In 1918, a group of British naval code-crackers, led by Royal Navy
Adm. “Blinker” Hall, broke a German cipher that changed the course of
history and brought America into the First World War.
The message decoded by British naval intelligence was obtained via an
illegal wiretap of a U. S. Atlantic telegraph cable that ran through
England. The secret message Hall decoded was from the German foreign
minister and addressed to the German ambassador in America, Herr
The message instructed Zimmermann to contact Mexican government
officials and encourage them to join Kaiser Wilhelm in a war against the
United States. Germany promised military equipment and advisors and
spelled out which lost territories it would help Mexico retake,
including Texas, California and New Mexico. In addition, Germany
promised to release its deadly U-boats in an unrestricted war against
The British decided to give the decoded intercept to the Americans
but did not want to reveal the original source. Clearly, tapping an
American-owned telegraph cable would not be viewed as a friendly act by
President Wilson and could spoil the intended political effect on the
In order to avoid the legal and political problems, the British
intelligence service delivered the telegram to the Americans by faking a
break-in at a Mexican telegraph office. The British sent the Zimmermann
letter to then President Wilson and leaked a copy to the American press
corps. President Wilson had no choice but to declare war on Germany.
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A U.S. Air Force RC-135 takes-off on another intercept
“Blinker” Hall’s breakthrough is the perfect example of the military,
commercial and political impact of effective signal intelligence. All
the events of modern espionage can be found in the Zimmermann intercept.
It should be no surprise that many of the concepts pioneered by Adm.
“Blinker” Hall are in practice today around the globe.
It was not always that way. In the late 1930s, Harry Stimson, then
Secretary of State under President Roosevelt said, “Gentlemen do not
read each other’s mail.”
With that comment, Stimson shut down his secret team of
code-breakers. Stimson’s honorable but poor decision to shut down the
State Department’s “Black Chamber” cryptanalyst team, prior to the
Second World War, crippled U.S. intelligence operations and contributed
to Pearl Harbor.
The modern politics and power of signal intelligence begins and ends
inside the halls of secretive agencies such as the United Kingdom’s GCHQ
(Government Communications Head Quarters) and the American NSA (National
Other national agencies perform similar listening and code decryption
functions. These include the German BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst), the
Australian DSD (Defence Signals Directorate), the Canadian CSE
(Communications Security Establishment) and the Chinese “2nd Branch” of
the PLA signals division.
Although there are many other agencies from various governments that
perform similar functions, none compares with the power and funding of
the National Security Agency, based at Fort Meade, Md. The National
Security Council under President Truman formed the agency which leapt
from conception directly into the most explosive events of the 20th
In the late 1940s, the first major breakthrough for the fledgling
agency occurred when NSA cryptanalysts combined with the
counterintelligence service of the FBI to crack the Soviet nuclear spy
ring. The NSA code-breaks resulted in the conviction and execution of
Herman and Ethel Rosenberg; the so-called “Venona” intercepts broke the
back of the early KGB atomic spy ring in America.
The NSA, along with all modern signals intelligence operations, is
divided into three distinct functions: interception, analysis and
The NSA’s Echelon system is the perfect example of a modern signals
and communications intelligence system. The interception leg of Echelon
is a massive, modern global monitoring system using satellites and
secure communications. The analysis leg of Echelon resides at NSA
headquarters and is performed by an enormous number of supercomputers.
The final leg of Echelon is a reporting system to subscribers, based on
needs and classified by categories.
Echelon interception is performed from various platforms such as
satellites, aircraft, ships, submarines, ground-listening stations and
taps on fiber-optic communication lines. All the input data are merged
into an NSA secure network that flows directly into NSA headquarters.
The most powerful interception platforms are the rings of NSA
satellites. These satellites are state-of-the-art and priced beyond the
means of even the most successful world powers.
For example, in 1998, an NSA interception satellite code-named
“Mercury” was destroyed in the single most expensive space disaster,
costing over $1 billion. The Titan II rocket that was to orbit the NSA
radio interception satellite blew-up, showering the coast with huge
chunks of burning debris. NSA officials were later horrified to see
video on CNN of young Florida surfers pulling pieces of the secret
satellite out of the ocean.
The NSA airborne interception platforms consist of various Army, Air
Force and Navy aircraft modified for NSA use. The Navy operates an
entire squadron of fake P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft that function
as highly modified radio interception platforms. The P-3 specials are
equipped with giant onboard computers to sort and retransmit the data
directly via secure link to the NSA and high-powered infrared video
cameras used to photograph various targets. The Navy aircraft are
frequently repainted with a real squadron insignia, including tail
numbers and cartoon-like characters, at a secret NSA contract facility
outside Dallas-Ft. Worth.
The Army aircraft are smaller twin-engine versions of the huge Navy
patrol plane, repainted with commercial markings to resemble civilian
airliners. The fake turbo-prop airliners have already served against
Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Serbia. These interceptions are often
combined with mobile Army command units. Official mechanized Army units
range from special vehicles such as modified Humvees and armored Bradley
fighting vehicles to covert operations, including “Special Forces” units
operating deep behind enemy lines.
The U.S. Air Force collects vast amounts of information using
converted EC-135 jets, EC-130 Hercules transports and small, unmanned
robot planes. Recent NSA intercepts from Air Force planes operating for
the NSA revealed the tests of Iranian and North Korean ballistic
There are, however, downsides to Echelon. It may be able to gather a
vast amount of information but it still must digest and deliver the
Former NSA Director Admiral McConnell related during an interview
that the NSA’s capability to intercept far exceeds its capability to
decode, analyze and report. The good news is the agency can decode and
analyze a million messages a day; the bad news is the agency must
decide which million, of the billions of messages sent globally, to
The most dramatic failures of NSA operations make for huge media
events. CIA Director George Tenet testified in April that the NSA
computer systems shut down at one point for several hours. All three
networks carried the NSA story.
Success, however, receives little media publicity. One success in
1998 was the detailed observation of a North Korean two-stage “Taepo
Dong” missile by an Air Force RC-135S Cobra-Ball aircraft. The RC-135S
was pre-positioned in the Korean theatre based on intercepts of North
Korean communications by the NSA.
The RC-135S Cobra-Ball, however, achieved that success after a major
failure. The RC-135S flew directly to Korea from the Middle East where
it had just missed observing an Iranian missile launch.
The RC-135S failure over Iran has been blamed on poor work by the
analysis and reporting legs of Echelon. Air Force officials were openly
upset with the NSA over the Iranian tests. NSA Echelon intercepts of
Iranian and Russian communications revealed the Iranian plans to test
the modified missile almost 24 hours before the intended launch. Yet,
the NSA was unable to pass the information on to the Air Force.
The Air Force had the Cobra-Ball missile-tracking aircraft on alert
in the Middle East, waiting at the end of the runway, to monitor the
Iranian missile test.
The Cobra-Ball aircraft, a highly modified Boeing C-135, equipped
with long-range cameras and sensitive radar, was to photo the Iranian
missile in flight. The planned Cobra-Ball mission would have provided
detailed, high-resolution information on the Iranian missile. Instead,
the Cobra-Ball aircraft missed the Iranian test, leaving the U.S. with
only low-resolution, long-range sensor data from satellites.
In comparison, when Echelon performs correctly, the success can be
spectacular. The Cobra-Ball left the Middle East theatre and flew
directly to Korea, where it successfully observed the North Korean Taepo
Intelligence analysts using Cobra-Ball data determined that the Taepo
Dong second stage did release an object, confirming North Korean claims
that they attempted to orbit a satellite. According to Japanese
officials, the Cobra-Ball aircraft has remained in the Asian theater to
observe North Korean and Chinese missile tests.
In November 1998, a second Cobra-Ball observation aircraft was
released for active service. The R-135S was recently upgraded at the
Raytheon E-Systems facility in Texas and was undergoing crew training.
The second RC-135S began operational deployment, flying over the skies
of Europe during the Kosovo operation in 1999.
Clearly, the NSA collects vast amounts of information using
satellites, aircraft, ships and mobile, ground-based vans. More exotic
variations of “interception platforms,” however, involve “Blinker”
Hall-like taps placed inside computers, inside cellular phone equipment,
within computer software code and on underwater trans-ocean fiber-optic
For example, in the 1980s the former Soviet Union discovered and
removed a U.S. Navy underwater bug code-named “Ivy Bells.” A special
nuclear submarine placed the Ivy Bells unit on deep-water Soviet ocean
communications cables. The bug and its watertight recording mechanism
are currently on display in Moscow as a testimony to the Cold War.
Another set of taps was placed on Iraqi fiber-optic communications
systems by U. N. monitors during their limited mission to watch Saddam
Hussein. The taps allowed the NSA to monitor Iraqi nuclear, chemical
and missile weapons developments.
Less exotic means of scooping-up data for the NSA are just as
important. One known example is a giant network of ground-based
stations erected around the world. Stations in the UK, Australia and
the U. S. intercept vast amounts of information beamed worldwide via
radio and satellite uplinks.
The NSA chain of listening stations includes two sites located inside
communist China that monitor Russian military and commercial traffic.
The two joint NSA / PLA sites are located deep inside the far western
province of Xinjiang at Qitai and Korla, close to the Russian border.
The stations were built and are currently equipped with state-of-the-art
American electronics by the CIA’s office of SIGNIT operations.
Chinese army personnel, who share the sites with U. S. NSA and CIA
agents, are trained by the CIA inside the U. S. at a location just
outside San Francisco. The PLA agents have been identified as coming
from the 2nd Department of the Chinese army General Staff Division.
Exactly how much data is shared with the PLA is not publicly known.
A highly placed source inside the secret intelligence community related
that “It is Russian space / missile test-related. The U. S. and China
during the Carter administration decided it was in their interest to
cooperate in a monitoring program on the then-Soviet missile / space
“Some years ago, I asked about the quality of the stuff coming from
there and was told, ‘C+ at best,’” said the intelligence source.
“My guess is that it is even lower now. Again, as I recall (Clinton
Defense Secretary) Perry and (Chinese General) Ding set it up in the
late 70s, maybe 1980. … I get the impression we continue the program
for political reasons with China, not any real military reasons at this
The main target of Echelon interception platforms is military signals
from communications and sensors. Some signals are not voice or text
communications but are output from sensors such as sonars and radars.
Data is gathered from all over the globe by satellites that monitor
radio traffic — including microwave, cell phone and satellite
communications. The original intent of Echelon was to monitor the
Soviet Union and help manage the Cold War.
The prime Echelon membership is composed of the U. S. plus allies
Australia, the UK, New Zealand and Canada. Some of the Echelon data is
shared with various other lower-level partners such as China, Israel,
Germany, Italy, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Norway.
However, as the nuclear espionage of the Rosenbergs and Truman
advisor Alger Hiss demonstrated, the world of spies is not limited to
uniforms or the military. The NSA does not always report to the
president for fear of revealing its sources. Nor is the NSA’s biggest
tool, Echelon, limited to military communications.
Other global communications are scooped up in the vast Echelon system
as well. Cell phone traffic, telegraph transmissions, news wires,
commercial satellite data, the Internet and various other commercial
networks are tapped, monitored, classified and forwarded to the giant
brains at Ft. Meade.
All of the vast commercial and public traffic available led the
Clinton administration to change policy. NSA and CIA resources were
diverted into “commercial” espionage when the president classified some
economic programs to be of national security. During the Clinton
administration, NSA agents staged and monitored Japanese communications
during auto talks and French communications during talks on world trade.
One reported success was the interception of a Saudi official taking
bribe money during a bidding war between Airbus and Boeing. The taped
conversation was released to the Saudi government and Boeing won the
billion-dollar airliner contract.
It is also reported that Echelon is used to monitor dissident groups
and individuals. Data are spun directly or indirectly to various
governments and agencies inside and outside the United States. The
dissident political classification includes a vast array of
organizations, from Amnesty International to neo-Nazi groups.
And, the Internet has provided a new and explosive source of
information for the supercomputers based at Ft. Meade. Much of the
information, however, is not military in nature — political use of
Echelon has brought the NSA under fire from critics on Capitol Hill and
“Under current law, electronic communications receive less legal
protection than traditional mail, or even telephone conversations.
Furthermore, the rules for electronic surveillance and foreign
intelligence gathering that do exist are so vague and inconsistent that
they simultaneously threaten privacy and impede law enforcement,” stated
U. S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., during recent hearings on electronic
“Federal agencies — from the Securities and Exchange Commission to
the Department of Justice — have recently shown a disturbing tendency
to apply a vacuum cleaner surveillance approach to the Internet, sucking
in all kinds of irrelevant data, then isolating, storing and
manipulating items of interest,” noted Barr.
“This approach rejects time-honored principles (enshrined in law)
that have done a remarkably good job of balancing privacy and law
enforcement. These principles include the Fourth Amendment’s
particularity requirement and statutory provisions, such as the Privacy
Act,” concluded Barr.