Echelon and the Special Relationship

Journ­al­ist and writer James Bam­ford, has a new book, “The Shadow Fact­ory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eaves­drop­ping on Amer­ica” (Doubleday), which came out this week in the United States.

Bam­ford is a former pro­du­cer at ABC News of thirty years’ stand­ing, and his book has caused quite a stir. One of his key gripes is the fact that for­eign com­pan­ies try to acquire work in sens­it­ive US depart­ments. He cites in par­tic­u­lar the attempt in 2006 of Israeli data secur­ity com­pany, Check Point Soft­ware Tech­no­lo­gies, to buy an Amer­ican com­pany with exist­ing con­tracts at the Defence Depart­ment and the NSA. This deal was stopped after the FBI objected.

For­eign soft­ware and secur­ity com­pan­ies work­ing within intel­li­gence agen­cies are indeed a prob­lem for any coun­try. It com­prom­ises the very notion of national sov­er­eignty. In the UK, MI5 and many other gov­ern­ment depart­ments rely on pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware from com­pan­ies like Microsoft, notori­ous for their vul­ner­ab­il­ity to hack­ers, vir­uses and back door access. Should our nation’s secrets really be exposed to such eas­ily avoid­able vulnerabilities?

Another sec­tion of the book to have hit the head­lines is Bamford’s claims that bed­room “con­ver­sa­tions” of sol­diers, journ­al­ists and offi­cials in Iraq have been bugged by the National Secur­ity Agency (NSA).

Bam­ford, who is by no means a fan of the NSA in its cur­rent rampant form, makes the mis­take of think­ing that in the inno­cent days pre-9/11, the agency respec­ted demo­cratic rights enshrined in the US con­sti­tu­tion and never snooped on US cit­izens in their own country.

While tech­nic­ally this might be true, does nobody remem­ber the ECHELON system?

ECHELON was an agree­ment between the NSA and its Brit­ish equi­val­ent GCHQ (as well as the agen­cies of Canada, Aus­tralia, and New Zea­l­and) whereby they shared inform­a­tion they gathered on each oth­ers’ cit­izens. GCHQ could leg­ally eaves­drop on people out­side the UK without a war­rant, so they could tar­get US cit­izens of interest, then pass the product over to the NSA. The NSA then did the same for GCHQ. Thus both agen­cies could evade any demo­cratic over­sight and account­ab­il­ity, and still get the intel­li­gence they wanted.

Spe­cial rela­tion­ship, anyone?

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