Japan and the NSA: no cause for concern?

(This is an article that I wrote for The Japan Times; they never made any reply to my submission… sources are listed after the article)

Given the friendly relationship that the Japanese state enjoys with the USA, and the equally cordial relationship the Japanese media has with its government, it comes as no surprise that few questions have been raised about Japan and the recent revelations about the Internet surveillance operations of the US National Security Agency (NSA). Yet, undoubtedly, there are questions to be asked.

One of the sources from 2010, revealed by NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, confirmed that the NSA was wiretapping Japanese diplomatic communications, as well as those of 37 other countries including South Korea, the European Union, India, Mexico, Turkey, France, Italy, Greece and Middle Eastern countries. The reports could not shed light on any specific reasons for the tapping of these nations’ official communications, but contrary to some Japanese media reports of this story, it would not be the first time that information had come to light that documented US spying on Japanese diplomatic channels.

According to New Zealand-based writer and researcher, Nicky Hagar, in his book, Secret Power, the NSA had involved the New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) in “a project targeting Japanese embassy communications” back in the early 1980s, and since that date all the ‘first party’ countries in the UKUSA Signals Intelligence alliance (USA, UK, Canada, Australia and NZ) “have been responsible for monitoring diplomatic cables from all Japanese posts within the same segments of the globe they are assigned for general UKUSA monitoring”. So although Snowden’s revelations are recent, many of the programs, including the tapping of Japanese diplomatic communications, are not.

Likewise PRISM. PRISM is in many ways simply the Web 2.0 version of an earlier system, commonly known as ECHELON. With the explosion of social media and other online systems, it would more surprising if an agency like the NSA had not developed systems for collecting data from these new forms of communications. And despite the denials of major service providers like Microsoft and Google, nor is their involvement new. It was documented in a major report for the European Parliament in 1999, Development of Surveillance Technology and Risk of Abuse of Economic Information that Microsoft was installing ‘backdoors’ in its software for NSA use in the 1990s and that export versions of many important pieces of US software had deliberately reduced cryptographic functions to make NSA snooping easier.

So it is very likely that the NSA is collecting metadata (and much more) from Japanese electronic communications, both official and unofficial. How does it do it? The answer is not to be found overseas but in Japan itself. Japan has a substantial US military presence, and not all of the US bases are dedicated to basic warfighting operations. While most of the US presence is in Okinawa, it is at the other end of the country, in the northern region of Tohoku that we have to look to find the NSA’s main Japanese centre of operations. Misawa Air Base in Aomori is one of the largest US intelligence bases outside of the USA itself. According to the GlobalSecurity website, Misawa was originally an Imperial cavalry training center in the Meiji period, converted into an air base in 1938 and also used as a communications site from 1941. Following the US invasion in 1945, it was converted into a US air base and from 1948, Misawa operated as a High Frequency (HF) Radio interception station targeted mainly at the eastern part of the USSR. This was upgraded in the 1960s with AN/FLR-9 “Elephant Cage” antenna, a huge circular array which remains a significant visual component of the base.

From 1972, when the US removed its jet fighters, Misawa was primarily a reconnaissance and intelligence site and major investments occurred in the late 1970s when a lot more NSA activities were moved outside the USA following US congressional inquiries into its activities. According to the official Brief History of US Air Force Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Misawa was designated as one of a network of satellite interception stations, known as Operations LADYLOVE, which came online in 1982. Misawa now has 19 satellite antenna, all covered by geodesic radar domes (radomes), which provide protection from both the elements and observation of the direction of the antenna, which help determine which satellites’ transmissions were being received.

The jets returned in 1985, and the site is still nominally controlled by the US Air Force, with several American fighter and reconnaissance squadrons, and some Japan Self-Defense Force planes. However, its US intelligence presence is so large that this is really its primary function. Several of the operational units present betray Misawa’s identity as an NSA field station, particularly Company E, Marine Support Battalion, a cryptologic and electronic warfare unit that reports to the NSA. There are also intelligence units from all three other US military branches, in particular those relating to space surveillance and other military satellite operations, many of which connect to, or are the under the ultimate control of, the NSA.

What is more, in all the previous reports on the NSA’s telecommunications interception activities, particularly on ECHELON, Misawa was always listed as a key component site in this international snooping system, along with more famous (or notorious) sites like Menwith Hill in the UK, and British investigative reporter, Duncan Campbell noted that declassified US military intelligence sources agreed that by 1994, Misawa was part of the ECHELON system, with the number USA39.

With the combination of the Snowden revelations and Misawa’s historic and contemporary importance to NSA operations in the Pacific region, it would seem very surprising if the NSA was not operating programs like PRISM in Japan. And certainly, the revelations that the NSA specifically gathers social media, e-mail and other Internet communications metadata from citizens of allied and friendly countries, which have electrified Germany and Brazil, most recently, should give cause for concern to Japanese citizens too, particularly given the protests that periodically hit better known but more ordinary US bases in Okinawa, for example.

So where’s the fuss? It would seem to be a combination of two things: firstly, the Japanese government and mainstream media appear to be successfully managing information on behalf of their US allies. The stories about the Snowden revelations on Japanese news almost always refered to Snowden (incorrectly) as a CIA employee and rarely mentioned the NSA, and no reference to US intelligence operations in Japan, despite the fact that the media regularly carries stories on all manner of controversies relating to US conventional forces here. Secondly, and perhaps relatedly, there does seem to be a distinct lack of knowledge and concern amongst Japanese people not simply about the NSA and US intelligence operations but surveillance and privacy more generally. The combination leads to the USA facing very little scrutiny over its international surveillance activities in Japan compared to that faced in other parts of the world


Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

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