Echelon – a story about how information spreads (or doesn’t)

Secrecy is the foundation of bad government

My 1996 book Secret Power on New Zealand’s role in the Echelon network was written secretly, as I feared the intelligence agencies would try to block publication of a book based on extensive interviews with intelligence staff. I took great care about meeting my sources secretly, kept my interview notes and files hidden for years and told only my closest friends what I was doing. I felt as though I was handling something powerful which, once revealed to the world, would seriously shake up the New Zealand intelligence agencies.

My publishers and lawyers agreed that the launch of the book should be a complete surprise. The book was finally printed, bound and dispatched to the bookshops over a two-day period to minimise the risk of it being discovered and blocked. Copies were dispatched overseas to beat any legal suppression and no news publicity was allowed until the boxes of books had reached the bookshops. And it did indeed go off like a bomb. The book was immediately lead news throughout New Zealand, generating publicity in various other countries too. The publishers had to order two reprints in the following days. On the morning the publicity began, New Zealand’s top intelligence staff held an emergency meeting in the Prime Minister’s offices, reading the book with alarm and discussing whether it was possible to get a legal injunction to stop distribution.

Then, after a few days of spectacular publicity, the book sank almost without a trace. The news interest stopped as quickly as it had begun. The intelligence agencies and the government had decided not to try to stop the book, no doubt remembering how an earlier attempt to suppress the British book Spycatcher had ensured it was a best seller, and instead used the more subtle tactic of simply ignoring it. The government refused to comment. The Ministers did not say it was wrong or right, they just said nothing.

Intelligence authorities know how effective this tactic is. The news media conventions of a “controversy” require two sides to be participating. A one-sided debate, where the chief protagonists refuse to take part, quickly dies. The government merely cited the ‘long-established convention’ of ‘not commenting on intelligence matters’ – an affront to democratic government but effective none the less. A few conservative commentators, such as former intelligence officials-turned-academics, did comment, but only to say that there was nothing new in the book. Then silence.

I took comfort from people within the intelligence agencies quietly confirming that I had got the research right; that out of all the hundreds of detailed facts in the book, there was only a handful of trivial mistakes (things like the date some intelligence official had taken up a particular posting). Likewise, people around the world with an interest in intelligence were excited about the new information in the book. But after a while I had to accept that the years of work I had spent on the book had led to no change at all to New Zealand’s electronic spy agency and no real change even in public discussion of the issues: the New Zealand government repeated all it’s standard evasions and misinformation about intelligence operations, as if the book had never been written.

There is an important lesson in this. Bits of information had leaked out about the Echelon system before: most importantly in Duncan Campbell’s 1988 article (Inside Echelon), but also, obliquely, in some other British news stories from the early 1990s which I’d discovered while researching my book. However the British and US intelligence authorities had hidden behind the ‘long-established convention’ and these news stories had gone nowhere. The revelations in each case came and went in a day or two, creating little political debate and not even being linked to each other. They made no lasting impression outside the few specialists who save the clippings on such subjects. The lesson is this: information that challenges the status quo does not threaten or greatly concern the powerful as long as it is restricted to relatively few people. As long as ‘dangerous’ information is only disseminated in small-circulation publications or books – unconfirmed and unacknowledged by the authorities – it is manageable and has little practical effect. The first year after my book was published was sobering confirmation of this reality.

But information spreads in unpredictable and surprising ways. After the story died down in New Zealand I wrote one article based on my book for the US journal Covert Action Quarterly (CAQ), setting out the details of the Echelon network as told to me by the New Zealand intelligence staff. I explained that almost every aspect of the New Zealand spies’ work occurs as a small part of a US-directed network, which what had allowed some alliance-wide spy systems and projects to be uncovered in the South Pacific. The article was well received by specialists and ‘alternative’ people, but not beyond.

Then, a year after this article was published and I had moved onto other research projects, an almost accidental event threw Echelon into prominence. The CAQ article was noticed by a British researcher who was preparing a wide-ranging report for the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Commission entitled An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control. The report covered everything from police riot control technologies to close-circuit video monitoring, but the big news in the report was a surveillance system called Echelon. I remember well how one day in January 1998 my phone started ringing with European journalists pursuing the Echelon story and it did not stop ringing for weeks. All the news and controversy since stems from that report. A year and a half after the news about my book went dead – assisted by the calculated silence from the governments involved – the European Parliament report had made Echelon official.

As a long-time researcher into issues of spying and intelligence, I have become all too aware how little reliable information on these subjects ever reaches the public. Many of the ‘leaks’ that hit the news have been planned by the spy agencies, fragments of correct information that do leak out of the highly secretive agencies usually remain scattered or are denied and incorrect information is frequently repeated year after year in news stories for lack of anything more substantial. This means that the current debate about intelligence prompted by information about Echelon is a rare and important opportunity that needs to be taken advantage of.

I believe that humans can catch up with and control the technology that humans create. But there is always a lag, while people learn about the implications of new technology, debate them in public and dream up ideas for controlling it. In the case of intelligence, secrecy frequently blocks this process. At the same time as intelligence agencies refuse to release the information which would allow a serious debate about intelligence activities, public debate is dismissed as a bit of a joke – as if to talk about intelligence is the domain of conspiracy theorists and not very far from talking about UFOs. A lack of serious debate can protect the intelligence agencies from political accountability and control.

This is why the current debate about Echelon needs to be taken advantage of. The information leaked to me and others provides the possibility for the first proper public investigation for decades into how to control the electronic spy agencies and develop new ways of protecting privacy and civil liberties in the information technology age (for instance, creating public demands for telecommunications companies to provide secure communications, as they could and should). It is probably the best opportunity we will have for many years to build public understanding and impose controls on surveillance technology.

The capabilities of the Echelon system are, of course, constantly being increased. As my book neared completion in 1996, intelligence staff were already telling me about new developments being planned at Waihopai, the New Zealand station that monitors Pacific satellite communications as part of the Echelon network. During 1998 and 1999, a $3.5 million expansion occurred including a second listening antenna that will make Waihopai the primary South Pacific site for intercepting Intelsat satellites. [Footnote: This development freed up the sister station in West Australia to concentrate on monitoring Asian and Indian Ocean satellites.]

When our government announced the new construction, it noted that the development required a small change to the Crimes Act to keep the operations of the station within New Zealand law. This in turn produced an official admission that, as well as the new antennae, the station was expanding into telephone monitoring, as the law changes had been specifically required to legalise telephone monitoring at the station. Until then the station had only intercepted and processed e-mail, fax and other “written” communications.

The telephone monitoring capability of Echelon was the main issue that I had struggled to solve as I completed the book. Because the New Zealand agency was not doing telephone interception in 1996, my sources could not tell me what was happening elsewhere in the network. It is still unclear how far the western intelligence technology has developed; it is unlikely that bulk, real-time searching of phone messages for keywords occurs as happens for written communications. However the new computer and electronics equipment installed at Waihopai for telephone interception last year proves that telephone calls are now definitely part of the automated interception capabilities of Echelon (perhaps targeting individual phone numbers or digital voice ‘signatures’ and recording the calls). Anything happening in the smallest member of the intelligence alliance, New Zealand, it is happening around the rest of the world too.

To date, both conservative and more left governments have refused to allow any public inquiry into New Zealand’s role in Echelon. They have not even admitted it exists. The European Parliament discussions about Echelon have created public and news debate in New Zealand but the government has so far refused to allow the parliament to have its own investigation. The reason for this is clear. The Labour-Alliance coalition government elected in November 1999 has a quite progressive and independent foreign policy; for instance it is restructuring our armed forces into a peacekeeping force. But intelligence ties are the deepest western alliance links and the government knows it would buy a bitter fight with the United States if it attempted to change New Zealand’s role in allied intelligence arrangements.

Being the most junior member of the US intelligence alliance has meant New Zealand senior intelligence staff feel a sense of insecurity. They provide whatever the US National Security Agency asks and make sure they do not ‘rock the boat’ to ensure New Zealand stays in the club. Ironically, this means that the most likely reason investigation into and change to Echelon will eventually occur in New Zealand – the place where many of the Echelon revelations began – is as a response to changes in Europe and the US following those revelations.

Researching secret intelligence activities has changed my thinking generally about government. I believe that secrecy is the foundation of bad government (as much in democracies as non-democracies) and of unethical businesses. My opinion is that secrecy and less open government have got worse during the 1990s ‘new right’ years. Secrecy is a key tool for excluding the public from decisions affecting their lives and makes unethical, cruel or corrupt behaviour politically viable. Secrecy also allows those in power to feel safe not telling the truth – as regularly happens in public statements about intelligence and many other subjects. All this makes uncovering secrets – in all areas of political life – a fundamental democratic task.

My conclusion is that where freedom of information laws are inadequate (and on intelligence they always are), one of the most powerful democratic safeguards is leaking: where public-spirited individuals inside government and corporate organisations are encouraged to release important information to journalists or politicians. This should not need to be how we have to obtain important information, but for now it is often the only option.

My latest book (published in 1999 in New Zealand and in 2000 in the US) also illustrated the role of leaking. It was an exposé of tactics used by public relations companies to undermine and counter public campaigns on behalf of their corporate clients. As with intelligence operations, seemingly respectable companies relied on secrecy to hide activities that they would not dream of doing if they were visible to the public. But it took only one principled ‘leaker’, quietly photocopying hundreds of internal documents, to provide an important case study of political manipulation by PR companies.

At the end of that book I wrote a guide about how individuals can leak information safely and ethically (you can read it at As the public learns to control technologies like Echelon and reassert its influence in the twenty-first century, tools for dealing with the current culture of secrecy can play a vital part.