NSA Listens to bin Laden

by Richard Sale
United Press International
February 13, 2001


WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- If you like to use your e-mail to convey enticements to your sweetie or snuggle down and trade intimate long distance calls at midnight, you may want to think again, especially if you are connected with anything that the U.S. government regards as a threat to national security.

Ask Saudi exile and terrorist Osama bin Laden.

The U.S. case unfolding against him in United States District Court in Manhattan is based mainly on National Security Agency intercepts of phone calls between bin Laden and his operatives around the world -- Afghanistan to London, from Kenya to the United States.

The 321-count indictment charges that bin Laden is chief of a shadowy group called Al Qaeda, or "The Base," whose aim is to kill U.S. nationals anywhere in the world. Specifically mentioned in the indictment are the 1993 murder in Somalia of 18 U.S. Army Rangers and the 1998 bombing of two U.S. Embassies in East Africa that killed 224 and injured more than 4,000.

It is perhaps ironic that a current defendant in the trial, Khalid Al Fawwaz, waiting to be extradited from Britain and who allegedly ran bin Laden's "media information office" in London, procured for Bin Laden a satellite phone. Fawwaz also provided satellite phones for other members of the bin Laden's group, "to facilitate communications," the indictment said.

Instead the phones facilitated his and the others' downfall.

The London Al Qaeda office served as a conduit for messages, including reports on military and security matters from various terrorist cells. For example, bin Laden called Fawwaz in the London office many times to discuss financial disbursements and other matters, according to the indictment.

Just before the Aug. 7 embassy bombings, a suicide bomber, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali, contacted an Al Qaeda number in Yemen from a safe house in Nairobi. Owhali called that same number the next day from a hospital clinic and would make a series of phone calls from Nairobi to Yemen.

The indictment clearly links bin Laden's satellite telephone calls to the East Africa bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam.

On Aug. 11, two days after the bombings were completed, bin Laden's satellite number phone was used to contact network operatives in Yemen, at a number frequently called by perpetrators of the bombing from their safe house in Nairobi.

What pulled all this information together?

A system called ECHELON is said to be mainly responsible, according to U.S. government officials who requested anonymity. They said that ECHELON is designed by the National Security Agency based at Fort Meade, between Washington and Baltimore, Md., and that the system is linked with special collections stations around the world, which allow signals intelligence agencies to increase surveillance over the Internet and of databases, faxes, phone calls and e-mails connected with it.

The stations are run by the United States, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, sources said.

The targets of ECHELON center on the penetration of the major components of most of the world's telephone and telecommunications systems. This could cover conversations NSA targets. Also included are all telexes carried over the world's telecommunications networks, along with financial dealings: money transfers, airline destinations, stock information, data on demonstrations or international conferences, and much more.

When United Press International wanted to send some information to a former CIA official about Ayman al-Zawahiri, a senior bin Laden military commander and organizer, the intelligence official exclaimed," My God, don't put that in an e-mail," indicating that the worldwide listening system would light up. "NSA has huge watch lists" and he didn't want to be on one, he said.

According to a half dozen specialists interviewed by UPI, ECHELON doesn't listen in on a particular individual. Instead, the system vacuums up tremendous amounts of communications and then uses dictionary computers to sort and identify the messages that have any intelligence value. These are sent immediately to the headquarters of the listening organization -- in the NSA's case, the vast complex of buildings and computers at Fort Meade that houses 20,000 employees.

The dictionary computers are supplied with key words -- names of terrorists or political groups or crime organizations. The computers then begin to intercept e-mails from such groups and make a record of all contacts, and the contacts that those contacts make, adding them to a watch list. The information is recorded digitally on magnetic tapes and then turned over to analysts for scrutiny, U.S. sources said.

"It's a pretty awesome capability," said a former Defense Intelligence Agency official.

According to him and others, the ECHELON system can intercept all the communications carried by a ring of stationary communications satellites positioned above the equator, which each day daily process hundreds of thousands of e-mails, phone calls and telexes. Also targeted are microwave networks over land, and undersea cables systems. Once the undersea cables emerge from the sea and join with the network of line-of-sight microwave towers, they are "extremely vulnerable" to interception, in the words of one U.S. expert.

The NSA listening station at Sugar Grove, about 150 miles from Washington in the hills of West Virginia, covers Atlantic Intelsats transmitting to North and South America. In one operation a few years ago, officials at the European Union's offices in Luxembourg complained to U.S. officials that the E.U. had evidence that NSA had used the Internet to penetrate the e-mails that linked the 5,000 EU elected officials and bureaucrats. Such activity has been used recently to monitor talk about the EU wanting to set up its own defense force, a U.S. officials said on condition of not being named.

"It's a freebee," said a former senior U.S. intelligence official. "It's a tremendously rich source of material. We'd be fools not to use it."

Asked about its legality, he replied, "This isn't about legality. This is about trying to protect American lives."

Another NSA listening post at Yakima, Wash., inside a U.S. Army firing range there, is used to listen in on the Pacific Intelsats. They are aided by stations in New Zealand, which has stations at Waihopai, and a station at Geraldton in Western Australia that pick up what Yakima is unable to hear.

Another series of stations at Menwith Hill in England; Shoal Bay near Darwin in northern Australia; Leitrim, just south of Ottawa, Canada; Misawa in Japan; and Bad Aidblig in Germany, listen in on happenings in Russia, these sources said.

The stations are formidable installations. The one at Menwith Hill consists of 4.9 acres of buildings with 22 or more satellite terminals, U.S. government officials said.

The Menwith Hill station has played a key part in tracking bin Laden, according to U.S. government sources. In 1991, it was given the NSA "Station of the Year" prize for its performance during the Gulf War. The station also serves as a ground station for real-time data transmissions from U.S. electronic spy satellites like Vortex, which can intercept military communications from walkie-talkies to military radios or any microwave transmissions.

Since 1995, bin Laden has tried to protect his communications with a "full suite of tools," according to Ben Venzke, director of intelligence, special projects, for iDefense, a Virginia information warfare firm.

Coded letters, encryption of calls, verbal ciphers, messengers that elude technical collection, embedding messages in Internet porno films -- all are being used.

Since Bin Laden started to encrypt certain calls in 1995, why would they now be part of a court record? "Codes were broken," US officials said, and Venzke added that you don't use your highest level of secure communications all the time. It's too burdensome, and it exposes it to other types of exploitation."

During an insurgency in Cyprus in the 1950s, the British found the rebels were using female motorcycle riders to carry messages back and forth. Bin Laden is doing the same. But while messengers are fine, their use "is dependent very much on the speed you require," Venzke said: "Communication has to be safe, but it has to be efficient too."

The best way to augment signals intelligence is with HUMINT -- human intelligence, placing a source "close to the target," said Venzke.

"HUMINT is essential. It's hard to place assets where they are needed to be, but they're essential for exact information," he said.

 

Copyright © 2001 United Press International

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of criminal justice, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.