Careful, they might hear you
By DUNCAN CAMPBELL
Australia has become the first country openly to
admit that it takes part in a global electronic
surveillance system that intercepts the private and
commercial international communications of citizens
and companies from its own and other countries. The
disclosure is made today in Channel 9's Sunday
program by Martin Brady, director of the Defence
Signals Directorate in Canberra.
Mr Brady's decision to break ranks and officially
admit the existence of a hitherto unacknowledged
spying organisation called UKUSA is likely to
irritate his British and American counterparts, who
have spent the past 50 years trying to prevent their
own citizens from learning anything about them or
their business of ``signals intelligence'' -
``sigint'' for short.
In his letter to Channel 9 published today, Mr
Brady states that the Defence Signals Directorate
(DSD) ``does cooperate with counterpart signals
intelligence organisations overseas under the UKUSA
In other statements which have now been made
publicly available on the Internet (www.dsd.gov.au),
he also says that DSD's purpose ``is to support
Australian Government decision-makers and the
Australian Defence Force with high-quality foreign
signals intelligence products and services. DSD
(provides) important information that is not
available from open sources".
Together with the giant American National Security
Agency (NSA) and its Canadian, British, and New
Zealand counterparts, DSD operates a network of
giant, highly automated tracking stations that
illicitly pick up commercial satellite communications
and examine every fax, telex, e-mail, phone call, or
computer data message that the satellites carry.
The five signals intelligence agencies form the
UKUSA pact. They are bound together by a secret
agreement signed in 1947 or 1948. Although its
precise terms have never been revealed, the UKUSA
agreement provides for sharing facilities, staff,
methods, tasks and product between the participating
Now, due to a fast-growing UKUSA system called
Echelon, 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.
Australia's main contribution to this system is an
ultra-modern intelligence base at Kojarena, near
Geraldton in Western Australia. The station was built
in the early 1990s. At Kojarena, four satellite
tracking dishes intercept Indian and Pacific Ocean
communications satellites. The exact target of each
dish is concealed by placing them inside golfball
About 80 per cent of the messages intercepted at
Kojarena are sent automatically from its Dictionary
computer to the CIA or the NSA, without ever being
seen or read in Australia. Although it is under
Australian command, the station - like its
controversial counterpart at Pine Gap - employs
American and British staff in key posts.
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
A second and larger, although not so
technologically sophisticated DSD satellite station,
has been built at Shoal Bay, Northern Territory. At
Shoal Bay, nine satellite tracking dishes are locked
into regional communications satellites, including
systems covering Indonesia and south-west Asia.
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,
near Blenheim, South Island. Codenamed
``Flintlock", the Waihopai station is half the
size of Kojarena and its sister NSA base at Yakima,
Washington, which also covers Pacific rim states.
Waihopai's task is to monitor two Pacific
communications satellites, and intercept all
communications from and between the South Pacific
Like other Echelon stations, the Waihopai
installation is protected by electrified fences,
intruder detectors and infra-red cameras. A year
after publishing his book, Hager and New Zealand TV
reporter John Campbell mounted a daring raid on
Waihopai, carrying 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
Although Australia's DSD does not use the term
``Echelon'', Government sources have confirmed to
Channel 9 that Hager's description of the system is
correct, and that the Australia's Dictionary computer
at Kojarena works in the same way as the one in New
Until this year, the US Government has tried to
ignore the row over Echelon by refusing to admit its
existence. The Australian disclosures today make this
position untenable. US intelligence writer Dr Jeff
Richelson has also obtained documents under the US
Freedom of Information Act, showing that a US
Navy-run satellite receiving station at Sugar Grove,
West Virginia, is an Echelon site, and that it
collects intelligence from civilian satellites.
The station, south-west of Washington, lies in a
remote area of the Shenandoah Mountains. According to
the released US documents, the station's job is ``to
maintain and operate an Echelon site''. Other Echelon
stations are at Sabana Seca, Puerto Rico, Leitrim,
Canada and at Morwenstow and London in Britain.
Information is also fed into the Echelon system
from taps on the Internet, and by means of monitoring
pods which are placed on undersea cables. Since 1971,
the US has used specially converted nuclear
submarines to attach tapping pods to deep underwater
cables around the world.
The Australian Government's 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".
Compliance with this Cabinet directive is
monitored by the inspector-general of security and
intelligence, Mr Bill Blick. He says that
``Australian citizens can complain to my office about
the actions of DSD. And if they do so then I have the
right to conduct an inquiry."
But the Cabinet has ruled that 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". Mr Brady says that he
must be given specific approval in every case. But
deliberate interception of domestic calls in
Australia should be left to the police or ASIO.
Mr Brady claims that other UKUSA nations have to
follow Australia's lead, and not record their
communications unless Australia has decided that this
is required. ``Both DSD and its counterparts operate
internal procedures to satisfy themselves that their
national interests and policies are respected by the
others," he says.
So if NSA happens to intercept a message from an
Australian citizen or company whom DSD has decided to
leave alone, they are supposed to strike out the name
and insert ``Australian national'' or ``Australian
corporation'' instead. Or they must destroy the
That's the theory, but specialists differ.
According to Mr Hager, junior members of UKUSA just
can't say ``no''. ``... When you're a junior ally
like Australia or New Zealand, you never refuse what
they ask for.''
There are also worries about what allies might get
up to with information that Australia gives them.
When Britain was trying to see through its highly
controversial deal to sell Hawk fighters and other
arms to Indonesia, staff at the Office of National
Assessments feared that the British would pass DSD
intelligence on East Timor to President Soeharto in
order to win the lucrative contract.
The Australian Government does not deny that DSD
and its UKUSA partners are told to collect economic
and commercial intelligence. Australia, like the US,
thinks this is especially justified if other
countries or their exporters are perceived to be
behaving unfairly. Britain recognises no restraint on
economic intelligence gathering. Neither does France.
According to the former Canadian agent Mike Frost,
it would be ``nave" for Australians to think
that the Americans were not exploiting stations like
Kojarena for economic intelligence purposes. ``They
have been doing it for years," he says. ``Now
that the Cold War is over, the focus is towards
economic intelligence. Never ever over-exaggerate the
power that these organisations have to abuse a system
such as Echelon. Don't think it can't happen in
Australia. It does.''