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"What matters most is whether or not there is an intelligence debate at all."
An interview with Nicky Hager

It is hard to imagine that the current debates on global spying system Echelon would ever have taken off without the investigative work of New Zealander Nicky Hager. A researcher and writer on military and environmental issues, Hager published his book "Secret Power" in 1996, exposing for the first time the global interception network that now is the subject of parliamentary enquiries in Europe and the US. World-Information.Org researcher Katja Mayer spoke to Nicky Hager about Echelon, the politics of intelligence, and the threat to democratic governance posed by intelligence beyond public accountability. Nicky Hager's most recent book publication (with Bob Burton) is "Secrets and Lies: The Anatomy of an Anti-Environmental PR Campaign" (Common Courage Press).

Q: As a public interest researcher you have worked on subjects ranging from social policy to environmental issues. How did you get into the intelligence subject?

A: In the 1980s no one even knew that the New Zealand government was involved in signals intelligence (SIGINT) and that we had links with the NSA. When a colleague of mine went on holiday to a beach, his host directed him to a new installation that turned out to be the first signal intelligence stations we learned about, Tangimoana. I went and had a look at it and thought it would be interesting to find out about the this newly discovered intelligence agency located within our Ministry of Defence. As a kind of a hobby for a few years during the 80s, I was trying learn more about this completely anonymous organisation. It was covered by absolute secrecy. They would not release any information.

I would probably not have gone further if I had not had some lucky breaks in my research. I did not start with any secret sources. I did the kind of research which is digging through all the boring public sources looking for little hints. And what I found was that it had been so secret that they never believed that somebody might even get interested. All the staff had been hidden on the main military pay rolls. Once I started to dig into it, which was a horribly large amount of work, I was able to assemble all of the organisational plans and identify all the members of the intelligence service from these public service and military lists. I was able to go back through time and see wherever they had been posted to another country, to Washington or to Vietnam during the war, all the way back to WW II.

An as it turned out, I only got 5 percent of the way. Mine was still an outsider's view. But New Zealand is a small society, and people forwarded me bits of information that I was able to relate to the names of the people in my staff lists. I found out quite a lot about these people, including which sections they worked in. I studied university exam results in order to find out, for example, who was a Russian linguist and who was a computer specialist.

It was slow. But eventually I reached a stage where I was confident enough to start to approach people. I then spent several years of interviewing people working inside our intelligence services. There was an amazing a number of people who never had told their wives or husbands about what they did at work but who, once approached, were willing to talk to me.

In this series of interviews I asked questions about every aspect of their work I could think of: the layout of the facilities, the precise equipment, all the names of their manuals, exactly how they did their job, where they and their friends were trained, the dates of the training courses, the changeovers of the staff and so on. The reason why I went into that detail is that with very secret subjects like intelligence it is very hard for a researcher to prove that you haven't just made something up. It's very easy for the authorities to scoff or to deny. And so my approach to this was to seek out such a mass of detail about every staff member and room and system and manual that I could that the information was sort of self-confirming as much as possible.

Q: Have you ever been approached by people who wanted to offer you information?

A: No, I have not. These people sign secrecy oaths called "indoctrination" papers. They do not even tell outsiders where they works. It's an unpleasant life. People get into this line of work and cannot move on because they cannot say where they have worked. When I talked to them they were meeting somebody who knew of all their workmates and some of their background, and this made it much easier for them to be willing to speak. The percentage of people who opened up to me was staggering considering the secrecy of their jobs. And some of them where offended because they didn't like what was going on in their work. Mostly I think it was a relief for them to talk.

Q: Did these people know exactly what they were doing?

A: Generally, people have very specialised tasks. They usually know little even of what is happening in the office next door. In order to get a profile of the organisation, you therefore need to have to have lots of sources working in different parts of the organisation.

Q: But they knew about the main tasks of SIGINT, that it grew out of WW II, like all the submarines going through this area, they knew about the history of their work...

A: Yes, they of course knew it was SIGINT. But, for instance, most of the people I interviewed had never heard the word Echelon. Because their superiors had judged that they didn't need to know it.

Q: But did they also know about the UKUSA facts and which governments they were working for? Was the staff Americans or New Zealanders?

A: New Zealanders.

Q: But they were working for the NSA as well ...

A: Yes, they had briefings where they were told very specifically about the five-nation intelligence alliance called UKUSA. Whatever they were working, whether they were section leaders or directors, their primary relationships were not within the organisation but to their equivalents in their sister agencies.

Q: They were never worried about what they were doing? Did they talk to you also about tapping into private conversations of people from New Zealand?

A: In the case of the New Zealand agency, I questioned them on this and I'm certain that in their routine business they never targeted New Zealanders nor the allies: Australians, Americans, Canadians or British. They are an organisation whose mission is foreign intelligence. However there are believable stories coming out of other agencies around the world, which say they have happily broken that rule in the large agencies. But a small, less powerful ally like New Zealand sticks to the rules much more scrupulously. This is not a political decision, since 99.9 % of what they do never goes near the government. They are simply technicians who do their jobs year after year according to agendas devised in meetings with the intelligence allies.

Q: In the US there is a lot of excitement about the NSA intercepting communications among American Citizens and politicians ...

A: But those are very frustrating discussions, because they always result in denials. Unless a better story comes out you will sit in this horrible nowhere place between the claim and the counter claim and you cannot do anything with it. The US Church Committee investigation in the mid-1970s in the aftermath of Watergate was the last time before the current debate on ECHELON that there was a serious debate about intelligence. The Watergate scandal had been so serious that the US Congress and Senate allowed a really deep inquiry into the FBI, NSA and CIA. The report exposed spying on all sorts of anti-Vietnam campaigners and prominent people such as Martin Luther King. This did a lot of damage to them 25 years ago. The main conclusion of the Church Committee, which I never forget, was that they said that it is impossible to have political and public oversight of intelligence agencies unless you have access to the deepest levels of their operational files, because the briefings by the senior people are worth nothing. This is so true: they see it as part of their job, as an extension of their organisational security, to perpetuate myths and to make sure that the people don't understand their capabilities. This is one of the many techniques of stopping the public debate.

Q: Has anybody told you about economic or commercial espionage?

A: There was a lot of economic intelligence being collected in my part of the world, for instance major commodity sales. I found very little individual spying on companies, and the reason that they gave me inside the agencies, at least in the case of New Zealand, was they didn't know where to forward the information to. There was this practical problem that they could not decide whether they would give it to an American company which was employing people in New Zealand, or a New Zealand company which was producing goods in Taiwan. They just threw up their hands and they didn't do it. In the US, the work of Duncan Campbell has shown that they appear to have well-established administrative machinery for passing on intelligence to some big companies. But I have got no first hand sources of that.

Q: In the European Parliament, a commission was established to examine Echelon and its implications.

A: I am thrilled that there is this debate going on in Europe. As I said, it's the first time since Watergate that there has been a serious ongoing public debate on intelligence and its implications. I don't like the emphasis on commercial spying because in my experience it is only a tiny subset of what they are doing. To me, the civil liberties and the privacy issues and the international issues of relations and power between countries are much more significant.

Q: Has there been any major change at Waihopai station since your book appeared?

A: When I was finishing the book I was trying to find out desperately about telephone monitoring capabilities, because at that time the main New Zealand Echelon site, Waihopai, was only doing written communications like e-mail, fax, telex, and computer communications. But they were not doing any voice there at all. Here was this very important area of the story and I couldn't solve it. About 18 months after my book came out I found out from my sources inside the agencies that they had installed automated telephone interception at Waihopai. This is very significant news. There is this frustrating debate on the outside about what their telephone and interception capabilities are, which goes nowhere without an inside source. Now I know for 100% that automated telephone interception is being done there, but of course it was already done much earlier because New Zealand was the last country that started with it. But exactly how they do it and to which extent I do not know.

It could be done with voice signatures, or by targeting particular people speaking key words. I don't think at the moment they are doing all voices real-time. But there is definitely something really major on the way. They had to change all the procedures. You could have a limited scale where you look at the communications headers and footers and pull out certain phone calls or particular phone numbers, but it is much bigger than that.

Q: I had a long talk with Duncan Campbell about this. He told me they are getting nowhere only with keyword recognition using dictionaries. They only have automatic transcribers to transcribe the phone calls. They are now implementing something called topic recognition. The NSA holds patents of many new technologies in this field, such as the "semantic forests". But they still need to know who they are intercepting, they need to track names and phone numbers. He also said that Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is working pretty well now and that their OCR is working much better than ours...

A: I talked to people who were solving fax interception problems and they where doing that in the 80s and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. But they were solving the problems back then when they had them. Except hand written faxes, of course. That is still hopeless for them, they cannot do it.

Q: So there have been changes in software, but what about the targets?

A: In Waihopai they have 2 large and one small dish now. I said in a chapter of my book that New Zealand and Australia share between them the Pacific and Asian satellites, the Intelsats. New Zealand does the major ones over the Pacific and Australia is specialising in the South East Asian traffic.

Q: How is the data distribution organized? A lot of information goes to Washington or to Maryland, but is the same amount of data going to Canada or to Germany for example?

A: Within the 5 countries of the UKUSA agreement I can tell you, because that is specific. This is not a series of ad hoc bilateral relationships like New Zealand and Australia being good friends. It is a hierarchical system and it was set up by the United States. In the majority of cases, most of the information is sent to the US. They are using most of the capabilities of allied countries' spy facilities around the world. Most of Australia's and New Zealand's "raw" intelligence reports (that is, unaltered intercepted communications) go straight to Washington. Australia and New Zealand never see them. It's a bit different, though, for finished intelligence reports. In New Zealand's case, we spy on two satellites that serve a whole Pacific region but we are delegated the job of producing finished intelligence reports on the South Pacific. The same applies to Australia; they have a particular delegated area within the intelligence alliance for finished reports stretching across south and east Asia. Whichever one of the Echelon facilities - US, Japanese or whatever - the intelligence on a particular subject comes from, if it is about the South Pacific then the New Zealand intelligence officers write the raw intercepts into proper, translated intelligence reports. These analysts are specialists in those countries, governments, and subjects. This finished intelligence is sent out to the allies from New Zealand. Fort Meade (the NSA) doesn't get the job of distributing it, but the distribution lists are completely standard. It might be a subject like South East Asian trade negotiations or Malaysia international trade negotiations, that might be a category. There will be a code name for that category and there will be a specified list of intelligence officers from the NSA,GCHQ, CSE, CIA and so on who receive that category of report. There is a list of them which has been negotiated in advance. The information automatically goes to that list.

In the U.S. they often look at the significance of pieces of intelligence and decide to withhold them from the allies, even though they are on the distribution list, because it suits their interests. But when you are at the bottom of the heap like New Zealand, you follow the distribution lists rigorously because you can't afford to antagonise the larger allies. Echelon is not a great big co-operative!

But again to the question concerning the European parliament. I have heard people criticising this European parliament committee, for its lack of powers to force intelligence staff to appear before it. I think that they are wrong, it is a much better committee than they are imagining. My opinion is that - the way intelligence agencies work - the committee would never have found someone from, for instance, the GCHQ willing to testify anyway.

If they did, they would get the standard menu of responses related to the requirements of national security, the fight against terrorism, etc. Those public relations lines contribute nothing to understanding. Nothing could be gained by having those people there. The committee with its broad agenda is exactly what this issue needs. What is required is serious public debate about intelligence. The primary issue is not how the intelligence services try to avoid change or what arguments are used. What matters most is whether or not there is a debate at all. The main thing that intelligence agencies and the governments supporting them usually succeed in doing is stopping there being any debate. This could go on for decades. The customary combination of secrecy and denial means that new stories that come up die instantly. The public consciousness is stuck with James Bond, the World War II, etc.

In the two and a half years since the first STOA report came out, new stories have come up which have added to the weight of the issue and prevented it from being dropped silently as would be usual. There is no precedent of an intelligence subject staying on the agenda for so long. That should be celebrated. It is an opportunity we must not miss.

For decades the implications of intelligence and the growing power provided by computers for surveillance and undermining of privacy has been a non-debate. Echelon, as one component of this story, has provided the vehicle that ensured the debate did not die off after 12 hours, as is usually the case.

The interesting characteristic of this whole issue is that it is not being driven by politicians or by protests. It is much more related to finding information. This has something to do with the special case of intelligence, but it seems to me it has also to do with the nature of modern politics. Secrecy is the basis of much of the power of intelligence agencies and modern governments; and it is essentially undemocratic. The same politics of secrecy can be seen in the power of, for instance, the World Trade Organisation, where much of the organisation's business is protected from public (i.e. democratic) input by institutional secrecy.

What I'm saying is that research - uncovering institutions' secrets - is vital if the public and parliaments are ever to be able to control secretive organisations. That has been the case with the intelligence debate so far and applies equally to many other issues. I hope that more people will put time into investigating intelligence agencies and discover that they are not as impregnable as they appear. There should be conferences and meetings where the results are compared and discussed. How much more powerful would that be!

Q: I think the number is growing, particularly in connection with the EU parliament's investigation of Echelon. The media love the subject.

A: It is very important, yes, but it is also very important that other topics like the domestic spying being co-ordinated between EU governments receive attention.

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