The wolf’s ears

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
30 May, 2017
Editorial: 102
Fecha de publicación original: 13 enero, 1998

Listeners never hear good of themselves

All of a sudden overnight, the European Union has discovered that the US possesses an extensive and complex network for spying on European citizens. An electronic global network capable of listening in to every telephone conversation or interfering with every electronic message and telex. Such big ears once pricked up don’t only tune in to Europe but to practically the rest of the world as well. In an EU report called “Assessment of Technologies for Political Control”, the existence of a network for the daily scrutiny “routinely and indiscriminately” of tens of thousands of conversations and messages from all over the world, is being recognised for the first time. The study, commissioned by the Committee for Civil Liberties of the European Parliament, includes gems such as this, “In Europe all communication via e-mail, telephone and fax is routinely intercepted by the National Security Agency at their crucial base at Menwith Hill” in Yorkshire, Great Britain. This is not the remnants of a Cold War espionage system. It is a network designed to control “non-military objectives”: governments (friendly or otherwise), organisations, business, companies, individuals, etc., in almost all the countries on the planet. The most recent name given to this network is the “Echelon System”.

Now the thing is, none of this is new. It has been perfectly documented, denounced and reported over the last 15 years. And, on each occasion that information has been made public, the governments concerned, particularly Britain or the EU itself, have turned a blind eye to it. So, if all of a sudden the EU takes the trouble to raise the alarm, we can only react with suspicion and ask ourselves: Why now? Why on earth have eurocrats decided to expose their erstwhile discreet and happy cooperation with the tapping systems of the powerful National Security Agency (NSA) which only answer directly to the US president himself? Why have relations between them soured? Could the Internet have something to do with it? Apparently it can, and a lot. The battle for encryption systems, the most advanced models of which the US is refusing to export, seem to be at the centre of this dispute. These systems would be impermeable to the tapping networks that the US government has all over the world whose epicentre lies at Menwith Hill, a base near Harrogate in Yorkshire. The US wants to force the rest of the world’s governments to use a system of encryption which will have an access “gate” for their security agencies, particularly the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon and the NSA (this agency was so secret until very recently that it didn’t even figure on the annual budget approved by Congress. Now it has its own web page). It seems that somebody in the EU has started to worry about the dimensions of these personal and commercial tapping operations, just when electronic business is about to explode. What the US is asking for, in short, is a franchise for spying on, amongst other things, business activities on a world scale and, in the process, on any Net users. In any case, someone in the EU is being too clever by half by revealing information to us that was already well-known by the authorities within European governments.

I hope that the reference book used by the authors of this report was “The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier: American Military Power in Britain” by Duncan Campbell, published in London by Michael Joseph in 1984. Campbell, a journalist on the New Statesman, spent six years mapping American military presence in his country. His book is one of the best examples of investigative journalism since the Second World War. The value of what he uncovered is particularly important now, not only because of the EU report but also because it highlights the changes introduced by the Internet in the world of communications.

The US began to build Menwith Hill at the beginning of the 50s. By the beginning of the 60s it was already “operative”. From the start, the complex was connected to the microwave relay network of the British Post Office (later British Telecom). Little by little, the telecommunication relay networks all over the island converged at Menwith Hill and this included telephone connections with the US which unfailingly passed through Great Britain. In this way, the base became the largest centre for tapping “non- military” conversations in the world. In the mid-80s, when Telefonica, the Spanish telephone company, establish a cable link with the US, the Spanish Socialist government suggested that the company should use the route that went through the Menwith Hill switch, a piece of advice which it followed diligently in accordance with its premise of ” no to NATO, at the start”, but as far as the telephone system goes yes to anything they want.

What the architects of these electronic ears never imagined was the manna that was literally about to fall on them from heaven. The combination of the growing importance of communication via satellite, on the one hand, and the Internet, on the other, revitalised this NSA operations centre. The US had rolled out the carpet and the world had decided, in unison, to walk along it leaving the footprints of their shoe size on it, so that the necessary information about each could be extracted from them.

The carpet was the most powerful array of antennas in the world and of non-commercial IBM computers capable of analysing thousands of millions of words a second and sorting out previously configured semantic combinations. Email added an extraordinarily rich dimension to this civil espionage. For this reason, the US was not prepared –and still isn’t– to allow the export of encryption systems that would make the NSA lose its hearing in the middle of the great telecommunications network party.

The report says that the European Parliament should reject US proposals to make the messages that flow through their worldwide communications networks, such as the Internet, accessible to their intelligence services. Not an easy task. Collaboration between the US and Great Britain’s military and civil intelligence explains Britain’s foreign policy to a large extent and why the latter has been an unconditional ally of the former in every single event of importance since the Second World War. The European Parliament will have to make it clear to the public just exactly what it is at stake for the continent here. This would mean, of course, resisting the temptation to take over where the US left off in the job of tapping and intervention in communications via the Internet, a point on which the EU has not yet made any explicit declarations.

​Translation: ​Bridget King.