- Bob Leonard
from Peace Researcher 23, June 2001
Mike Frost, the primary author of “Spyworld” is coming to New Zealand in October 2001 for a two-week speaking tour. His book is not brand new, but it’s loaded with fascinating detail about electronic spying and is entertaining reading. A question often asked of ABC is why we are going to all this effort to bring an ex-spy, and an old one at that (he hasn’t actively spied since about 1990), all the way from retirement in Canada. Well, he’s not exactly retired – he just shifted from being a spy to telling about it, in detail, and why he chose to talk. In addition to reviewing the book, this article may clarify why we at ABC Central think a personal visit by Frost will be a unique and valuable experience for New Zealanders.
Mike Frost is not the first spy to spill the beans. McGehee, Agee, Wright, and Tomlinson are some of the more notable spies to have had pangs of conscience and gone public about their secret lives in recent years. But Frost’s is the only firsthand account (to our knowledge) of the inner workings of America’s National Security Agency (NSA) and its Canadian sibling agency just over the border, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). Frost was an employee of the CSE for 19 years and spent plenty of time at NSA as well in training and liaison.
Some background is helpful: there are three other sibling agencies, Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) and New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). Collectively, these five clubs operate the spy establishments organised since 1948 under the UKUSA agreement. GCSB spies have talked extensively (and anonymously) to Nicky Hager, revealing the vast amount of information incorporated in Nicky’s groundbreaking book “Secret Power”, published in 1996. But that still makes Nicky a “secondhand” reporter. Mike Frost is a firsthand reporter, and thus able to tell us about NSA-style spying with unique credibility. We are very fortunate he is willing to travel all this way to tell his story to New Zealanders. But it is important to recognise that he was never involved directly in the kind of satellite signals-interception that is done at Waihopai. Tangimoana is actually more up his alley; he is an expert on radio frequency interception. But he was directly involved in the use of some of the earliest “Oratory” computer systems developed by NSA for sifting through intercepted telephone calls for key words. Automated signals selection is at the heart of NSA’s “Echelon” system and the “Dictionary” operating at Waihopai.
“Spyworld” is a rich and readable account of Frost’s years with CSE and some of his early military-intelligence adventures with the Canadian Navy. This is an “as told to” book, not my favourite mode of storytelling. I would much rather Frost had written of his adventures and technical and moral challenges in the spy business in his own words, however awkwardly that might have been. But second author, Michel Gratton, an experienced columnist and former press secretary to a Canadian Prime Minister, was drafted to spice up the writing and make the book more marketable. This device does work well in much of the book, although some of the writing is unnecessarily melodramatic.
The intense and morally dubious life of a spy takes its toll on the personal lives of many in the business. Frost paid the price with alcoholism and the near destruction of his marriage. One way to recover, as this book clearly shows, is to regain control of your life and to question your actions as a spy – not an easy task when you’ve devoted your professional life to secrecy, including total exclusion of your family from the realities of your work. The key may have been Frost’s wife Carole, who stood by him through it all, and played a major role in his recovery. Mike Frost did believe in his work, and he still believes spying is an essential role of government in protecting a sovereign nation from the bad guys. But spying leads to excesses and it is here that Frost’s revelations are revealing and alarming.
Frost’s earliest spying was with the Canadian Navy doing radio signals interception in the remote reaches of the Canadian Arctic. The Soviets were the target and a spy in the 1960s could certainly believe fervently in his job, hate the Russians, and survive months of isolation from family and civilisation. Frost’s technical competence led to a rapid rise in responsibility and challenge. His first training session at the NSA in Fort Meade, Maryland, was in 1971, shortly after he moved from the Navy to employment in the CSE. The Canadian spy agency had existed since 1948 but was about to greatly expand its activities: NSA’s intimate paternal relationship with CSE was central to this expansion by providing CSE staff with training, advice and counsel, and high-tech equipment (on loan for indefinite periods). NSA ran the show and still does. And Mike Frost was a key player in the earliest days of CSE’s developing competency and global reach in spying. A big part of his work was “embassy-collection”. The US had long been involved in embassy -collection by the time the fledgling CSE and Mike Frost were recruited by NSA to become involved.
It was in the development and testing of signals interception equipment that Frost developed pangs of conscience about what he and his mates were doing. “It was one thing to be fooling the ‘enemy’. It was quite an eerie feeling, though, to be listening in on so many conversations between fellow Canadians. Being rabidly patriotic, he felt it was wrong. He saw the incredible potential for abuse in the power they held, and he didn’t like it”. This was “domestic” spying and Frost was uncomfortable with it.
The CSE expanded its international embassy-collection into several countries including some in Africa. The operation was code-named Pilgrim, after Frost’s sailboat. The Oratory system, developed at NSA’s technical development centre in College Park, Maryland, was incorporated into CSE’s embassy-collection capabilities. “Mike Frost couldn’t say enough about ‘Oratory’ or the [NSA] engineers who created it. Because for CSE, it was truly a godsend”. Frost reports that “’Oratory’ captured many communications between France and Ottawa relating to the question of separation…. When it comes to the CSE, the ultimate authority is the Prime Minister. In this case it was Pierre Trudeau, the separatists’ nemesis”. A CSE station in West Africa was very likely used to make the Ottawa-France intercepts.
In 1983, CSE was asked to spy for GCHQ at the behest of Margaret Thatcher. “…it seems as if Margaret Thatcher [then British Prime Minister] thinks two of the ministers in her cabinet are not ‘on-side’… She wants to find out if they are”. CSE carried out the intercepts: “We never stopped to question the morality of doing what amounted to dirty tricks for a partisan politician, for her very personal reasons, in a foreign land. After all, we weren’t spying on Canadians…that time anyway”.
Another quote from Frost is highly relevant to ABC’s repeated allegations that our GCSB engages in domestic spying on New Zealanders: “The moral issue was raised, says Frost. We listened so routinely to private conversations we were not supposed to hear that I guess we had become immune to that kind of soul-searching. The other prime reason for going ahead eagerly was the total lack of danger. Who was going to catch us? The guys who did the catching were the ones asking us to do it”.
Embassy collection even involves the Americans spying on the Canadians. In his many trips to College Park for NSA briefing, Frost learned of techniques for disguising antennas on the roofs of embassies. He and his colleagues quickly concluded that Canada was not immune to NSA spying. “The Americans don’t care who they commit espionage against, on the principle that they may get something that’s useful to their country. They routinely collect foreign intelligence against everybody”.
Spying from embassies on host countries does have one security advantage for the spying country that Echelon-type spying does not: “…they [Ottawa] would never send ‘Pilgrim’ material directly to NSA without analysing it first”. The intelligence gathered in a foreign embassy does not go down an automated “pipeline” to NSA as does the satellite interception intelligence gathered at Waihopai and its sibling stations.
“Spyworld” reveals much. But Mike Frost seems to have got away with it relatively unscathed in comparison to some of his counterparts like Philip Agee and Richard Tomlinson. He says he is harassed in various subtle and non-so-subtle ways – reminders that CSE and NSA would rather he would keep his mouth shut. But over ten years after his “retirement” he will travel to NZ for the first time to tell New Zealanders what our UKUSA partners have been up to for decades. Waihopai and our very own GCSB are an integral part of an international spy network, now extensively automated and beyond local control, and with the same operational freedom to spy on “everybody” as described by Frost. Our Government’s recent glossy publication, “Securing our Nation’s Safety”, admits “…it does not answer the operational, or ‘how’, questions”. Frost answers many of those questions in his book and tells how feeble and ineffectual is the so-called oversight of spying. The potential for abuse is immense and uncontrollable.
Mike Frost will not be here to tell us to close Waihopai. But maybe we’ll learn enough from him about how the spies operate to make that decision for ourselves.