By Thomas Scott
Last week, we discussed the origins of the NSA’s domestic surveillance program, which had its origins in the period directly following World War I.
I will continue to argue that the NSA’s efforts to absorb and inspect every form of electronic communication have far-reaching roots into the 20th century and is unlikely to be severely curtailed in the immediate future.
When we left off, Project SHAMROCK was intercepting all telegraph traffic coming in and out of the country, meticulously recording it on microfilm and handing it off to members of the intelligence community.
This state of affairs persisted until the program was exposed during the proceedings of the Church Committee in the 1970s.
During SHAMROCK’s heyday, however, another program got its start.
Known publicly as ECHELON, the existence of the clandestine program has never publicly been acknowledged by the United States government.
What began as a covert effort to spy on the satellite communications of the Soviet Union has since evolved into perhaps the most comprehensive cooperative signals intelligence effort in history.
Journalist James Bamford described ECHELON in his groundbreaking book “The Puzzle Palace,” which was first published in 1982.
In his book, Bamford broke down how the NSA monitored global civilian and military radio traffic through a global network of listening posts.
In 1988, a groundbreaking article was published in the New Statesman, written by Duncan Campbell, that catalogued the efforts of the U.S, U.K., New Zealand, Australia and Canada to intercept and analyze the majority of global telecommunications traffic.
By the late 1990s however, the international public learned about ECHELON in much greater detail when a journalist from New Zealand, named Nicky Hager, detailed the program’s capabilities in his 1996 book “Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network.”
Many were shocked to learn that the NSA and its international cohorts, together known as the “five eyes” were collaborating to collect millions of phone calls, faxes and emails, which were transmitted primarily via satellite, fiber optic cables and cell phone networks.
As more information about ECHELON was disclosed to the public, a political firestorm was set off on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, with liberal members of parliament in the U.K. and conservative congressmen such as Norman Baker and Bob Barr taking notice of the issue.
In addition, the European Parliament opened an inquiry into the subject.
One revelation was that ECHELON had been used to give American companies a boost over European firms.
One particular instance that stands out was when the CIA exposed France-based Thomson-Alcatel’s efforts to win a Brazilian contract through bribery based on evidence gathered by ECHELON.
American defense contractor Raytheon later won the contract.
ECHELON was also instrumental in monitoring Osama Bin Laden’s satellite phone during this period, the use of which abruptly ended after two cruise missiles bombarded a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan shortly after his departure.
What makes ECHELON interesting is its scope as well as the public reaction to it.
To privacy advocates, the NSA’s efforts to know all and see all are nothing new.
For the second time, I’ve shown you how far-reaching programs have infringed on the private lives of millions.
But this time, despite the press reports and public outrage, little, if anything, has changed.