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Intelligence

When it comes to spying, U.S. is as
insatiable as China

U.S., allies operate a 'spying machine' against Beijing

By Robert Windrem
NBC NEWS PRODUCER
    NEW YORK, June 1 —  With so much attention focused on how the Chinese government has been spying on the United States, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Washington has its own insatiable appetite for China’s secrets. The U.S. effort, say experts in and out of government, is extensive, intrusive and very effective.  
The key to understanding America’s ability to snoop on China is a 50-year-old treaty linking the espionage activities of the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

       PENETRATING CHINA is a very different challenge from gathering information in the open and apparently porous environment in which flesh-and-blood spies operate. Yet with a worldwide electronic eavesdropping operation, American intelligence agencies have found it is not impossible.
       In fact, spying on the People’s Republic of China has been one of the National Security Agency’s top priorities since it was established in 1952.
       “The methods by which the U.S. can eavesdrop on Chinese communications range to use of undersea platforms — like submarines — to a variety of antenna systems on the ground up to satellites up to 24,000 miles in space,” says Jeffrey T. Richelson, an intelligence historian who has written extensively on the U.S. eavesdropping capabilities. “Overall, its a multibillion-dollar effort, and China is a major target.”

       The key to understanding America’s ability to snoop on China is a 50-year-old treaty, called the UKUSA agreement, linking the espionage activities of the United States, United Kingdom and three other English-speaking nations — Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The technical expertise and the geographic spread of the five nations have permitted them to establish a network of spy posts that grew into an awesome spy machine during the Cold War and one that continues today.
       In effect, the United States and its allies in the spy game have set up a shadow worldwide telecommunications network used purely for espionage, and these days China is target No. 1
       for many of them.
       
STICKS AND DRONES
       The “bugs” used to intercept Chinese communications can be as simple as a phony fiberglass tree branch — a “stick” — that is actually a microphone or as complicated as a $500 million spy satellite. A fake tree branch was used to gather important information from China’s embassy in Washington.
       

 The story of "the stick"

       In Canberra, Australia, four years ago, a newspaper broke the story of how the new Chinese embassy in the Australian capital had been bugged during its construction, making the building itself a large and very effective bug. Since every major embassy gets telexes and other communications related to issues beyond its host nation’s borders, a spy master — whether in Washington or Canberra — wants to intercept as much traffic as he or she can. U.S. embassies overseas, including the one in Beijing, are often mini-spy stations, equipped with antennas that can grab short-range communications in capital cities.
       
LISTEN AND LEARN
       More prosaic but more productive are the UKUSA ground stations scattered around the world that listen in on a wide variety of communications, whether carried over international telephone lines or high-frequency diplomatic links.
       A significant amount of international telephone traffic is carried by satellites like the Intelsats that hang 22,300 miles above the world’s oceans and every day relay millions of telephone calls, faxes, e-mails as well as raw computer data.
       The United States and its allies have strategically placed downlinks for those satellites in remote locations. Each location contains two sets of satellite dishes — one to intercept the communications and the other to send them via the Pentagon’s communications system to various regional NSA centers for analysis. There are at least three sites around the world that steal Intelsat traffic bound for China:
* In western Australia, near the town of Geraldton.
* On New Zealand’s South Island, near the town of Waihopai.
* In eastern Washington state, on the U.S. Army’s Yakima Firing Range, are intercept sites that focus on satellites over the Pacific.
       Yakima would be the station most likely to pick up traffic between Beijing’s Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Embassy in Washington. There, visible from a rest stop off the northbound lanes of Interstate 82, are five dishes, two of them about 100 feet across aimed toward the southwest and the Intelsat over the eastern Pacific. Another smaller one is pointed in the same direction, either grabbing other satellite-borne communications or directing intelligence back to other Pacific sites for analysis. The two others, smaller and pointed in the opposite direction, are links to the Defense Satellite Communications System, Pentagon-operated “birds” that feed the material back to NSA headquarters near Baltimore.
       There is a similar layout in Australia and a smaller one in New Zealand.
       
20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
       Chinese high-frequency radio transmissions are targeted in the Pacific — in Japan, Hawaii, Canada. But as fiber optic cables replace radio, a new challenge has emerged. Yet the alliance has a lot of that covered as well.
       Most trans-Pacific cables make landfall at one point or another near U.S. military bases in Guam or Hawaii. With most trans-Pacific traffic originating or terminating in the United States,
       Canada or Australia, it’s hard to miss a digital beat. Even when the cables don’t touch U.S. or UKUSA-controlled territory, transmissions are not necessarily out of reach. During the Cold War the United States reportedly sent specially equipped submarines into Chinese harbors to plant NSA “bugs” on undersea cables.
       
TAPING THE HINTERLAND
       Calls that begin or end in China’s interior are also vulnerable. If they are funneled through the Chinese government’s own satellites, the United States can rely on yet another Pacific Rim site, at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan.
       Orion is the code name for the latest in a series of satellites used by the United States to scoop up microwave transmissions, those point-to-point radio signals that carry much of the world’s local and long-distance calls. Stationed 22,300 miles above the Earth, near communications satellites, the Orions use 300-foot-wide mesh dishes to pick up those signals. The positioning is critical because the microwave signals do not follow the Earth’s curvature but instead fly off into space on a straight line. By placing the Orions at points where they can catch those stray microwave signals, the United States has been intercepting communications from deep inside China — what in the trade is called “denied territory.”
       The Orions were originally developed to track critical command-and-control communications inside the Soviet Union. Another post-Cold War adaptation concerns the Trumpet satellites. Their orbit is elliptical, dipping as low as 200 miles above the Earth’s surface in the southern hemisphere and cruising as high as 24,000 miles above the northern hemisphere. From that perch, they are used to intercept signals from the Soviet’s anti-ballistic missile radars outside Moscow.
       But the NSA later learned that cellular phones, too, emitted signals and could be intercepted. So, by using a satellite high above the North Pole, the United States listens to cell phone calls in China and other nations.
       “If you put it in the air, you can get it one way or another ... and if it’s not in the air, we can tap into it,” says Richelson. “The U.S. may not get everything, but we can get a lot.”
       Revelations that American aerospace companies Loral Corp. and Hughes Electronics helped China improve missile guidance systems in the course of using Chinese rockets to launch satellites has created a furor in Washington. Yet there is a bright side to this.
       John Pike, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists, notes that is a great advantage to have the Chinese rely on communications satellites made by Loral or Hughes and launched by Chinese rockets.
       “You don’t hear the NSA complain about U.S. communications satellites being used by the Chinese government or military,” says Pike. “They want to keep the Chinese communications in space, in the air where we can intercept it. And having it on a U.S. satellite, about which we know everything, makes it even better.”
       
       Robert Windrem is an NBC News investigative producer.
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