Espionnage: The French Listen In To Their Allies as Well

Paris Le Point 6 Jun 98 pp 61-64

Communications take place in space, and the satellites are spied on from the ground, by the French as well, who are past masters at the game. But big space ears are also used to intercept all the planet's communications (telephone, fax, mobile phone), and this is where the Americans and British, who have signed secret cooperation agreements, are unbeatable.

The United States is spying on the world. There is nothing new about the accusation, but it has come back into vogue over recent months, and fresh revelations have provided previously unknown information about a gigantic Anglo-American interception network, initially devised to spy on the USSR, but directed against their allies, and France in particular, as well. Not that France is lagging behind. Under the aegis of the DGSE [General Directorate for External Security], it too has put a major inteception system in place targeting civilian communications satellites, including the Intelsat and Inmarsat satelite families. The output from these interceptions, which is not regulated by any international law, is forwarded confidentially to the chairmen of a few dozen businesses competing on the international markets.

The Americans are much more skilled than the French at this new espionnage battle, and particularly so as far as "big space ears" are concerned, which are satellites specially designed to intercept ground communications and capable of switching from one orbit to another according to the priority of the day. When in orbit, they have gigantic antennae capable of listening in to everything happening on the ground. The French do not operate in this satellite interception sphere, which is made up of both orbiting devices, the "space segment," and ground receiving stations, the "ground segment." Such systems are solely American and Russian, little being known about the latter.

The first generation of interception satellites, the Ferrets, was launched early in 1962 and was followed by the second-generation Sigint (Signal Intelligence) and Comint (Communication Intelligence) satellites, the Canyons and Rhyolites (subsequently renamed Aquacade), which were launched from 1968 onwards. The third generation comprised the Chalet, Vortex, Magnum, Orion, and Jumpseat satellites, and the fourth generation of big space ears now comprises the Vortex-2 and the Trumpet, three of which are currently in orbit, all built by Hughes and commissioned by the American space intelligence agency, the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office). The first was launched in May 1994, and the last in November 1997. These satellites, which were put into space by Titan 4-Centaur rockets, are monsters weighing nearly 8 tonnes and have amazing antennae, of a diameter of as much as 150 meters. They are, of course, made of a very flexible, lightweight structure, which is folded on departure like an umbrella rolled around the handle shaft. No official technical data on these satellites are available, and the only facts we have are those gathered by American associations such as FAS (Federation of American Scientists), whose analysts, John Pike and Charles Vick, have become authorities on the subject, working only from scattered, but open sources. These satellites are so big that astronomy observatories can detect them, a fact that has proved extremely useful, in particular for the purposes of calculating the size of their antennae.

The data picked up by these constellations of electronic intelligence satellites are subsequently transmitted for exploitation to the various military headquarters and intelligence services, in particular the NSA (National Security Agency). There is a large number of reception stations, the main ones being at Buckley (Colorado), Menwith Hill (Britain), and Pine Gap (Australia). Last January, the American military placed a very large communication relay satellite in orbit, its job being to send information gathered in space directly back to ground in the United States. The interception satellites are in permanent orbit above Earth, their respective specialties making it possible to pick up everything transmitted, radar and missile guidance system frequencies and all military communications in particular. Civilian communications are also intercepted, of course, including microwave links, over which a considerable portion of the telephone traffic travels.

The "Cousins"

The British and American intelligence services are so close that their members call one another "cousins." The main bodies in charge of technical intelligence in the two countries are, respectively, the NSA and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). They struck a secret deal in 1948, the existence of which has still never been officially confirmed, and which brings them together with the Canadian CSE (Canadian Communications Security Establishment) in the Canukus consortium. The latter has set up a tentacular communications interception network formalized under the secret UKUSA treaty. Designed to spy on USSR communications and satellites, its resources have been considerably scaled up since the end of the Cold War, in keeping with the exponential growth in digitized communications. The Australian DSD (Defence Signals Directorate), followed by New Zealand's GCSB (Government Communications Security Bureau) have joined the consortium, which "works" on political and military intelligence, narcotics trafficking, terrorism, and, above all, on the world of the economy and major contracts. UKUSA output is forwarded to the United States, its partners obtaining only part of it.

New Zealand's Surprise

The latest on the UKUSA network, which has been known about since British journalist Duncan Campbell's revelations in the seventies, comes with the recent publication of a book on the New Zealand portion of the network. Investigating local sources, pacifist militant Nicky Hager discovered that his country's technical intelligence services, working from the Waihopai interception station, had turned into docile subcontractors to the Americans, despite the latters' disgrace in the antinuclear archipelago. In particular, the author describes the working of a computer system that he calls Echelon, a network of supercomputers specializing in the analysis of messages intercepted on communications satellites and processed on the basis of the key words they contain. He tells of former Prime Minister David Lange's astonishment when informed of the system's existence, which he had not suspected.

Relay Towers

Generally speaking, microwave beams are highly directional and can only be directed at the ground receiver assigned to them. It is these microwave systems that have strewn great relay towers bristling with antennae across France, each one in a direct line of vision to the next, and rarely more than 20 or so kilometers one from the other. However, part of the signal transmitted in this way strays into the ether. Interception satellites can pick up these very low-intensity parasite signals. Initially, during the Cold War, these devices were designed to listen in to communications in the Warsaw Pact countries, but the Americans can -- and do! -- also listen in to the French domestic telephone system, among others.

The British, who play a very active role in the UKUSA network, once envisaged launching their own listening satellite, which went by the name of Zircon. They gave up the idea on grounds of cost, and enjoy priority access rights, against payment, to the American satellites. Their interest in the situation in Russia has not waned, and they are clearly also very interested in their European partners, and in France in particular. There is nothing surprising about that: Our country, which has retained interests in several parts of the world and assumes an active stance on trade while at the same time aspiring to play a world diplomatic role, is a special target. Likewise, German economic and diplomatic activities are also kept under close surveillance by the big American ears, which have numerous bases in Germany -- the NSA's main listening stations are at Gablingen, Bad Aibling, and in the Berlin area --, and proved particularly active there during the Cold War. According to unconfirmed sources, it was the NSA's interceptions that made it possible to thwart a General Motors defector to the German Volkswagen group, Jose Ignacio Lopez, who had left the United States with 90,000 pages of information that his former employer regarded as confidential, on plans for new models, profitability calculations, and various catalogues. The dispute was amicably settled by the two corporations in the end.

Top-Secret Agreements

The American intelligence services' agressive and entirely illegal attitudes have quite obviously provoked retaliations, and the French are thus second to none at the game, which the DGSE has been playing from the space listening stations that it has set up both in France as such, in particular its Domme (Dordogne) station, at the Sarlat aerodrome, and also in French overseas departments and territories [DOM's and TOM's], since recently in New Caledonia in particular. A satellite interception station has also been built on United Arab Emirates territory under a bilateral agreement with the federation. The job of these two latter stations is to intercept communications satellites placed in geostationary orbit above the equator and covering Asia and the Middle East respectively. The digitized data are gathered by small teams of half a dozen officials working there and are forwarded en bloc to Paris for analysis. One of the advantages for France of having DOM's and TOM's evenly dotted across the planet is that it can set interception stations up in them.

This is how one of them came to be secretly installed at the Kourou space base. It is used to monitor American and South American satellite communications in particular, a fact confirmed to Le Point by several sources. The most amazing thing in this business is that the station is not specifically French: Foregoing its isolation on intelligence matters, our country has invited the Germans to come in on the operation. Top-secret agreements have been signed between the DGSE and its opposite number across the Rhine, the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst [Federal Intelligence Service]), which partly explains why the French are making only feeble noises, in this great game of everyone pulling the wool over everyone else's eyes, in protest against their allies', but nonetheless spies', forays into the French communications systems. "The guarantee of the system's durability is that its precise poential will never be known," a French expert on these matters said. One of the heads of these systems told us recently that there would be no point holding it against the Americans: "It is the secret war game; it is up to us to play it the same way and to be as good at it. It is a case of 'I have you, and you have me by the beard!' It would be like the pot calling the kettle black!" Situations can take a comic turn at times, as with that important Anglo-French summit presided over by [then British Prime Minister] John Major at his country residence, Checkers, during which both delegations were kept symmetrically and completely up to date on their partners' foreseeable next move by their respective intelligence services. As one of the French officials attending the meeting commented, "We thus had proof that we are not so bad. And neither are the others!"

Cut-Throat Competition

The Americans are aware of this state of affairs, and for good reason, and they warn businessmen of the risks they run when traveling: "Electronic interception is conducted with increasing frequency against modern telecommunications systems. Foreign airlines are particularly dangerous, as most are government-controlled. Offices, hotels, and mobile phones are key targets. Faxes, telexes, and computers can be electronically intercepted. ["Foreign Threat to US Business Travelers," National Counterintelligence Center, 1998.] They should know... All the same, the French have their hands tied in this cut-throat competition surrounding the interception of communications. They may manage to intercept space communications from the ground or hack into computers in hotel rooms, but they lack the real strategic tool: big space ears. An interception "cartridge" that goes by the name of Euracom, is indeed installed on board the Helios 1-A satellite, but its capacity is low. A small experimental interception device, Cerise, was launched in August 1995 at the same time, but the Zenon heavy interception satellite project has had to be abandoned owing to budgetary constraints. Be that as it may, the new Europe stands in need of such a tool, and it could usefully be developed as a joint project. It would at any rate be interesting to see whether the British would join in on an initiative of this type or whether they would opt to remain the eager partners of imperial America. Officially, allied countries do not spy on one another. The whole subtlety of the exercise lies in providing one's friends with intelligence on countries with which they have little familiarity. An international exchange market has thus been set up, based somewhat on the Spanish inn system: Getting quality intelligence depends on what you put into it. The Americans have distinguished themselves by gathering an enormous amount of electronic data on Basque terrorism, accompanying it with analyses that one of their French readers describes as "disastrous": "This proves that there is no point gathering technical information if you are not capable of understanding it." A serious problem facing the Americans, and which also concerns the deluge of information that they receive. Distilling it into an assimilable form holds out fine prospects for the wizards of information processing software, which, indeed, makes it possible to extract the "pertinent" information, a job at which the French lead the world...

Across the Atlantic, France is considered "excellent" on northern Africa, particularly Algeria, whose radio communications it has been monitoring from neighboring countries, from the Gabriel and Sarigue intelligence planes, and from ships at sea, including the cantankerous Berry, which is shortly to be replaced with the Bougainville, back from Polynesia. Every year, Western intelligence chiefs assemble at a major Sigint conference. In 1997, it took place in a major hotel in the heart of Paris, and it has just been held at NSA headquarters, not far from Washington. But the spymasters never reveal any of their little secrets there. In France, the DGSE regularly delivers the fruit of its interceptions to 60 or so hand-picked recipients, including major French corporations. They thus have access to unique information on the markets they covet and on their competitors, as, of course, the rules in force for safeguarding the confidentiality of communications, and specifically the law on telephone interception that the CNCIS (National Supervisory Committee on Security Interceptions) is responsible for enforcing, does not apply to interceptions conducted in space. Means of protection against them remain to be found. There is no point relying on the national authorities, whether in Europe or in the United States, who are far too pleased to have unthwartable and, above all, unmonitorable means for spying on those they govern.

The OECD seems to be tempted by the idea of drawing up international legislation along the lines of the measures that it has just put in place to fight corruption, but, a French expert said cynically, "If it did, it would be an instance of gratuitous moralization that it would be easy to get round." The alternative is to scramble telephone conversations thoroughly to make them incomprehensible to the big ears. Very reliable software is on the market, but the opponents of its distribution are none other than the intelligence services, who are as thick as thieves when it comes to imposing -- or attempting to impose -- highly restrictive laws. On this head, France has just adopted new regulations that will force all those who want to scramble their communications to use software that the administration can read like an open book. Confidentiality is not just around the corner!