The NSA’s secret ECHELON surveillance network keeps Americans out of harm’s way

Robert Morton
6 min readJul 3, 2022


Are Senators Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) missing something in their recent complaint about the CIA’s mass surveillance program, which they say amounts to illegal spying on Americans? Aren’t these two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee aware of the massive data collection program known as ECHELON that has been in operation for decades?

In 2012, I was amazed at the media blitz accusations that the FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) were spying on American cell phone usage, while the word ECHELON remained unspoken among politicians.

Today, the silence continues. By the time you finish reading this paragraph, ECHELON will have intercepted more than 70,000 phone calls, e-mails, and faxes across America. It exists inside the NSA…and I’m glad it does, for this global surveillance system has been effective in combating global terrorism.

After 9/11, both conservative and liberal politicians along the beltway have been in favor of the NSA and FBI (CIA is also involved) recording cell phone and computer usage among Americans. Of course, they never mentioned the word ECHELON, but rest assured, they all are aware of its existence and that it is the most pervasive global eavesdropping network in history. In the next few hours, ECHELON will capture three billion electronic communications, and many will be from Americans.

To demonstrate how this vast surveillance system works, I write of a not-so “fictional” account, in the Corey Pearson- CIA Spymaster spy-thriller series, of a woman named “Stacey”, who works inside NSA’s ECHELON surveillance system.

To many within the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), the near future is impossible to accurately predict since the nature of global terrorism, and now domestic terrorism, has grown so capricious.

But Stacey uses ECHELON’s preemptive capabilites to gain insight into future threats to America. Maybe, that is why politicians like Senators Ron Wyden and Heinrich focus so narrowly on the media hoopla surrounding the CIA’s mass surveillance activity. I call it a “bait and switch” tactic, so they can keep hidden from the American people the larger, more pervasive network run by the NSA.

I support their tactic, for ECHELON provides the West with covert power shaping abilities that keep us out of harm’s way. OK, now I’ll shut up…enjoy my not-so-fictional snippet about Stacey, from the Corey Pearson-CIA Spymaster series:

Snippet: Stacey walked into security clearance at the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Md. She differed from the thousands of other highly trained and indoctrinated ECHELON signals intelligence analysts. Immediately, she logged onto her computer terminal and entered a personal code. Her assignment was to hunt down a terrorist, codenamed “radical archer.”

Britain’s MI6 and MI5 learned that he purchased shoulder-firing missiles that were stolen from a British army unit outside London. British and American intelligence kept their knowledge hush-hush, and the citizens of both countries had no idea that these deadly missiles were in the hands of terrorists.

“Radical archer” led the terrorist group, and he reportedly had many friends in Tunisia, including black market arms dealers. If knowledge is power, Stacey was about to become the most powerful person in the world. She revved up a mighty program codenamed “Dictionary” and tapped in 4-digit codes for the Tunis, Tunisia locale. People’s names and subject headings; and Internet addresses, telex, cell phone, and fax numbers used by individuals, businesses, government offices and private organizations associated with “radical archer” popped up. She pressed ENTER and connected to a synergistic, global interception and relay espionage system that deftly pries into private and commercial communications.

Stacey’s confidential Dictionary program stores the Dictionary lists of other ECHELON agencies from around the world. So, if she intercepts a keyword listed on Britain’s Dictionary, her computer will pick out and record the intercept, and send it to Britain’s spy headquarters, and vice versa.

Ground stations in the U.S., UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and in other nameless locations place their interception systems at each other’s disposal. Using this worldwide network of massive ground-based radio antennae, Stacey effortlessly infiltrated the group of Intel satellites encircling the earth used by telephone companies as well, enabling Stacey to pry into maritime communications off the Tunisian coast.

Other keywords she entered into ECHELON’s Dictionary sifted through millions of simultaneous phone calls, fax, and 90% of the world’s private e-mail addresses, filtering out information that could lead to the whereabouts of “radical archer.”

Stacey tapped in other ground station codes, gaining access to Russian, Indonesian, and Latin American satellites. Amazingly, she also was able to intercept thousands of phone calls to and from Tunisia that were transported by cable under the Mediterranean Sea. Navy Seals secretly installed intercept devices on the cables 300 feet down.

Any one and anything that America’s intelligence community is concerned about can be targeted by ECHELON. There is no medium of transporting information that cannot be listened to by Stacey. She operates in a legislation-free environment, above the law, and can effortlessly invade family businesses and personal civilian privacy. She’s accountable to no one. Her name, position, and salary remain nameless and traceless, and her funding resources are buried deep within the Pentagon’s procurement budget and hide in the stock market under a street name account held by the CIA.

Suddenly, a red light glowed, signaling a “hit” from the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia where the CIA secretly installed sophisticated microwave receivers and processors. A phone call was intercepted from a hotel in la Goulette, a seaside town on the Mediterranean Sea outside Tunis. Her computer automatically printed out the complete, two-way phone conversation in English translation.

Then, another hit! Stacey’s heartbeat quickened. Dictionary keywords snatched information from an innocent-looking, red brick building at 8 Palmer Street in downtown London, England. Every telex passing in and out of London is intercepted by ECHELON computers operating within the walls of this charming, petite building with Daisy-filled window boxes.

Stacey alerted her station chief, who analyzed the intercepts, and a half hour later, halfway around the world, a dozen armed men from the CIA’s Operations Division accompanied the local CIA station chief into the lobby of an unknown hotel in la Goulette, Tunisia.

Unfortunately for “radical archer,” he made a poor decision by visiting the hotel…they got him! He underestimated the real time, instant communication between ELINT and HUMINT technologies that ECHELON provides.

Stacey stared at her computer screen and breathed a sigh of relief when the ordeal was over. She wiped the sweat from her brow, arose from the Echelon and Dictionary program computers and walked into a secure lounge in the bowels of the NSA. She poured herself a cup of coffee and watched the TV screens. CNN, FOX and MSNBC broadcast “Breaking News!” that announced the capture of the terrorist, but with vague details- no word of the happenings in Tunis, Tunisia was mentioned.

She sipped coffee and watched the shallow coverage of what happened and thought about the events that the American public would never learn of. She also knew the Department of Homeland Security would shortly release a well-vetted and sanitized press release, to protect the Intelligence Community’s sources and methods… and to keep the word ECHELON from being mentioned.

Stacey contemplated her role in the scheme things and the super-secret work she does… ECHELON’s worldwide capabilities to spy on everyone’s computers, cell phones, faxes…whatever travels through the airways are swept up like dust off a carpet by a powerful vacuum cleaner. She wondered if the technology could, or would, someday be used for immoral purposes.

Oh well, plenty of “what if’s”, she thought. With the proliferation of WMD’s, the growth of domestic terrorism inside America, and the vulnerability of our wide-open society, ECHELON may be Democracy’s only hope.

Stacey felt pleased at the thought of how many lives may have been saved by her today. There are some things the public does not need to know.

End of Snippet.

I understand why Senators Wyden and Heinrich are raising concerns that the CIA is spying on unwitting Americans, but compared to ECHELON, it’s a paltry affair.

Robert Morton is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) and enjoys writing about the U.S. Intelligence Community. He authors the Corey Pearson- CIA Spymaster series. Check out his latest spy thriller: MISSION OF VENGEANCE.



Robert Morton

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