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Signals intelligence from 1990 to the present

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As the Cold War ended, signals intelligence (SIGINT) agencies worldwide refocused on regional and nonstate concerns.


Non-national concerns

Terrorism from foreign groups became an increasingly major concern, as with the 1992 al-Qaeda attack in Yemen, the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center, 1995 (Saudi communications center) and 1996 (Khobar Towers) in Saudi Arabia, and the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. Third world and non-national groups, with modern communications technology, in many ways are a harder SIGINT target than a nation, such as Russia or China, that sends out large amounts of traffic. According to the retired Commandant of the US Marines, Alfred M. Gray, Jr., some of the significant concerns of these targets are:

  • Inherently low probability of intercept/detection (LPI/LPD) because off-the-shelf radios can be frequency agile, spread spectrum, and transmit in bursts.
  • Additional frequencies, not normally monitored, can be used. These include citizens band, marine (MF, HF, VHF) bands, and higher frequencies for short-range communications
  • Extensive use of telephones, almost always digital. Cellular and satellite telephones, while wireless, are challenging to intercept, as is Voice over IP (VoIP)
  • Commercial strong encryption for voice and data
  • "Extremely wide variety and complexity of potential targets, creating a "needle in the haystack" problem" [1]


While Helios was IMINT, not SIGINT, it helped put perspective on program costs. Helios 1A was launched on 7 July 1995 [2]. The Cerise SIGINT technology demonstrator also was launched in 1995; it is not clear if it was on the Helios 1 launch. A radio propagation experiment, S80-T, was launched in 1992, as a predecessor of the ELINT experiments.

Financial pressures in 1994-1995 caused France to seek Spanish and Italian cooperation for Helios 1 and German contributions to HELIOS 2.[3] HELIOS 2A was launched in 2004. France, still desiring to have three different space-based intelligence systems (IMINT, radar surveillance, SIGINT), had to face extremely high costs. In 1994-1995, French legislators tried to reduce some of these plans. In response, the French government sought Italian and Spanish funding in, and cooperation with, the HELIOS 1 program. They also sought German involvement in Helios 2. The HELIOS 2A launch also was accompanied by a small constellation of ELINT satellites.

The Cerise ELINT technology demonstrator, also launched in 1995, was damaged by a collision with another French payload, SPOT-1, in the following year.

Clementine, the second-generation ELINT technology demonstrator, was launched in 1999.

United Kingdom

Controversy arose over alleged British interception of communications to Ireland from a facility called the Ministry of Defence Electronic Test Facility in a British Nuclear Fuels Limited site at Capenhurst, Cheshire. This facility was in the line of microwave towers from the UK-Ireland 1 cable (Dublin to Anglesey) landing to BT in London. Besides the Capenhurst tower, communications to and from the Irish Republic were also intercepted at a similar smaller GCHQ station in County Armagh was said to target links between Dublin and Belfast, and a third station intercepted satellite communications in Cornwall [4]. Irish politicians, led by former Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, demanded an investigation.


Prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was no single agency concerned solely with the technical matters under the jurisdiction of the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) or U.S. National Security Agency. Instead, the functions were part of the much larger KGB. Inside the KGB, there were the Eighth Chief Directorate (Encoding), Sixteenth Directorate (Decoding and Radio Interception Service), and the Government Communications Directorate of the USSR KGB.

Russia formed a new agency, responsible for information assurance and signals intelligence, originally called the Federal Agency for Government Communications & Information (FAPSI), by a Presidential decree on February 19, 1993. FAPSI replaced the Administration of Information Resources (AIR) in the Ofice of the Russian President. [5] Its responsibilities were more diverse than those of NSA or GCHQ, which design communications security systems and provide keying material. FAPSI also operated government secure communications, There is no government-wide agency that does this in the West, but a parallel would be combining NSA with the Defense Information Systems Agency and the National Communications System.

Even further, FAPSI provided commercial secure communications, leasing radio frequency bands and government communications lines to both domestic and foreign companies. It created Simaco and Roskomtekh companies were headed by Valeriy Monastyretskiy, who was appointed chief of the FAPSI Financial and Economic Administration in March 1994.[6] If there is a parallel in the U.S., it might be In-Q-Tel, the venture capital firm established by the CIA.

Monastyretskiy was arrested on April 12, 1996, on charges of of misappropriating property and abuse of position. The FSB also alleged that began working for the German BND intelligence service not long before his arrest. He countercharged that another quasi-government organization, the Main Protection Administration (GUO) had installed, in Russian government offices, equipment from CIA-associated companies. [7]

A 1996 reorganization of GUO apparently resulted in returning the facilities of the Government Communications Administration to FAPSI control.


As evidenced by the #Hainan Island incident, even while China and the US may cooperate on matters of mutual concern towards Russia, the Cold War has not completely disappeared.

There was more regional cooperation, often driven by concerns about transnational terrorism. European countries also are finding that by sharing the cost, they can acquire SIGINT, IMINT, and MASINT capabilities independent of the US.

In the US, both communications security and COMINT policies have been evolving, some with challenges. The adoption of a Belgian-developed encryption algorithm, approved in a public process, and accepted both for sensitive but unclassified traffic, as well as for classified information sent with NSA-generated and maintained keys, redraws the cryptologic environment as no longer NSA or not-NSA. Controversy continues on various types of COMINT justified as not requiring warrants, under the wartime authority of the President of the United States.

Technologically, there was much greater use of UAVs as SIGINT collection platforms.

China: Hainan Island incident

In 2001, a US EP-3 SIGINT aircraft had a midair collision with a shadowing Chinese fighter, in what has become known as the Hainan Island incident. Both sides blamed the other, although the US claimed the aircraft was in international airspace, a reasonable assumption given the amount of navigational instrumentation it carries. The fighter pilot died, and the EP-3 made an emergency landing in China, erasing as much sensitive information as possible. While the Chinese did not release the aircraft for several months, the crew having been released earlier, the most sensitive information was not so much the aircraft's instrumentation, but the signals it was targeting and the reference material about the Chinese "electronic order of battle".

European Space Systems cooperation

French initiatives, along with French and Russian satellite launching, have led to cooperative continental European arrangements for intelligence sensors in space. In contrast, the UK has reinforced cooperation under the UKUSA agreement.

French space-based intelligence

On 18 December 2004,[8] HELIOS 2A, built by EADS-Astrium for the French Space Agency (CNES), was launched into a Sun-synchronous polar orbit at an altitude of about 680 kilometers. There it will serve the French defense ministry, as well as cooperating European countries. HELIOS 2B is scheduled for launch in 2008.

The same launcher carried French and Spanish scientific satellites and four Essaim ("Swarm") experimental ELINT satellites[9] [10].

Sources in the French procurement agency, DGA, confirmed Essaim, a system of ground station and satellite constellation, is working well. [11]. There have been French defense complaints about Essaim being a third technology demonstrator, after the 1995 Cerise and 1999 Clementine. DGA countered that Essaim will demonstrate more advanced technology, important to convince other European governments to help with the cost. Essaim is to provide some operational data. The first of three ground stations is operational, with three satellites in operation and the fourth considered an in-orbit spare.

In a Ministère de la Défense 12/18/2004 statement, France announced [12] that Helios 2A is part of an exchange program planned with the German SAR Lupe and Italian COSMO-SKYMED systems, under development respectively in Germany and Italy.

German Space Systems

Following the first successful launch on 19 December 2006, Germany, using a Russian booster, launched the second satellite in its planned five-satellite SAR Lupe synthetic aperture radar constellation on [13].

SAR is usually considered a MASINT sensor, but the significance here is that Germany obtains access to French satellite ELINT.

Italian Space Systems

With the first satellite launched on 8 June 2007,[14]Italy and France are cooperating on the deployment of the dual-use Orfeo civilian and military satellite system[15].

Orfeo is a dual-use (civilian and military) earth observation satellite network developed jointly between France and Italy. Italy is developing the Cosmo-Skymed X-band polarimetric SAR, to fly on two of the satellites. The other two will have complementary French electro-optical payloads. The second Orfeo is scheduled to launch in early 2008.

While this is not an explicit SIGINT system, the French-Italian cooperation may suggest that Italy can get data from the French Essaim ELINT microsatellites.

United States

The 9-11 attacks and counterterrorist response, as well as the Iraq War, were the formative events. At the same time that NSA was engaging in undefined domestic surveillance, it was also accepted that there was comparable communications security expertise outside the government.

Terrorism and response in the US

As a result of the 9/11 attacks, intensification of US intelligence efforts, domestic and foreign, were to be expected. A key question, of course, was whether US intelligence could have prevented or mitigated the attacks, and how it might prevent future attacks. It should be noncontroversial that there will be a delicate balance of intelligence and civil liberties issues.

SIGINT and the 9/11 attacks

In a statement to a joint meeting of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, NSA Director LTG Michael Hayden said "NSA had no SIGINT suggesting that al-Qa'ida was specifically targeting New York and Washington, D.C., or even that it was planning an attack on U.S. soil. Indeed, NSA had no knowledge before September 11 that any of the attackers were in the United States....

"We are digging out of a deep hole. NSA downsized about one-third of its manpower and about the same proportion of its budget in the decade of the 1990s. That is the same decade when packetized communications (the e-communications we have all become familiar with) surpassed traditional communications. That is the same decade when mobile cell phones increased from 16 million to 741 million an increase of nearly 50 times. That is the same decade when Internet users went from about 4 million to 361 million an increase of over 90 times. Half as many landlines were laid in the last six years of the 1990s as in the whole previous history of the world. In that same decade of the 1990s, international telephone traffic went from 38 billion minutes to over 100 billion. This year, the world's population will spend over 180 billion minutes on the phone in international calls alone.

"throughout the summer of 2001 we had more than 30 warnings that something was imminent. We dutifully reported these, yet none of these subsequently correlated with terrorist attacks. The concept of "imminent" to our adversaries is relative; it can mean soon or imply sometime in the future"[16]

US domestic surveillance issues

Under the George W. Bush administration, there has been a large-scale and controversial capture and analysis of domestic and international telephone calls, claimed to be targeted against terrorism. It is generally accepted that warrants have not been obtained for this activity, sometimes called Room 641A after a location, in San Francisco, where AT&T provides NSA access. While very little is known about this system, it may be focused more on the Signaling System 7 call control channel and Call detail records than the actual content of conversations.

Another possibility is the use of software tools that do high-performance deep packet inspection. According to the marketing VP of Narus, "Narus has little control over how its products are used after they're sold. For example, although its lawful-intercept application has a sophisticated system for making sure the surveillance complies with the terms of a warrant, it's up to the operator whether to type those terms into the system...

"That legal eavesdropping application was launched in February 2005, well after whistle-blower Klein allegedly learned that AT&T was installing Narus boxes in secure, NSA-controlled rooms in switching centers around the country. But that doesn't mean the government couldn't write its own code to do the dirty work. Narus even offers software-development kits to customers ".[17] The same type of tools with legitimate ISP security applications also have COMINT interception and analysis capability.

Former AT&T technician Mark Klein, who revealed AT&T was giving NSA access, said in a statement, said a Narus STA 6400 was in the NSA room to which AT&T allegedly copied traffic. The Narus device was "known to be used particularly by government intelligence agencies because of its ability to sift through large amounts of data looking for preprogrammed targets."[17]

SIGINT in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere

In such programs as the restructuring of the United States Army, it became much more routine to mention SIGINT capabilities down to Army brigade level.

Acceptance of cryptologic expertise outside NSA

The US government withdrew the last approvals for the Data Encryption Standard, approved for unclassified use in 1976 but now considered quite vulnerable. Its replacement, the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) was approved in 2002. AES, when used with NSA-supplied keys, is approved for TOP SECRET traffic as well as unclassified, and may be considered a reference point for strong commercial encryption. AES appears, at the present time, to be secure when used properly, which represents a major change in US policy about the availability of strong communications security. Not all governments will allow the use of such strong ciphers.

That the algorithm chosen came from Europe points to a more multilateral world with respect to communications security. AES was developed by two Belgian cryptographers, Joan Daemen and Vincent Rijmen, and submitted to the AES selection process under the name "Rijndael", a portmanteau of the names of the inventors.


On March 11, 2003, FAPSI was renamed the Special Communications and Information Service. [18]. Putin also abolished the Federal Tax Police and Border Guards, and incorporated them int the Federal Security Service (FSB). Subsequently, on August 11th, 2003 Presidential Decree integrated the Special Communications and Information Service into the FSB. [7]Again, the information assurance and SIGINT functions were subordinated, this time to the Russian domestic security organization.

That the agency works domestically and internationally appears to differentiate it from the Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and United States models.


  1. Alfred M. Gray, Jr. (Winter 1989- 1990). "Global Intelligence Challenges in the 1990s". American Intelligence Journal: 37-41.
  2. Federation of American Scientists, Helios, FAS Helios
  3. Mark Urban, UK Eyes Alpha: the Inside Story of British Intelligence. Chapter 5: Zircon, Urban 1996
  4. Campbell, Duncan; Paul Lashmar (16 July 1999). "How Britain Eavesdropped on Dublin". American Intelligence Journal. Campbell 1999.
  5. Globalsecurity, Special Communications and Information Service/Federal Agency for Government Communications & Information (FAPSI)/Federal'naya Agenstvo Pravitel'stvennoy Svayazi i Informatsii
  6. Globalsecurity, FAPSI Operations
  7. 7.0 7.1 Federation of American Scientists, FAPSI Operations
  8. Tariq Malik (18 December 2004), Ariane 5 Successfully Orbits France's Helios 2A Satellite
  9. Jonathan McDowell, Jonathan's Space Report No. 541: Helios 2, McDowell 2004
  10. Space Daily (3 July 2005), "ESSAIM, Micro-Satellites In Formation", Space Daily, ESSAIM 2005
  11. Peter B. de Selding (21 March 2005), "ESSAIM, Micro-Satellites In Formation", Space News Business Report, de Selding 2005
  12. Office of Science and Technology, French Embassy in the US (18 December 2004 [Ministère de la Défense 12/18/2004, AFP 12/18/2004]), "HELIOS IIA: A New Boost for European Defence", Space News Business Report, France 2004
  13. Space War (3 July 2007), "Successful Launch Second German Sar-Lupe Observation Satellite", Space War, Space War 2007
  14. William Atkins (9 June 2007), "Italian COSMO-SkyMed satellite launched to study world’s weather", ITwire, Atkins 2007
  15. (19 October 2007), Successful Launch Second German Sar-Lupe Observation Satellite, Deagel 2007
  16. Joint Hearings of the US House and Senate Intelligence Committees (17 October 2002), Statement of LTG Michael V. Hayden, Director, National Security Agency
  17. 17.0 17.1 Singel, Ryan (4 July 2006), "Whistle-Blower Outs NSA Spy Room", Wired, ATTWired
  18. "Putin makes sweeping changes to power structures",, March 11, 2003