Echelon: The Secret Power

If you phone, fax or email a friend to say "Let's go see 'Echeleon: The Secret Power,'" be advised, you'll doubtless end up on a list somewhere. Juicy, entertaining and densely informative doc demonstrates the extent to which private communications are illegally and constantly spied on by the title network. Sure to be a fest favorite.

If you phone, fax or email a friend to say “Let’s go see ‘Echeleon: The Secret Power,'” be advised, you’ll doubtless end up on a list somewhere. Juicy, entertaining and densely informative doc demonstrates the extent to which private communications are illegally and constantly spied on by the title network, which spans the globe, plumbs the ocean depths and beams into outer space and back. Visually and intellectually lively doc, designed to mimic an espionage thriller, is a riveting, spine-tingling account of five sneaky English-speaking nations working in collusion. Sure to be a fest favorite, “Echelon” should be snapped up by tube outlets hither and yon and beyond.

Shot split screen/widescreen in mock “surveillance camera” mode, pic piles on the revelations with matter of fact authority. Doc traces roots of comprehensive electronic surveillance to 1943, when the U.S. and Great Britain pacted to break Germany’s Enigma code, shortening WWII by as much as two years.

In 1946, to battle the new designated enemy — Communism — five nations sealed a deal for a secret alliance: UKUSA. Made up of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it’s still quasi-secret, and makes George Orwell’s version of Big Brother look as sophisticated as the output of a Pixelvision camera on a dim day.

In 1998, at the request of the European Parliament, U.K. investigative specialist Duncan Campbell authored a report called “The Listening Alliance,” establishing that a secret network — for years “bigger than the Internet” — using giant domes (called “radomes”), satellite dishes, satellites and networked supercomputers, intercepts, sifts through and analyzes millions of fax, land line, cell phone and email messages on land and at sea, literally around the globe. Campbell puts it thus: “There is no privacy.”

Choice talking heads are authoritative, eloquent and convincing in evoking Echelon, a system of breathtaking sophistication and near-omniscience that routinely eavesdrops on private communication.

In 1972, the Washington Post’s revelation of the Watergate scandal led to public outcry about covert surveillance. Operation Shamrock, begun in 1945, handled copies of every telegram in the U.S. for 30 years. Operation Minaret, started in 1967, monitored U.S. pacifists and civil rights protestors. Jane Fonda, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were targets for monitoring. Protests allegedly shut these systems down, but as NSA specialist James Buford asserts, Echelon stations simply took over.

The five founding members, of course, solemnly swore not to eavesdrop on their own citizens — but circumvent that by enlisting other members to do so.

With powers above and beyond their own respective governments, the information gathering which is supposedly aimed at suspected wrong-doers has been demonstrably perverted — according to docu — to give the U.S. a decisive edge in international business, taking aviation and electronics contracts from France, for example. The manner in which the U.S. Dept. of Commerce “advocacy center” uses spy info to help U.S. companies win contracts abroad — a program allegedly stepped up under Bill Clinton — is eye-opening.

Surveillance set-ups can be as basic as a single antenna or as complex as the operations in which entire floors of Echelon member embassies in Paris or Tokyo are given over to mostly illicit eavesdropping (witnesses in the know obligingly point to the windowless floors in question).

Doc overflows with real names and precise addresses. In a modest building at 8 Palmer St. in London, for example, every fax entering or leaving the U.K. was analyzed in the 1980s, according to information in the docu.

Ecehlon grows ever more powerful with next to no oversight. In the early 1970s the base on British soil in Cornwall had only two antennae. Now 21 dishes are aimed at over 21 satellites.

Easy to grasp 3-D diagrams show how simple it is to intercept various signals. Programs with titles like “Advanced Vortex” cull transmissions to and from pagers and mobile phones.

Semantic Intelligence is the term for scanning for spoken words. “Voicecast,” a form of personalized voice recognition, is credited with making the shooting of Emilio Escobar in 1993 possible.

Fred Stock, a Canadian agent from 1987-1993, testifies that he was instructed to listen in on the Red Cross, Greenpeace, Amnesty Intl. and — get this — Princess Diana when she began campaigning against landmines. The Queen of England, even the Pope–nobyd is impervious.Backed up by leading British and New Zealand investigative journalists and former security agents from the countries concerned, so overwhelming and smartly presented is doc’s thesis that by the time a former CIA head weighs in with a straight-faced rebuttal, he appears to have less credibility than a bag lady raving about little green men.

Echelon: The Secret Power


  • Production: A France 2, KUIV production. (International sales: SFP, Bry-sur-Marne, France.) Produced by Michael Rotman, Mahel Ranc. Directed, written by David Korn-Brzoza.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Claude Pavelek, Bjorn Kathofer, Bruno Henry, Christophe Petit, Korn-Brzoza; editor, Cecile Coolen; music, Francoise Marchesean; sound (Dolby), Robin Aramburu, Witold Kubeck. Reviewed at Gothenburg Film Festival, Sweden, Jan. 26, 2003. (Also in Amsterdam Documentary Festival.) Running time: 82 MIN. Narrator: Francois Devienne.