In Misawa, Aomori Prefecture, near the northern tip of Japan, lies a sprawling US Air Force base, best known as the home to the 35th Fighter Wing and its squadron of F-16 jets. But Misawa is actually a more grandiose facility. The huge complex includes a host of installations in addition to the Air Force landing strip. In particular, some six kilometers north of the airstrip, there is a mysterious array of antennae and radar domes (or 'radomes'), a cornucopia of sophisticated surveillance equipment.
But surveillance for what? Officially, the large radar site is operated jointly by various sections of United States intelligence. On the official home page of Misawa Base, a host of units are listed -- all military units of one sort or another. There is an Army unit with some 700 personnel, an Air Force group with 900, a Navy unit with 700, and even a small Marine Corps detachment of 70. Somehow, though, with the Soviet Union having collapsed and the Chinese government doing all it can to ensure it can enter the WTO smoothly, it is difficult to believe that all that hardware is focused on the sole 'rogue nation' of the region; i.e., North Korea.
Intriguingly, among the intelligence groups that use Misawa base, there is at least one "unlisted" member. It is the US National Security Agency, headquartered in Fort Meade, near Washington DC. This body was relatively unknown until very recently. In 1986, however, it gained notoriety thanks to a young, soft-spoken lieutenant colonel named Oliver North, who made daily appearances on US national TV, explaining how he had lied to Congress, how he had sold weapons illegally to Iran, and how he had funneled the proceeds from these sales to the anti-government Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. Today, the NSA even has a home page, though the site only confirms its existence, as well as the fact that it is involved in "signals intelligence and communications security."
As it turns out, the NSA presence at Misawa may be crucial. There was a series of revelations in 1997 and 1998, primarily from Europe, that the NSA was operating a global intelligence network, called Project Echelon, with the goal of monitoring virtually all electronic communications - telephone, facsimile, satellite, or telephone - around the world. According to the so called STOA Report, issued by the European Commission, the core of this network is at Fort Meade, but there are stations peppered throughout the global U.S. alliance, with the largest station at a place called Menwith Hill, in Yorkshire, England.
The Echelon Project, part of a secret intelligence treaty called UKUSA (signed by the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), was built up during the Cold War, primarily for the purpose of intercepting signals from the Soviet camp. With the end of the Cold War, however, its role has apparently changed to surveillance of "terrorists," as well as economic intelligence.
This network also had a secondary function: to circumvent domestic privacy laws in the different countries. Many nations have laws protecting their own citizens from being spied on by their own intelligence agencies (for example, the CIA is legally prohibited from conducting domestic operations). But here lies the brilliance of the Echelon logic. If the US spies on Japanese citizens, and provides this information to the Japanese government, and the Japanese government spies on US citizens, again sharing this intelligence, then both sides can claim they are acting within the law. The Role of Japan Misawa clearly has a major role in this global intelligence network. During the Cold War years, it was generally believed that the huge radar site was primarily focused on the Soviet Union and North Korea, and it had the particular task of monitoring communications from three Soviet satellites (Richelson, p. 182).
In recent years, however, a more sinister mission has come to light. Part of the Echelon mission has come to include the monitoring of Japanese diplomatic cables, for example, as well as the communications between trading companies and their branches in other countries. The network has apparently been used to boost the American position in trade negotiations with Japan.
Of course, this puts Japan in an awkward spot. In some cases, it appears, the array was aimed not at the outside but rather at the inside of Japan. The array may, in fact, be a huge facility with the primary goal of intercepting messages - via radio waves, microwaves, even conventional telephone lines - inside Japan. It is rumored that agencies such as the NSA may have powerful software that allows them to listen in on telephone conversations, and then record those which contain certain keywords.
There has been virtually no debate in Japan about the existence of Project Echelon, let alone Japan's role in it. Since the release of the European report, there has been interest among privacy advocates, but this debate has yet to find its way to the floor of the National Diet. According to reports, Japan (along with South Korea, as well as Germany and Italy) has secretly signed the UKUSA treaty, and is now a part of the "undercover partnership."
But this is understandable. For Japan, Project Echelon may well be a double-edged sword. On one hand, there is the danger that it will be used against Japanese interests, as has happened in trade talks, as well as, very notably, the 1996 APEC conference held in Seattle. At that time, it was reported that the US had gone all-out to compile intelligence on the positions of other members of the group. But on the other hand, the system clearly allows Japan to gain information on countries around it - such as North Korea, or even groups within Japan - information that may well be seen as outweighing these risks.
In any case, it is a complex issue. The European Commission report saw great peril in this system, and recommended that, "The European Parliament should reject proposals from the United States for making private messages via the global communications network (Internet) accessible to US intelligence agencies."
Perhaps there is a lesson for Japan in this.
References Ogura Toshimaru, "Kanshi to Jiyu" (Surveillance and Freedom), in Gendai Shinso (Contemporary Thought), October 1999.
Jeffrey T. Richelson, The U.S. Intelligence Community, 4th Edition, Westview, 1999.
European Commission, Assessing the Technologies of Political Control, 1997.
"Spies like US," London Telegraph, December 16, 1997.
New Observer/Znet: Japan