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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