Keeping an ‘ear’ on East Timor
Australia, New Zealand hand intelligence over to Washington
By Robert Windrem
Sept. 12 — As the East Timor crisis has heated up, the United States has been using electronic intelligence gathered nearby in Australia and New Zealand, two nations in a spying alliance officially known as the UKUSA treaty, but known in the spy trade as the “WASP Alliance.”

       IN FACT, President Bill Clinton said Sunday the U.S. stood ready to assist a U.N. peacekeeping force with intelligence.
       Electronic spy bases throughout Australia and New Zealand gather communications intelligence primarily by downlinking signals from Indonesia’s Palapa constellation of four satellites, strung out over the 3,000-mile island chain, as well as communications from ships and planes, radio receivers and other satellites.
       East Timor, said experts, has been a priority since the time of the 1975 Indonesian invasion, although little of what the intelligence has revealed has ever been made public. Intelligence priorities have included not only military communications out of East Timor, but policy discussions in Jakarta.        Australia and New Zealand share their intelligence and analysis with the U.S. National Security Agency as well as the electronic eavesdropping agencies of Canada and Britain.
       “Along with our allies, we have it just about covered,” said Jeffrey T. Richelson, author of the “U.S. Intelligence Community.” “We have for quite a long time.”
       Australia is primarily responsible for intercepting Indonesian communications, Richelson said, with New Zealand having some as well. Australia has primary responsibility under the UKUSA agreement for the area west of New Guinea; New Zealand covers the islands to the east.
The most critical base, said Richelson and others who follow the intelligence community, is at Shoal Bay, near Darwin in Northern Australia. Built in 1974, just before the first Palapa satellite was launched, the base is code-named Project Larswood.
Project Larswood has several advantages, most notably its location within the “footprint” of the key Palapa satellites, the area in which the satellites’ signals can be received by any dish. Those satellites were built by a U.S. defense contractor, Hughes, and excess space on them was leased to other nations in Southeast Asia, giving Project Larswood access to international communications as well as Indonesian.
       Desmond Ball of Australia National University has said the Shoal Bay interception dishes provided the Australian Defense Signals Directorate “with extraordinary access to Indonesian communications.”
       And although some of the communications carried on the satellites is no doubt encrypted, it can be fed from Australia to the U.S. National Security Agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., where the world’s largest bank of supercomputers are used to break down the encryption, in near real time if possible.
In addition, Richelson said the base is also home to an ocean surveillance base that can and is used to track Indonesian naval and air traffic, helping policy makers determine if ships or planes are moving into East Timor.

       “We would be able to pick up a fair amount of of military traffic, including mobile military using other assets flying out of Australia,” said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. “The P-3 could connect, for example. The Australians would certainly have adequate collection resources ... that if [U.S. National Security Adviser] Sandy Berger wanted to know something, he could learn about it from them.”
       Pike noted that the United States could also use its own air force and naval assets in the area, but is more likely to rely on the allies in the region.
       “U.S. collection assets have not been preferentially tasked yet, because there is no anticipation we would be sending troops in.”
       But U.S. spy satellites also play a role. An Orion spy satellite stationed 22,300 miles above Indonesia can pick up, at least in theory, walkie-talkie communications from East Timor and then downlink them in real-time to a joint U.S.-Australian site at Pine Gap in South Australia. Trumpet satellites that fly in elliptical orbits can pick up cell phone calls in Jakarta and relay them back to the U.S.
       In fact, Australian ships have monitored Indonesia activities in East Timor using shipboard receiving equipment since virtually the beginning of their occupation, sometimes using the cover of monitoring illegal fishing, experts said. NBC’s Ned Colt reported that Australian ships were in international waters Monday, continuing to monitor the situation.
Sometimes, Australia tasks New Zealand’s frigates to do the same monitoring when they are on exercises in the South Pacific or in a friendly port. If near East Timor, the ships will be tasked to intercept that traffic. A New Zealand radio receiving base is in Tangimoana, north of Wellington.
       The analysis of the signals is done in Australia, where the biggest of four DSD analysis cells is devoted to Indonesian language communications.        The Australian assets are not limited to sites outside Indonesia. Nicky Hager, a New Zealand peace researcher who revealed the existence of the worldwide Echelon electronic spy operation, reported in his book, “Secret Power” that specialized intercept equipment code-named “Reprieve” had been installed in Australia’s embassy in Jakarta.
       “The operations were said to take a whole room of the embassy building and be able to listen to local telephone calls at will,” Hager wrote.
       The spying also includes international communications in and out of Indonesia. UKUSA bases at Geraldton in western Australia and Waihopai on New Zealand’s north island have dishes aimed at the Intelsat communications satellites which carry the bulk of international phone calls, faxes and e-mail. The dishes use the “Echelon” system to look for key words and topics in both written and spoken communications.
       Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News.


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