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In The New 'Free Iraq': Listening Devices Installed Around Baghdad

St. Louis Post-Dispatch | July 21 2004

Attention Iraqi cell-phone users: Your calls soon will be forwarded to Big Brother.

A unit of Engineered Support Systems Inc. said Tuesday that it has landed a $31 million contract to help install a big listening post in and around Baghdad to help Iraqi police and U.S. intelligence agents monitor cell-phone traffic. The surveillance network will be able to track 360 cell-phone calls at once, said David R. Gust, president of Tamsco of Calverton, Md., a subsidiary of Cool Valley-based Engineered Support.

The project has taken on a sense of urgency as U.S. intelligence agencies work to foil the coordinated bombing attacks by Iraqi insurgents. In a region torn by war, cell phones are becoming a primary source of telecommunication for Iraqis because there is a dearth of reliable land-based fiber-optic cable and copper-wire systems.

Dubbed "Legal Intercept," the Pentagon-funded project calls for the installation of passive listening devices in Mosul, Basra, Baghdad International Airport and downtown Baghdad, Gust said.

"This network will be able to track and intercept local cell-phone calls by Iraqis," he added. "Our job is to install the hardware and provide the maintenance. Usually we're in the communications business. This (project) is the anti-communications business."

The contract runs through Dec. 31, 2005.

Engineered Support bought Tamsco, or Technical Management and Services Corp., last year for $69.4 million in cash. The unit's primary customer is the U.S. Defense Department.

Some Wall Street analysts say they expect Engineered Support to boost its financial targets again this year because of the Pentagon's increasing demand for the company's personnel and support equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gust said his employees do the grunt work to make sure telecommunications systems work for U.S. forces.

"They're the ones that crawl around and get sweaty and dirty," he said. "I feel this (cell phone surveillance) project is on a fast track because I didn't know about it until early June."

Tamsco employs 115 people in Iraq and Kuwait who mostly take care of the U.S. Army's satellite connections back to the United States. The data and voice signal feeds are an essential form of communication between ground troops and U.S.-based command operations, Gust said.

"We're kind of like the local telephone company for the army in the logistics area," Gust said.

The cell phone traffic will be monitored at the Iraqi Law Enforcement Technical Center in Baghdad. The Tamsco contract calls for installing the eavesdropping equipment in small, modular buildings.

Iraq's leading cell-phone service carriers are Atheer, a Saudi Arabia-based company, Iraqna and Asiacell. Iraq began issuing licenses last year. Mobile handsets in Iraq are expected to overtake fixed lines by next year, according to industry experts who spoke earlier this year at the Iraqi session of the 6th Arab Telecom and Internet Forum.