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ECHELON is the global electronic surveillance system of the National Security Agency. Capable of intercepting virtually any electronic communiqué in the world, this system has met harsh public criticism. Fears have spread that the National Security Agency and the rest of the Intelligence Community have been using the system to keep tabs on every citizen of the world. Allegations have escalated since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
It is claimed that ECHELON not only monitors private citizens, but is also being used to engage in corporate espionage, benefiting American corporations over their foreign competitors. And while rumors such as these have been spreading, the Agency itself has finally come out claiming that their systems adhere to the strictest of legal standards. Much of the debate centers on whether or not the organizations such as the NSA should be able to wield this much power, and what can be done to stop them from abusing it.
The National Security Agency, a subdivision of the Department of Defense serves the nation s intelligence gathering capabilities in a number of ways. Its main role is to function as the Signals Intelligence gathering apparatus for the United States. This means operating US satellites and monitoring various foreign communications and codes. This information is then spread through the rest of the intelligence community in order to help in forming foreign policy.
In 1948, the governments of the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand signed a classified agreement allowing greater cooperation in Signals Intelligence. Known as the UKUSA agreement, this treaty would establish a system under which the intelligence agencies of these 5 nations could work together to improve their intelligence gathering capability. Although much of the information about this agreement remains classified, its this system that allowed the ECHELON network to be formed.
Although many of the details of ECHELON are unknown, its overall idea is not terribly complicated. Patrick Poole a professor of government and economics published one of the first and most comprehensive reports of the ECHELON network. According to him:
The ECHELON system is fairly simple in design: position of intercept stations all over the world to capture all satellite, microwave, cellular, and fiber-optic communications traffic and then process this information through the massive computer capabilities of the NSA, including advanced voice recognition and optical character recognition programs, and look for code words or phrases (known as the ECHELON dictionary ) that well prompt the computers to flag the message for recording and transcribing for future analysis.
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"The Erosion of Privacy in 21st Century America." 123HelpMe.com. 29 Feb 2020
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Essentially the system can be described as an information vaccum cleaner, taking in huge amounts of raw data at a time. Theoretically this system could pick up any electronic transmission in the world and examine it for possible suspicious activity. Some examples described are if the messages were to have the words, Bomb, assassinate, or President, then the message would be automatically tagged for analysis. Keywords such as this are apparently what separate casual conversation from a threat to national security. Its unknown whether ECHELON operates completely at random or it is targeted at specific individuals for analysis. Most importantly, what isn t yet proven is whether or not ECHELON is being used to monitor domestic targets within the United States. To many, that represents the biggest threat the platform can possibly hold to the American public. The program it self was designed to counter a rapidly changing global situation where threats to national security seemed to be increasing rather rapidly. Though the cold war may have begun to melt by the early to mid eighties, the U.S. was taking an increasing role in combating terrorism, drugs, and nuclear proliferation. To declare a war on terrorism isn t to fight a central terrorist regime, but thousands of splinter group around the world. And these groups are growing stronger and more effective everyday. As a the 1999 State Department report of global terrorism describes, The cowardly and deadly bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 were powerful reminders that the threat of international terrorism still confronts the world. These attacks contributed to record-high number of casualties during 1998: more than 700 people died and almost 6,000 were wounded. It is essential that all law-abiding nations redouble their efforts to contain this global threat and save lives we will use the full range of tools at our disposal, including diplomacy backed by the use of force when necessary (US: State iii). Further more the report details that seven nations-Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria- are official state sponsors of global terrorism. ECHELON offered the ability to target and track these groups and their sponsors. and to silently infiltrate their communications. Even today the program is being used to locate Osamah Bin Laden and assess the threat terrorists such as him pose to the United States.
While we can assume the function of ECHELON internationally, it s still unclear as to how the system affects the privacy of US citizens at home. Many of ECHELON s critics see this situation as a parallel to the past abuses of the Cold War era Intelligence Community. And while it s true that government regulation has been tighter since the 1970 s, it s also true that several Intelligence Agencies have a less than spotless past. Both the NSA and its cousin the CIA have had record of abuses. Before the government began to seriously examine their activities, the CIA had been involved in everything from illegal surveillance to assassination and government overthrows around the world. Often the policy of The enemy of our enemy is our friend, cause the CIA to sponsor authoritarian regimes in the interest of combating communism. Several times these operations came with the backing of the President himself. During the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson personally authorized the surveillance of suspected subversives on college campuses in the US. In fact through Operation CHAOS, a special operations group was set up to do just that. In 1975 it was revealed that the NSA had worked with agencies such as the CIA in a massive espionage operation code-named Project SHAMROCK. In 1945 Project SHAMROCK was initiated to obtain copies of all telegraphic information exiting or entering the United States. With the full cooperation RCA, ITT, and Western Union, the NSA s predecessor and later the NSA itself were provided with daily microfilm copies of all incoming, outgoing, and transiting telegraphs (Poole 11). This was such a success that a front company was set up to manage this information. Eventually, watch lists, were given to the NSA by the FBI and CIA. Many Americans ended on these lists after their conversations were recorded. This was a major violation of laws against spying on Americans. This caused a wave of debate on Capitol Hill. The argument over whether or not to make this information public led to the passing of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This legislation made it necessary for a warrant to be obtained before such activity could be conducted. This was the first time on record that Congress had cracked down on the activities of the National Security Agency.
This is one of the many cases that sparked a general distrust of Americas Intelligence network in the 1970 s. People began to question exactly what purpose it was serving. These circumstances are what led to what s known as the Church Hearings. Begun in 1975, these hearings before the United States Senate became a full investigation of the American Intelligence System. Leaders from all parts of the Intelligence Network were questioned by the Church Committee as to illegal activities of their agencies. When finished the Committee uncovered volumes of information, often reluctantly surrendered, describing questionable activities of the organizations such as the CIA, NSA, and FBI. Using archaic laws and loopholes, these groups managed to justify otherwise illegal activities, including illegal surveillance and assassination. Realizing the problems with this, the Church Committee finally began to crackdown. They closed their investigations with a number of recommendations for regulating the current state of intelligence. The Intelligence Agencies were reminded that they must obey the law. The Committee recommended that the CIA, the NSA, the military as well as the IRS and the Post Office be barred from all domestic security activities. As to safeguards the committee proposed that the attorney general assume the responsibility to oversee domestic security (Smist 78). With the implementations of these recommendations, the intelligence community became subject to much stricter guidelines as to what authority it has.
However, with the revelation of the ECHELON system, many critics are starting to believe that this is not enough. They criticize the very existence of such an extensive system, saying that the government has no right to be privileged to this much information, no matter what country they are using it in against. One such critic is Nicholas Hader, author of Secret Power. In his book he criticizes the extent to which the system gathers data, claiming that this is a radical change in how the intelligence world operates and how such a program cannot be allowed to operate internationally. Similarly a report by the European Parliament also criticizes the existence of ECHELON. It questions the use of the network in several incidents of spying on foreign corporations, catching foreign corporations in the act of bribing their way into contracts, as well as spying on military engineering projects. One such case is where ECHELON may have been used to monitor the development of a new fighter jet by the Middle East s Panavia Corporation.
I find two main problems with these arguments. One of which is that they forget the main role of intelligence is to gather information. ECHELON is merely the next step in espionage, a practice that every country in the world employs and has been employing for centuries. It s just as important and practical as diplomacy and negotiations. And yes, it does have a dirty side, but in a profession as secular as intelligence you do what needs to be done. As a former CIA officer describes:
Espionage is illegal in basically most places, so you have to break the laws, as long as its not your own law. You re after classified information One thing you don t do, whatever country you re in, is you don t worry about the local law. If you did that, you basically wouldn t function (Kessler 10).
The Nations of the European Parliament are no exception to this rule, and for them to criticize the United States for spying is nothing short of hypocritical. Like any form of technology, systems like ECHELON are a form of natural progress.
The other point I argue with is that the NSA might be getting more credit than it deserves. These reports portray the NSA as something omnipotent and unstoppable, when this seems hardly the case. Since the end of the Cold War, the Intelligence Community has been plagued with cutback after cutback. Agencies such as the NSA are going before Congress begging for whatever funding they can receive. And the CIA is attempting the largest recruiting drive in its history due to the fact that it is desperately undermanned. Senior National Security Archive Fellow, Jeffery Richelson, also described the NSA s shortcomings in a recent NY Times Article. Its ability to collect and process information is not nearly as immense as some of the accounts make it out to be The agency is not doing all that well against the new information technology (Becker A6). With this in mind, successfully processing the amount of raw data a system like ECHELON absorbs seems impractical if not downright impossible. As advanced as the system is, it still requires human analysts to examine the context of each message.
Although I disagree with the ideas that ECHELON should be shutdown completely, I find the NSA s argument equally as fallible. Due to a request by Congress, the head of the NSA, Lt. General Michael Hayden finally released a statement concerning the NSA s role in modern intelligence collection and how it applies to American citizens. Speaking on the record before the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Hayden describes a number of current checks in place that keep his Agency working within the legal limits of its charter. While never mentioning ECHELON by directly name, he brings up several issues that revolve around it. He states that, NSA is not authorized to collect all electronic communications. NSA is authorized to collect information only for foreign intelligence purposes and to provide it only to authorized government recipients Legal prescriptions not withstanding, as a practical matter it is not technically possible to collect all electronic communications everywhere in the world on an indiscriminate basis (US: NSA 2). He follows up with how the NSA is subject to several existing Executive Orders as well as Congressional and Judicial oversight as a means of keeping it in fair play.
While what General Hayden says is true, it may a bit presumptuous to accept everything that he says at face value. Although he states that institutions such as the 4th Amendment keep America s right to privacy safe, he doesn t mention that there is already significant debate over what qualifies as illegal electronic search and seizure.
So much of the laws and rules regarding this issue are outdated. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Church Hearings. And still many of the precedents regarding Intelligence Surveillance were created in the Cold War era, when technology such as the Internet was in its infancy. What is needed is a more comprehensive look at how this technology is, if at all, is being applied to Americans at home. As technology continues to involve, there needs to be some type of legislation to apply to how this technology can be legally monitored. The present state of legislation is somewhat effective, yet still leaves many loopholes as to what can and can t be traced. For instance if a domestic call within the United States uses an international satellite for transmission, is it then applicable to foreign intelligence? Similarly many have raised questions regarding the NSA s involvement in corporate espionage. Under the current charter it is forbidden to supply private corporations with government intelligence data. Yet, in cases where ECHELON has uncovered bribes by foreign corporations, it has been American corporations that seem to benefit. This hardly seems a coincidence, since many of some of these corporations are the designers of ECHELON itself. While it may not be officially working with American companies, does the NSA have the right to take international actions on their behalf? Does this process necessarily run contrary to the NSA s charter? Questions such as these are what need to be accounted for. As well, the Executive Orders that General Hayden refers to can be easily created and destroyed with a President s signature. They are not nearly as effective or stable as written legislation. As Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia has stated, what s needed are efforts to meaningfully and objectively review the effectiveness of existing law and regulation at protecting the privacy rights of Americans both now and in the future (Barr). Barr has taken the lead among representatives who are seeking to examine the role of ECHELON.
I think its time for Congress to seriously reexamine the nature of today s surveillance laws and how they hold up to today s changing technologies and the role they play in modern espionage. While national security is an incredibly important issue, as well is the privacy of individual American citizens, and the two should not be allowed to conflict. This not only includes our citizens at home, but Americans overseas, as well. Congress is effectively the only organization to have any legislational authority of the intelligence community and therefore is the only group that could make their practices legal or illegal. It's their job to monitor the monitors. So far, the NSA has been rather reluctant to pass any information regarding ECHELON s functions and although not out of character for the so-called No Such Agency, this could be interpreted as a sign that they have something to hide. Much of their defense lies in the interest of keeping their secrets classified and under wraps. It s true that confidentiality is part of the Intelligence community, but this excuse can t be used to cloak illegal activities. While I support the use of a system such as ECHELON for foreign intelligence, to use it at home would be a gross violation of our rights as American citizens. ECHELON simply cannot be turned against the people it aims to serve. In my opinion the government must make efforts to make sure that this line isn t crossed.
Barr, Robert. Is the US Spy Shop Listening to Your Call? 13 December 1999. Internet. 25 April 2000. http://www.house.gov/barr/o_121399.html
Becker, Elizabeth. Long History of Intercepting Key Words. New York Times 24 Feb 2000 : A6
Kessler, Ronald. Inside the CIA. New York: Pocket Books. 1992
Poole, Patrick. ECHELON: America s Secret Global Security Network. 1 Feb 1999
United States. National Security Agency. Statement for the Record of NSA Director Lt. General Michael V. Hayden, USAF. 12 Apr 2000. Internet. 25 April 2000. http://www.nsa.gov/releases/DIR_HPSCI_12APR.html
United States. Department of State. Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1998. Washington. 1999