Even though I felt bad about what we were doing, I was very pleased with the professional part of my job," recalls Margaret Newsham. "I don’t mean to brag, but I was very good at what I did, and I actually felt like Echelon was my baby."
In fact, Newsham helped build the electronic surveillance system known as Echelon. And although she’s broken with the world of espionage, she fears that "certain elements" in the NSA or CIA may yet try to silence her. As a result, Newsham sleeps with a loaded pistol under her mattress, and her best friend is Mr. Gunther – a 120-pound German shepherd trained to attack by a friend in the Nevada State Police.
Only once before has Newsham talked about her work: during closed, top-secret hearings held by the US Congress in 1988. Recently, however, she broke 11 years of silence by speaking publicly for the first time about her work for the most extensive espionage network in the world. "Since I have high blood pressure," she told us, "my doctor thinks it’s risky for me to talk with you, but it’s a chance I’m willing to take."
Breaking with the System
While working at Lockheed Martin, the largest supplier of munitions to the US military, National Security Agency (NSA), and CIA, Newsham designed programs for Echelon’s global surveillance network. But when asked to work on a project in 1984, she refused, saying it could harm the US government. Shortly after, Echelon’s wire pullers in the NSA made sure she was fired. Newsham immediately sued her former employer for wrongful dismissal and contacted the Internal Security Commission, which arranged closed hearings.
"Ever since, I have felt like I was under so much pressure that it has had a fatal influence on my health," says Newsham, who subsequently survived a seizure that left her paralyzed. At the hospital, "I could hear the doctor pronouncing my death sentence, while my husband and three children stood by my side. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that if I died, I would lose my case. That thought was what brought me back to life."
After regaining mobility, Newsham suffered a cardiac arrest, and two years ago underwent surgery for a malignant tumor. The fact that she feels she’s living on borrowed time may explain why she chose to come forward.
"To me, there are only two issues at stake here: right or wrong. And the longer I worked on the clandestine surveillance projects, the more I could see that they were not only illegal, but also unconstitutional."
Newsham isn’t proud of helping to spy on ordinary people, politicians, interest groups, and private companies. Yet, that’s exactly what she did from 1974 to 1984. Both the satellites and the computer programs were developed at Lockheed’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, California. In 1977, she was stationed at the largest listening post in the world at Menwith Hill, England. She also received on-the-job training at NSA headquarters at Fort George Meade in Maryland.
"On the day at Menwith Hill when I realized in earnest how utterly wrong it was, I was sitting with one of the many Ôtranslators.’ He was an expert in languages like Russian, Chinese, and Japanese. Suddenly he asked me if I wanted to listen in on a conversation taking place in the US at an office in the US Senate Building. Then I clearly heard a southern American dialect I thought I had heard before."
"Who is that?" I asked the translator, who told me that it was Republican Senator Strom Thurmond. ‘Oh my gosh!’ I thought. ‘We’re not only spying on other countries, but also on our own citizens.’ That’s when I realized in earnest that what we were doing had nothing to do with national security interests of the US."
Knowledge is Power
In all its complicated simplicity, the NSA, together with intelligence agencies in England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, operates a system of satellites and computers that can monitor almost all electronic communication in the world: phone conversations, e-mails, telexes, and faxes. Other countries are affiliated as third or fourth party participants.
The basic goal is access to important political movements, in hostile and allied countries alike, plus keeping an eye on important economic activity. Knowledge is power, and the NSA knows it. Furthermore, NSA’s spies supervise who receives information and what it’s used for. "Even then, Echelon was very big and sophisticated," Newsham explains. "As early as 1979, we could track a specific person and zoom in on his phone conversation while he was communicating. Since our satellites could in 1984 film a postage stamp lying on the ground, it is almost impossible to imagine how all-encompassing the system must be today."
And what did Newsham actually do? "Unfortunately, I can’t tell you all my duties," she replies. "I am still bound by professional secrecy, and I would hate to go to prison or get involved in any trouble, if you know what I mean. In general, I can tell you that I was responsible for compiling the various systems and programs, configuring the whole thing, and making it operational on main frames."
Although the computer network itself was named Echelon, the software programs were known as Silkworth and Sire, she claims. One of the most important surveillance satellites, which intercepts phone conversations, was named Vortex.
"The surveillance was incredibly target-oriented. We were capable of singling out an individual or organization and monitoring all electronic communication – real time – and all the time. The person was monitored without ever having a chance to discover it, and most of the information was sent with lightening speed to another station using the enormous digital capacity at our command. Everything took place without a search warrant."
Much of the information was forwarded to NSA headquarters at Fort George Meade. Asked to confirm whether the system uses programs capable of scouring the airwaves based on certain categories and trigger words, she replies, "That’s one of the ways it functions, yes. It’s like an Internet search engine. By restricting your search to specific numbers, persons, or terms, you get results that are all related to whatever you enter."
Swindlers and Victims
"I experienced security breaches almost every day both at Lockheed’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, and at Menwith Hill, England," Newsham recalls. "Sometimes it was utterly absurd.
"At a barbecue party held by colleagues from the department responsible for developing the Ôinvisible’ Stealth bomber, the barbecue kettle was made of the same material that made the bomber invisible to hostile radar systems. Another time, somebody had coffee mugs made and all of them were covered with prints of highly classified Echelon stations.
"But they were also involved in actual swindling. Lockheed Martin undercut other companies to get NSA project contracts, after which they illegally transferred money and manpower to meet the contract. Since they could swindle others for hundreds of millions of dollars, they were capable of anything. That made them very deceitful, and in my eyes, they jeopardized the security of the United States Government."
Was the US government informed about the clandestine projects?
"No. That’s why we called them ÔBlack Programs.’ The government didn’t really know what was happening or what the many billions were actually being used for. And I felt very loyal both to the government and to the American Constitution, which was constantly being infringed."
Since her dismissal, Newsham has been under heavy pressure, because her case against Lockheed Martin could shed light on the NSA’s Ôblack projects.’ Among other things, the case deals with swindling more than $1.4 billion.
"It didn’t help any when my husband asked for a divorce after I had survived my cardiac arrest," Newsham readily admits. Chief of security at Lockheed Martin, he’s also been under considerable pressure, "grossly harassed" because of his affiliation with her.
"NSA’s activities have not only affected me," she adds, "but also my former espionage colleagues at Lockheed. Nearly half of the people I worked with on clandestine projects are either dead or mortally ill today. For example, my former boss on the Echelon project, Robert Looper, died prematurely of heart failure, and Kay Nickerson, who worked on developing the Stealth bomber, died of brain damage."
How could it happen? "I don’t know how to explain it, but at one point we discovered that Lockheed’s headquarters in Sunnyvale are built on top of a highly radioactive dumping ground." Her colleagues experienced heart failure, cancer, inexplicable seizures, and brain damage. "Even I am going to die of cancer before my time. But I have my lawyers, my doctor, and my children and grandchildren to support me."
And what gives her the courage to continue?
"The fact that the NSA, CIA, and National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO) are carrying on illegal espionage against the rest of the world. They say they are doing it to catch drug criminals, gunrunners, and the like. But that doesn’t give them the right to do what they’re doing. They are constantly breaking the law.
"We are spying on our own citizens and the rest of the world – even our European allies," she explains. "If I say ‘Amnesty’ or ‘Margaret Newsham,’ it is intercepted, analyzed, coordinated, forwarded, and registered – if it is of interest to the intelligence agencies. I spoke with a radiologist recently, who had done exactly the same thing I had, only 10 years later, in 1991, under ‘Operation Desert Storm.’ If only I could tell you everything, then you would understand that Echelon is so big, its immensity almost defies comprehension."
Breaking the Silence
Like officials in most participating countries, Danish ministers have consistently denied any knowledge of the controversial global surveillance systems. But under heavy pressure, Denmark’s minister of the defense recently admitted that his country participates in a global surveillance system. During a joint council in the Danish Parliament’s Europe Committee, Hans H¾kkerup acknowledged that the intelligence arm of the Danish Armed Forces participates in the interception of electronic communication.
Although H¾kkerup wouldn’t confirm whether Denmark works in cooperation with the NSA and denies that the overall system is called Echelon, he did say that Denmark "has been intercepting signals ever since the Second World War – and we’re still doing it." Facilities at Aflandshage on the island of Amager have been continuously expanded over the years. "We both collect and process information from satellites," he said, adding that Denmark sometimes exchanges information with the intelligence agencies of other countries.
"They spy on companies and interest groups," added Duncan Campbell, who has looked at the listening post at Aflandshage near Copenhagen. "The facilities at Aflandshage are hardly distinguishable from the Echelon installation in New Zealand." A physicist and technology expert, Campbell has no doubt that Denmark is involved in illegal surveillance, along with other primary participants in the system – the US, England, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, and New Zealand.
"My best guess is that the facilities at Aflandshage were additionally expanded shortly after the end of the Cold War," he said. "In any case, Aflandshage is not part of NATO’s defense against Russia and the other East Bloc countries like it was before. Everything indicates that the large parabolic antennas and accompanying buildings are used in the same way as the facilities in the other countries: to intercept communication from commercial satellites that transmit the phone and fax conversations of ordinary people. And to forward the intercepted information."
Campbell has worked closely with a group of British women who oppose the Menwith Hill listening station near Birmingham, England. With the help of cunning tricks, the women have sneaked into the base more than 100 times, removing thousands of classified documents. With these papers and information from anonymous agents, Campbell has acquired a unique knowledge which last year resulted in an extensive report on global surveillance, ordered by the European Parliament.
"The problem is that most democratic countries have laws that protect the sanctity of private life and do not allow the lawful political activities of their citizens to be monitored and registered," he explained. "In order to monitor someone, you must have grounds for suspicion and be authorized to do so by a judge. Echelon is a total breach of these principles. A great number of categories are coded into the system, and under each category there are even more code words. Many of the words are used in normal daily conversation.
"Not only the rights of ordinary people are infringed; Echelon also monitors interest groups like Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and private companies. Several examples of industrial espionage exist in which the US intelligence service has passed on information to US companies that was intercepted from satellites."
Looking beyond the system’s official purposes, Campbell argued that "there is all the difference in the world between conventional surveillance and monitoring and this system, in which the law is consistently and constantly being broken by the very people who should be making sure that others obey the law. They are purely and simply exchanging information which is illegal for the local intelligence agencies in the individual countries to collect."
Yet, even after the revelations of Newsham and those to come, the secret system will continue – probably under some new name. "The code name Echelon is only part of the entire system," explained Campbell, "and everything seems to indicate that they have switched codes. Last I heard it was Magistrand."
Kenan Seeberg has worked for Danish radio and TV, and currently writes for Ekstra Bladet, the country’s second largest daily newspaper. Send e-mail to email@example.com. Bo Elkjaer has worked for Ekstra Bladet since 1997, specializing in information technologies and investigative journalism. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com.