Spies on the ground beat ears in the sky
Published in Sunday Star-Times
INQUISITIVE MARLBOROUGH locals have outsmarted government attempts to keep the targets of the Waihopai spy station secret – and have discovered that it is eavesdropping on Asian satellites carrying the communications of New Zealand’s friends and trading partners in that region.
The Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), refuses to disclose its targets. However, one of the station’s large spherical covers (or radomes) was damaged in a 2008 anti-war protest. This left the listening antenna uncovered for 15 months, during which time people living near the base collected photographs and measurements of the uncovered satellite dish.
Their findings, along with measurements by a registered surveyor, were analysed by a former navy and police telecommunications engineer for the Sunday Star-Times, revealing the satellite dish’s targets (see below). The Kiwi spy base was pointed at various times at regions occupied by Japanese, Chinese and Russian satellites. On one day in 2009 the target was one of two Asian telecommunications satellites, one Japanese and one Vietnamese, according to the surveyor’s measurements.
Both satellites provide regional phone, data, internet and television links to private companies, individuals and government agencies in Japan, South-East Asia and down to Australia and New Zealand.
Former diplomat Terence O’Brien was not surprised by the spying on Asian targets but said New Zealand needed to sort out whether our future was in Asia or still “being shaped by influences from the North Atlantic”. “We’re supposed to be getting closer to Asia… which has a considerable influence on our future prosperity and wellbeing,” whereas spying on Asia as part of an Anglo alliance was “back in an old, comfortable North Atlantic view of the world”.
Spying on East Asian countries, and especially Japan, would be consistent with the GCSB’s long-term operations. In 2006, the Star-Times reported on a misplaced 1986 GCSB annual report found among former Prime Minister David Lange’s papers deposited in the National Archives.
The report, stamped “Top Secret Umbra”, described the GCSB’s operations, including interception of Japanese government communications, with “most of the raw data” supplied by the allied US National Security Agency (NSA) and British government communications headquarters.
The GCSB has also monitored communications by the governments of the Phillipines, Laos, and South Pacific.
The GCSB’s Waihopai station has two main listening dishes. The first, established in 1989, targets South Pacific nation communications carried by the Intelsat 701 satellite. The targets of the second dish, built in 1998, have been unknown until now. The station is part of a secret network of listening stations around the world run by the GCSB’s US, British, Canadian and Australian intelligence allies.
GCSB spokesman Hugh Wolfensohn said he could not comment on the calculations about the direction of the satellite dish, but “people are free to draw whatever conclusions they wish”.
WHAT OUR SPIES WERE LISTENING TO
The satellite dish was not fixed on one satellite, but shifted between satellites for periods of weeks or months. Measurements by local people, which were only approximate, pointed to areas of sky occupied only by Japanese, Chinese and Russian satellites.
The more accurate surveyor’s measurements revealed that on July 10, 2009, the dish was aimed at a satellite positioned above the equator, far above Indonesia. Two Asian telecommunications satellites are “parked” there: one owned by Japan’s JSAT corporation and another by Vietnam’s state-owned Post and Telecommunications Group.
A former navy and police telecommunications engineer, Lionel Hussey, of Christchurch, said that based on the surveyor’s measurements, “I would give these two satellites very high but equal probability of being under surveillance.”