Satellite collision opens up the world of space surveillance

Top story on many news channels today is the collision of a US Iridium telecommunications satellite with an obsolete Russian military satellite. Iridium is an interesting company that is almost permanently bankrupt (due to the rise of GPS-enabled mobile telephones) yet whose largest single customer is the US Department of Defense, which uses a Hawaii-based gateway for a secure network using NSA-approved handsets.

The Phased Array Radar pyramid at RAF Fylingdales (Yorkshire CND)
The Phased Array Radar pyramid at RAF Fylingdales (Yorkshire CND)

Even more interesting however is that the story mentions the obscure work of the Space Surveillance Network or SPACETRACK, formerly operated by US Space Command (USSPACECOM), now along with all of that influential body’s operations, part of US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM). This global network of 25 bases using Phased-Array Radar and other tracking systems includes the RAF station at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire.

Satellite view of RAF Fylingdales (Cryptome)
Satellite view of RAF Fylingdales (Cryptome)
Debris in Low Earth Orbit (NSA Orbital Debris Program Office)
Debris in Low Earth Orbit (NSA Orbital Debris Program Office)

SPACETRACK continually watches earth orbit for new objects, which are then added to the US space catalogue. It also tracks debris fields, which are increasing in number and becoming more of a hazard for new space craft, and therefore problems for both military and civilian communications, weather, mapping and surveillance systems. This collision would seem to have been in relatively low orbit which causes the most problems. Cleaning up earth orbit would be a very good idea, but few people seem to have any serious ideas as to how it might be done. Some even argue that such a clean-up could destroy a valuable source of historical information!

More details of illegal NSA wiretap program revealed

The Online Jounal has published a piece by ex-NSA operative and perennial thorn in the side of the organisation, Wayne Madsen, which gives far more detail of the system of illegal wiretapping of e-mails, in operation over recent years.

According to Madsen, two NSA programs for text interception are known to exist, one called PINWALE, which mainly targets Russian e-mails, and secondly the STELLAR WIND program, which “was initiated by the George W. Bush administration with the cooperation of major U.S. telecommunications carriers, including AT&T and Verizon.” and “was a major priority of the NSA program”.

Madesen gives details of how PINWALE and there’s little reason to suppose that STELLAR WIND is very different. Basically these programs search a range of ‘metadatabases’, repositories of captured text from millions of people around the world, outside and inside the USA. The search parameters include: “date-time, group, natural language, IP address, sender and recipients, operating system, and other information embedded in the header”.

Madesen claims that both STELLAR WIND and PINWALE “negated both USSID 18 and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 [which were introduced following the Church Committee report into illegal operations by the NSA in the 1960s and early 1970s] by permitting NSA analysts to read the e-mails, faxes, and text messages of U.S. persons”

The three metadatabases are called LION HEART, LION ROAR, and LION FUSION and were developed, as with many NSA systems in conjunction with an external contractor, in this case, Booz Allen Hamilton, which Madsen previously revealed was also responsible for FIRSTFRUITS, program used to track the articles, and communications of particular journalists.

There’s more detail in the article, and one other thing is certain. All these exotic codenames will now be history, as all intelligence agencies have a policy of changing them once they are revealed. Journalists still talk about ECHELON as if it exists as an active NSA operation, but that one hasn’t existed under that name for twenty years or more. There are a huge diversity of NSA programs for all kinds of communications interception and sorting. Each component will have its own terminology and many will be temporary parts of a greater whole, which may not even exist by the time they are revealed. At least former insiders like Madsen can keep some track of developments…

An aerial view of the NSA's station at Yakima in Washington State (Cryptome)
An aerial view of the NSA's station at Yakima in Washington State (Cryptome)

ACLU calls for release of Bush security info

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is calling for President Obama´s administration to release secret files that would shed light on the previous US government´s security and surveillance policies, including the now use of torture and warrantless surveillance. It´s a good move of course, but as I´ve previously remarked, the NSA and others have been doing this for almost 50 years, either directly or indirectly through UKUSA allies, warrants or no warrants, so what makes anyone think that they only started doing this under Bush or will stop if such information is released? As intelligence researcher, Loch K. Johnson, remarked about the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s, one thing they showed was that, when it came to illegal intelligence activities, the office of the President was an irrelevancy. Bush was probably even more irrelevant than most. Still, sunlight is the best disinfectant… but if Obama can change the internal culture of US intelligence, he will truly have performed a miracle.

“Harpooning fish from an airplane”: NSA surveillance of US citizens

If the NSA can put this down to a period of bad leadership and bad policy, it might be allowed to get on with what it does relatively unhindered in the Obama era.

Boingboing has a link to a ten-miunte long MSNBC inerview with Russell Tice, an ex-National Security Agency (NSA) employee who is the latest in the long line of NSA whistleblowers after the likes of Wayne Madsen and Magaret Newsham. Tice’s revelations concern the NSA’s monitoring of internal communications in the USA after 9/11. According to Tice, the NSA both swept all US communications and also targeted specific groups, including journalists, for more comprehensive collection.

I have no idea how genuine Tice is and in many ways, despite the occasional choice phrase to describe SIGINT operations like the one with which I titled this post, he is a lot less interesting than Madsen or Newsham in that he’s not really telling us anything we didn’t know already. There is also a rather naive attitude from mainstream organisations like MSNBC that this is all down to the evil President Bush. This seems to suggest a lack of knowledge of history – do they really not remember the massive scandal over the very same use of watchlists by the NSA on behalf of the FBI in the 1960s? The huge inquiry led by Senator Frank Church in the 1970s? Can they continue to pretend that this is all totally new and that we can forget about ECHELON and the fact that this kind of surveillance is pervasive and systematic and becomes more so as technologies of collection, archiving and analysis improve? That is and always has been, what the NSA does in conjunction with its UKUSA network of largely subordinate allies and helpers (see this nice summary from Le Monde).

Of course this could be another explanation of Tice’s role, and the reason why he is being allowed to do the rounds of the newspapers and TV stations. Far from being simply a disaffected employee, he might be either a knowing or unknowing part of a media strategy by the NSA. If the NSA can put this down to a period of bad leadership and bad policy, it might be allowed to get on with what it does relatively unhindered in the Obama era. We shall see… or rather, we probably won’t!

NB: I wrote my PhD thesis on the networks of NSA-related bases around the world, including Menwith Hill, not far from where I live. It is worth checking out Cryptome’s Eyeball series of aerial views of NSA and other secret sites.

Fort George C. Meade, Maryland, Headquarters of the NSA
Fort George C. Meade, Maryland, Headquarters of the NSA