Australia first to admit "we're part of global surveillance system"

Echelon outed by the head of Australia's Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), Martin Brady.

Australia, one of five countries running the controversial Echelon global surveillance network, has become the first to admit it. The Australian government has confirmed that the system spies on the international communications of it own and other countries' citizens. As part of their disclosures, Australian intelligence officials have also published details of secret government orders which restrict spying on Australian citizens.

Besides requiring European countries to start dealing seriously with the threat of economic espionage through the Echelon system, the Australian disclosures should force other nations to review whether the protections for their citizens' privacy matches up to the Australian standards - if they exist at all.

In a series of letters to Australia's Channel Nine "Sunday" programme, revealed this week, the head of Australia's Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), Martin Brady, states that DSD "does co-operate with counterpart signals intelligence organisations overseas under the UKUSA relationship". The contents of the letters were disclosed after the Nine Network transmitted a one hour documentary on Echelon, last Sunday.

The UKUSA agreement binds together the giant US National Security Agency with the signals intelligence organisations of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Although its precise terms have never been revealed, the UKUSA agreement provides for sharing facilities, staff, methods, tasks and product between participating governments.

Under the Echelon system, millions of messages are automatically intercepted every hour, and checked according to criteria supplied by intelligence agencies and governments in all five UKUSA countries. The intercepted signals are passed through a computer system called the Dictionary, which checks each new message or call against thousands of "collection" requirements. The Dictionaries then send the messages into the spy agencies' equivalent of the Internet, making them accessible all over the world.

Satellite control centre in the desert

DSD runs some of the world's most famous spying bases, including Pine Gap, an isolated satellite control centre near Alice Springs in the middle of the hot central Australian desert "outback". For more than 30 years, Pine Gap has controlled the CIA's electronic listening satellites, called Rhyolite, Aquacade and Magnum.

Australians have long suspected that the CIA-run station spied on their communications. The use and control of Pine Gap by the CIA was a central issue in the overthrow of radical labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. The Australian government now claims that after years of controversy, Australians are in charge. They also say that a former "American-only" communications centre on the base has been closed down, and that Australian staff now see everything the CIA satellites do.

The Australian government admits that DSD's satellite interception station at Kojarena in Western Australia is part of the Echelon system. Four satellite antennae at the base intercept fax, e-mail, data and telephone calls passing through Intelsat satellites over the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Australia, however, does not use the codename "Echelon" for its station.

About 80 per cent of the messages intercepted at Kojarena are sent on automatically to the CIA or NSA without ever being seen or read in Australia. Among the "collection requirements" that the Kojarena Dictionary is told to look for are North Korean economic, diplomatic and military messages and data, Japanese trade ministry plans, and Pakistani developments in nuclear weapons technology and testing. In return, Australia can ask for information collected at other Echelon stations to be sent to Canberra.

Transatlantic irritations

Director Brady's decision to break ranks with the US and officially admit the existence of the hitherto officially unacknowledged spying organisation called UKUSA is likely to irritate his British and American counterparts, who have spent the last 50 years trying to prevent their own citizens from learning anything about them or their business of "signals intelligence" - "sigint" for short.

International and governmental concern about the UKUSA Echelon system has grown dramatically since 1996, when New Zealand writer Nicky Hager revealed intimate details of how it operated.

New Zealand runs an Echelon satellite interception site at Waihopai. A year after publishing his book, Hager and New Zealand TV reporter John Campbell mounted a daring raid on Waihopai, and sneaked inside the base, complete with a TV camera and a stepladder. From open, high windows, they then filmed into and inside its operations centre.

They were astonished to see that it operated completely automatically. Lights flashed on long racks of electronic equipment as messages were analysed and sent on. Rows of computer monitors sat unattended, as the codeword "Envoy" rotated round the screens.

Campbell and Hager's film includes shots in which they zoom in to scrutinise a supervisor's desk. Viewers can then see that the manuals the New Zealand sigint agency is using are the manuals for the Intelsat satellite which supplies communications to the South Pacific Islands.

Domestic pressure

The Australian government decision to be open about the UKUSA pact and the Echelon spy system has been motivated partly by the need to respond to the growing international concern about economic intelligence gathering, and partly by DSD's desire to reassure Australians that its domestic spying activity is strictly limited and tightly supervised.

According to DSD Director Martin Brady, "to ensure that [our] activities do not impinge on the privacy of Australians, DSD operates under a detailed classified directive approved by Cabinet and known as the Rules on Sigint and Australian Persons".

But Australians' international calls, faxes or e-mails can be monitored by NSA or DSD in specified circumstances. These include "the commission of a serious criminal offence; a threat to the life or safety of an Australian; or where an Australian is acting as the agent of a foreign power".

Within Europe, Germany, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland are known to run substantial signals intelligence organisations. But these organisations have never revealed whether they have any "sigint rules" concerning spying on their own or other European countries' citizens and companies. (Duncan Campbell)