Behind-the-scenes battle for control of the airwaves
How did it happen and with what outcomes?
from: West Highland Free Press, 3rd March 2006.
Last week, MICHAEL RUSSELL looked at the health concerns surrounding TETRA – the UK’s new police microwave communications system, which was due to be switched on in the Highlands and Islands last month. This week he concludes his two-part investigation with a look at the corporate and political manoeuvrings behind the technology.
In her book ‘The Silent Takeover : Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy’, Cambridge University’s Dr Noreena Hertz details the workings and history of a global surveillance network known as ECHELON. Set up after World War Two, ECHELON was and still is an intelligence-gathering partnership involving the five English-speaking countries. Originally, the system was designed to defend the West against the spread of communism.
One of ECHELON’S biggest operations centres is the Menwith Hill listening post in North Yorkshire, which is run by the Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham and the US National Security Agency. Menwith Hill, along with GCHQ itself, has the ability to intercept and monitor much of Europe’s email and phone traffic.
Dr Hertz – now likened to a British Naomi Klein, but formerly an economic adviser to the Russian Government of Boris Yeltsin – goes on to describe how ECHELON, once used to monitor communications within the Soviet Union, has been misused since the early 1990s as a tool of industrial espionage. Its main beneficiaries have been American multinationals.
‘Within days [of the February 2000 revelations] the European Parliament released a report containing serious allegations, ’Dr Hertz wrote. ‘American corporations had, it was said, ’stolen’ contracts heading for European and Asian firms after the NSA intercepted conversations and data and then passed them on to the US Commerce Department for use by American firms.
‘The Europeans were stunned to discover that Big Brother was no longer communist Russia or Red China, but its supposed ally and partner, America, spying on European consumers and business for its own commercial gain.’
The Parliament’s five-part report was released in February 2000. Part Two – Interception Capabilities 2000 – was authored by Scottish investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, whose expose of the Zircon spy satellite was pulled by the BBC in January 1987 after pressure from the Thatcher Government. A Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System was then set up by the Parliament, delivering its one and only report in September 2001.
Following the European Parliament’s reports, the NSA admitted the existence of ECHELON, though they denied that it had been used for industrial espionage. But the concerns persisted. Then, in April 2003 – just a month after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq – the European Parliament turned its focus on fresh allegations of American spying. This time the concern centred on the the UK’s new data-access and communications system for the police, TETRA, which was switched on in the Northern Constabulary area last month.
According to the Parliament’s new report ‘Motorola played a crucial role in defining the Tetra European standard, with the collaboration from the National Security Agency, in order to guarantee for the US government the possibility that TETRA networks could be eavesdropped’.
Lastly, the document pointed to Poland, which proposed a Motorola network for its police force in the wake of the fighter contract awarded to US defence giant Lockheed Martin. ‘It is urgent that the future members of the Union carefully evaluate the risks of too large a reliance on a technology for which they have no guarantee,’ the report concluded. Poland was one of the 10 Accession States to join the European Union in May 2004.
These concerns were rearticulated last week, when I spoke to Dr Franz Niederer, President of the TETRAPOL Users’ Club. TETRAPOL is a rival system to TETRA and is used by governments and emergency services across Europe. Until he assumed his current position, Dr Niederer was head of defence communications for the Swiss government.
So concerned was he by US snooping, that Dr Niederer organised a special conference entitled ‘TETRAPOL as a tool for the European Security Architecture’, sponsored by Franco-German arms giant EADS, in Brussels in October 2004. Much of it was devoted to ECHELON and the consquences for closer European integration of the so-called special relationship between the UK and US.
During his presentation to the conference, Dr Niederer said: ‘A set of global interception infrastructures and procedures in favour of the US administration was realised and continues to be exploited. This is the reason why a purely European, not US-infested, technology is needed to guarantee EU security architecture for the next generations of networks.’ One of those networks is Project MESA – basically super-fast broadband for spy satellites – which the US military is itching to get off the ground.
Why and how the UK chose TETRA over TETRAPOL, it seems, goes right to the heart of the problems which now beset the whole pan-European project. A single political entity, designed to put an end to internecine warfare, looks as far away as ever. Perhaps that suits America just fine.
‘There is going to be increased emphasis on intelligence, reconnaisance, surveillance, precision strike – all manners of the use of, basically, brain over brawn...’
As Dr Hertz puts it: ‘The ruthlessness of the Anglo-American form of capitalism never sat well with most European politicians, who still value the underlying principles of the social model. They see the UK as a Trojan horse, infiltrating Europe with American pro-business ideology.’
BUT just how did American companies come to dominate the UK TETRA market?
TETRA evolved from research conducted in the 1980s into Extremely Low Frequency sonar. The intention behind ELF – a British version of which was planned for Glengarry Forest – was to enable communication with submerged submarines. Much of the work on ELF, which was conducted in the UK by the Admiralty Research Establishment and Defence Research Agency, took place while Mikhail Gorbachev was in power. However, the end of the ‘evil empire’ was still, at the time, far from certain. Yet ELF disappeared.
While Secretary of State for Defence between 1986 and 1989, George Younger presided over much of the research into ELF. When he suddenly quit the Cabinet, that seemed to spell the end of Britain’s aspirations to match the US and USSR in this field. The companies involved in the research, however, continued to investigate the avenues opened up by their work – avenues which included TETRA.
Over the next decade or so, a murky game of corporate chess, involving trans-Atlantic players, was fought out to dominate this emerging technology. Did the eventual winners have a little extra covert help from ECHELON?
One company that carried on after ELF was Sussex-based Rediffusion Radio Systems, which was split in two in 1988. One half was bought by American aircraft manufacturers Hughes, whose various arms were themselves gobbled up by US defence giants Raytheon and Boeing within a few years. The other half of Rediffusion Radio Systems was acquired by French defence firm Thomson CSF in 1994. Thomson CSF also acquired Racal, whose mobile phone arm demerged in 1991 to become Vodafone.
Crucially, Thomson CSF was highlighted by Dr Niederer and the European Parliament as one of those firms spied upon by ECHELON in the 1990s. Motorola acquired its TETRA expertise at the the same time as Thomson CSF was busy developing actual TETRA products, which it now sells as part of Thales.
Covert surveillance reared its head again last month when Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis ordered an inquiry into a phone-tapping scandal in Athens. The investigation will focus on how spy software was inserted into Vodafone’s mobile network installed in the city for the 2004 Olympics. Interestingly, Motorola and another US IT firm Science Applications International Corporation also installed a TETRA network in Athens for the 2004 games. Among SAIC’s directors are two former US deputy defence secretaries and a former director of defence research for the Pentagon. Congress was also poised last month to investigate attempts by President Bush at domestic surveillance through the NSA. There’s a lot going on in the world of the spook.
Dr Niederer told me that the loss of the mobile phone (GSM) market in the 1990s to foreign competitors such as Nokia, Vodafone and Orange (all European companies) made the US determined to ‘maintain one stronghold under any circumstances: TETRA’ using less-than-open means.
Regarding the political decision to adopt TETRA in the UK, that was initiated by the Home Office under John Major’s Tory Government in 1995. The following year the Quadrant Consortium, comprising Motorola and TRW (both US) Nokia and BT (Finnish and British) was set up to drive the project forward – an astonishing six years before Northern Constabulary was ‘asked’ to apply for TETRA! This rather makes a mockery of Treasury testimony before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in February 2003 that TETRA was ‘initiated and led by the police service and not the Home Office’. Despite putting this point to the Association of Chief Police Officers some weeks ago, they have so far refused to confirm or deny the Treasury’s statement.
In October 1997, following the General Election and a change of party, TETRA marched on. New Labour’s Home Office Minister Alun Michael made the public announcment that TETRA was to be the UK’s system of choice, much to the annoyance of French firm Matra. Shortly after Mr Michael’s announcement, the company issued a writ against the Home Office on the grounds that the procurement exercise to fulfil the UK’s needs – originally termed as the Public Safety Radio Communications Project – was biased in favour of American suppliers of TETRA.
In July 2000, just after the NSA confirmed the existence of ECHELON, the European Commission referred the UK to the European Court of Justice for this breach of procedure. Almost six years later, the UK has still not been punished for this transgression. What happened to that court case? The only thing the EC’s office in Edinburgh could tell me was that the case was settled out of court in December 2001. ‘If you need any more information go to the Home Office,’ a spokeswoman said.
Apart from Motorola, which has had a UK presence for nearly 40 years, the other US firm of note in the TETRA market is arms giant Northrop Grumman. In 2002, one of the original Quadrant Consortium firms chosen to develop the UK system – aerospace and IT specialists TRW – was bought for $8 billion by Northrop Grumman. As well as a way into the global TETRA market, Northrop Grumman also acquired TRW’s network of communications satellites, vital components in the ECHELON surveillance system. The company then joined forces with the NSA and Nokia spin-off Innovent in 2004 to set up the Chesapeake Innovation Centre in Maryland for ‘organizations that create and purchase homeland and national security-related high technology’.
Indeed, as recently as 1st February, Northrop Grumman Chief Executive Ronald Sugar said during an interview in London that was broadcast on the company’ s website: ‘You know, the Quadrennial Defense Review will be released very shortly. There are not a lot of secrets in Washington, as you know. From everything we understand, the direction in which the Government is going is very similar to what we have been expecting for some time. And, in fact, it is very similar to the way we positioned our company.
‘There is going to be increased emphasis on intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, precision strike – all manners of the use of, basically, brain over brawn going forward.’
Instead of selling TETRA products, Northrop Grumman acts as the systems integrator for the whole UK TETRA network, responsible for ‘developing the network that integrates PSRCP (TETRA) components and linking it with existing and future national and Force information-technology systems’. One of those future systems is the IDENT1 biometric palm and fingerprint capability.
The company was chosen by Home Office quango the Police Information Technology Organistion – which also signed the TETRA contract on behalf of the Home Office and Scottish Executive – early last year to develop this system.
‘Through IDENT1, Northrop Grumman will integrate and develop the successful automated fingerprint recognition services used by police in England, Wales and Scotland since 1991,’ said a press release on the company’s website. ‘These services have allowed forces to search their local fingerprints and crime scene marks against their own national databases. Now IDENT1 will enable these marks to be searched against a combined database in excess of 6 million records, or 12 per cent of the UK adult population, in a matter of minutes.
‘PITO’s Identification Programme will also use the IDENT1 platform to enable the development of further national identification services in partnership with the police service.’
The infiltration of the UK’s criminal justice system by American arms and IT multinationals must be causing a few headaches in Brussels. If so, perhaps sufferers should ask Kevin Sharer for a cure. As well as being a director of Northrop Grumman, Mr Sharer (a British citizen) is also director of medical research company Amgen Incorporated, which sponsors the Department of Headache at University College London. Sufferers could then talk to Motorola, which has three representatives from multinational drug companies on its board of directors. Illness is certainly big business. Perhaps the reverse is true as well.
Surveillance: Menwith Hill is part of the US international ECHELON system. Yes; all UK communications are available to interception. Yes, TETRA encryption is transparent to the US.