, the contract was awarded to Enron, General Electric, and Bechtel. During October 1999, European activists and government officials held a "Jam Echelon Day," spending twenty-four hours sending as many messages by e-mail as possible with words like terrorism and bomb in them to try to overload the system.

Echelon's existence has given great impetus to more or less unbreakable systems of encryption, such as what are called random one-time pads. These use keys known only to sender and receiver and are secure against all forms of cryptanalysis. The plaintext message is encrypted using computer-generated random numbers and never used again. The sender and the receiver must use the same key, the weak point being getting the key to the recipient via some tamperproof channel, commonly a CD is sent through the mail. One-time pads are a development to which the NSA is extremely hostile. However, knowing that the NSA has access to all forms of electronic communications, users seeking privacy have naturally turned to coded messages. The NSA, in turn, is reported to be trying to get Microsoft to include secret decoding keys known only to it in all its software.

The problem with Echelon is not just that nations occasionally use it to promote their commercial activities, or simply that it is a club of English speakers, or even that it can be defeated by fiber-optic cables and encryption. The fatal flaw of Echelon is that it is operated by the intelligence and military establishments of the main English-speaking countries in total secrecy and hence beyond any kind of accountability to representatives of the people it claims to be protecting. Among the resulting travesties was the case of a woman whose name and telephone number went into the Echelon directories as those of a possible terrorist because she told a friend on the phone that her son had "bombed" in a school play. According to several knowledgeable sources, the British government has included the word amnesty in all the system's dictionaries in order to collect information against the human rights organization Amnesty International. Even though the governments of the world now know about Echelon, they can do nothing about it except take defensive measures on their messaging systems, and this is but another sign of the implacable advance of militarism in countries that claim to be democracies.


(1). Poole, Echelon, p.13; Interview with James Bamford, author of Body of Secrets, in WorldNetDaily, June 24, 2001,; and CBS News, 60 Minutes, "Ex-Snoop Confirms Echelon Network," New York, February 27, 2000 (transcript posted March 1, 2000)

(2). See Yorkshire Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, "Menwith Hill, Commercial Espionage," See also Jeffrey Richelson, "Desperately Seeking Signal," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 56:2 (March-April 2000), pp. 47-51; American Civil Liberties Union's special Web site; Stuart Miller, Richard Norton-Taylor, and Ian Black, "Worldwide Spying Network Is Revealed," Guardian, May 26, 201; Rupert Goodwins, "Echelon: How It Works," ZDNet UK,,,t269-s2079849,00.html; and ZDNet's "Echelon Bibliography,"

(3). For the simplest explanation of one-time pads, see Francis Litterio, "Why Are One-Time Pads Perfectly Secure?"

(4). 60 Minutes, "Ex-Snoop Confirms Echelon Network"

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