The ECHELON trail — Part Four: The Omega Foundation

By Steve Wright

(The first part in this series can be read here, second part here, third part here, and an introduction to the series here.)

The Omega Foundation

It was a long time before I could create the requisite networks of solidarity and understanding, moving to Manchester in 1981 to return to my roots after the riots of the summer when I published a full page article in the Guardian about the hard military policing style which was on the horizon. Oftentimes I felt like a sorcer’s apprentice but in 1984 I succeeded in my application to become Head of Manchester City Council’s Police Monitoring Unit. This provided a firm grounding in politics as ‘the art of the possible’ as well as providing ample opportunities to re-examine police accountability. It also brought me back into contact with Tony Bunyan who had been a central figure in the ABC Defence Committee and a solid source of insight and support during those difficult times. Tony was now the head of London’s Police Monitoring Committee with an awesome remit. He was and is a great teacher on how even small group in civil society can make a political change.

In 1989, after the demise of the Police monitoring initiatives in the UK as the leftwing Labour City Hall Council’s which had originally financed them, lost ground to the Labour political right, I went on to work a trusted friend to set up the Omega Foundation, to track the proliferation of military, police and security equipment to the torturing states.

Scientific And Technological Options Assessment (Stoa) And An Appraisal Of The Technology Of Political Control

In 1996, the Omega Foundation was commissioned by the European Parliament to write ‘An Appraisal of the Technologies of Political Control.’ Late in the day, I decided that maybe the time was right to raise the issue of the interception of communications. Duncan Campbell had returned to the subject in 19881 and recently that work had been extended by the New Zealander Nicky Hager in his book Secret Power.2 It was complete serendipity since I accidentally came across adverts for the book in Washington whilst visiting Terry Allen, then editor of Covert Action Quarterly.

It raised important issues about political control of a system which could technologically bypass any constitutional guarantees any state had protecting citizens from illegal surveillance. Its existence went beyond just privacy, a global network of surveillance which could target financial and political institutions was an instrument for political management: ubiquitous but invisible.

I also wanted to include new work on the FBI’s collusion with EC authorities to get more intimate access to European telecommunications for policing purposes. Tony Bunyan had hundreds of documents on this but in the winter of 1996 had yet to write them up. I inadvertently gate crashed the Statewatch staff Christmas party and in an expansive mood, Tony Bunyan agreed to publish his findings in the next issue of Statewatch. I could then quote his report as an authoritative source in the report I was writing for the European parliament’s Science & Technological Options Panel, which was deadlined for March 1997. However, it did not go to committee until December 1997 and would have been largely ignored had it not been for a Daily Telegraph article by Simon Davies which alerted the international media.


The section dealing with ECHELON in the STOA report only ran to a few pages. The paragraph which drew most attention concluded:

Within Europe, all email, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency, transferring all target information from the European mainland via the strategic hub of London, then by satellite to Fort Meade in Maryland via the crucial hub at Menwith Hill in the North York Moors of the UK. Unlike many of the electronic spy systems developed during the Cold War, ECHELON is designed for primarily non-military targets: governments, organisations and businesses in virtually every country. The ECHELON system works by indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communications then siphoning out what is valuable using artificial intelligence aids like Memex to find key words. Whilst there is much information gathered about potential terrorists, there is a lot of economic intelligence, notably intensive monitoring of all the countries participating in the GATT negotiations. With no system of accountability, it is difficult to discover what criteria determine who is not a target.

Nothing in the STOA report was new but its packaging in a formal report for the European Parliament led to a ‘tipping point’. Interest in ECHELON mushroomed and all the European Member States had parliamentary debates about it. In September 1998, I was asked to produce an edited study updating the earlier report and included calls for a series of new studies to determine the level and extent of ECHELON’s activities. Of these, Duncan Campbell’s Interception Capabilities 2000 was the most informative and helped to redefine our knowledge of the role, function and activities of ECHELON.3

These reports laid the foundation of the European Parliament’s temporary ECHELON Committee, which created some of the best most informed organised knowledge on the existence of ECHELON, its activities and limitations.4 Almost every serious newspaper in the world has now covered ECHELON. Why? Because one package of organised knowledge, put together in a serious format was able to catalyse subsequent interest. Nevertheless, that package in itself was the fruit of scores of other researchers’ activities, not least, the courageous Menwith Hill Women’s camp activists who gleaned much of the secret documentation on which Duncan Campbell based his studies. The documents were ‘liberated’ via the time honoured research methodology of ‘bin-ology’ – the illegal raiding of bins and plastic rubbish bags inside the base.


The moral of the ECHELON story is that a network of researchers can both model, reinterpret, understand and politically challenge even awesomely funded and politically sensitive surveillance organisations such as the NSA (although I might admit to having second thoughts if I had seen the Gene Hackman movie ‘Enemy of the State’ before I wrote the STOA report.) Even at that juncture, the early reception of the European Parliament was hostile in some quarters with questions about whether ECHELON even existed.

However, the STOA report contained detailed recommendations for further work on understanding new surveillance technologies and their political impact including the commissioning of new work on ECHELON. It was no coincidence that on my recommendation, the author of the key final document proving ECHELON’s role was Duncan Campbell, the original ECHELON researcher and ABC defendant. His report, to STOA, Interception Capabilities 2000 remains one of the clearest expositions on the way that ECHELON works as well as a healthy self-critique of some of the assumptions made including the capacity of the NSA to do continuous real time speech recognition, authentication and direct printout. There were limits but these were burgeoning new research areas too. These reports provoked an intense debate in the European Parliament and the setting up of a Temporary ECHELON Committee5 There is now a rich literature on ECHELON which stretches way beyond what any one researcher could have accomplished. The more important sites are available via Surveillance and Society home pages. How was that paradigm shift achieved? Essentially by a network of researchers working on a variety of different jigsaw puzzle pieces – with one researcher injecting these findings into an appropriate political arena, at the right time.

Has the debate continued? Well yes and no. Immediately after the terrorist attacks on New York in 2001, I requested the STOA committee investigate the political implications of the failure of ECHELON to pre-empt the attack on the basis that such a highly invasive intelligence set up could only justify its existence if it was a prophylactic entity preventing such atrocities before they happened. STOA did commission the report but to its own chosen think-tank. There was not going to be any deeply critical NGO questioning of the role and functioning of sensitive intelligence agencies this time.

After 9/11, the debate rumbles on and many are beginning to fear that in the future such collaborative research will be thwarted by bogus security requirements and restrictions. Research scholars have to take the long view, assemble their findings and grow the supportive networks necessary for sustaining their effective work in the future. To quote my former supervisor, Paul Smoker – every major change requires a happener – and if it has happened – it’s possible! It would be good to see these pages being used to explore the new role of ECHELON post 9/11. At a time when the newly joined former Eastern European states are being used for ‘rendering’ a.k.a. torturing political detainees, we might anticipate that ECHELON is being offered to many more policing and foreign intelligence agencies in the so called ‘War Against Terror’. It is fairly probable that new algorithms for tracking down friendship networks and associates have emerged, based on what could well be dodgy social science assumptions of ‘proximity equals collusion’. How can we locate the new ECHELON in the new world order? In the surveillance world, ECHELON and the NSA are the equivalent of the 900 lb gorilla. It is a challenge that future surveillance scholars will have to face.

1. Campbell, D. 1988 They’ve got it taped, New Statesman, 12 August.

2. Hager, N. (1996) Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network, Craig Potton Publishing, PO Box 555, Nelson, New Zealand.

3. See accessed December 2005

4. For the final report see accessed December 2005

5. A full copy of interception capability 2000 can be found at accessed December 2005


Campbell, D. (1988) They’ve got it taped, New Statesman, 12 August.

Hager, N. (1996) Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network Nelson, New Zealand: Craig Potton Publishing

Inglis, B. (1986) The Hidden Power London: Jonathon Cape Laurie, P. (1970) Beneath the City Streets, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Lawrence, B. (1977) Nasty Branch hit Bailrigg, Scan 1, 26 April: 1

Snow, C.P. (1959) The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wood, D. (2001) The Hidden Geography of Transnational Surveillance, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. [Accessed 01/12/05]

(This article originally appeared in Surveillance & Society 3 (2/3) and is republished here with the permission of the author.)

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