US confirms electronic spy networkBy PHILIP SHERWELL AND DAVID WASTELL
Monday 14 February 2000
Newly declassified American documents last week provided the first official confirmation of a global electronic eavesdropping operation involving five English-speaking nations including Australia.
The Echelon surveillance system - run by the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - is reportedly capable of monitoring telephone, fax and e-mail communications relayed by satellite anywhere in the world.
The US-dominated network is a legacy of the Cold War. But there are allegations in West European nations that Echelon is being abused by US espionage chiefs to spy on individuals and to pass on commercial secrets to American businesses.
In Asia, the US allegedly used information gathered from its bases in Australia to win a half share of a significant Indonesian trade contract for AT
T that communication intercepts showed was initially going to NRC of Japan. This was revealed on Australian television last year by Wayne Madsen, a former agent working for America's National Security Agency.
Britain's role in the network has come under fierce fire as it is the only European member of the UK/USA alliance that operates the system. Canada, Australia and New Zealand subsequently joined the grouping that London formed with America in 1947 to pool security information.
The sprawling Menwith Hill listening station in North Yorkshire is the most important international site for the National Security Agency, the lead player in Echelon.
A new report on Echelon's electronic surveillance, commissioned by the European Parliament, will fuel the row when the Parliament debates its findings next week.
The document lists high-profile cases in which American companies allegedly won contracts heading for European firms after NSA intercepts. The Airbus consortium and Thomson CSF of France were among the reported losers.
A lawsuit against the US and Britain is being launched in France; judicial and parliamentary investigations have begun in Italy; and German parliamentarians have demanded an inquiry.
In the US, a Congressional investigation into the Echelon system starts this year amid concerns over possible privacy violations.
A spokesman for the government reform committee said: "American people not only have the right to privacy; they have the right to know about it if their privacy is infringed."
But there are plenty in Washington who believe NSA is simply doing its duty, and say that European secret services pursue the same policy. One congressional insider said: "The French are like whining babies. They always seem to find a reason for any of their failures."
Although a 1996 book by a New Zealand whistleblower and an earlier 1997 report to the European Parliament disclosed the existence of Echelon, there had been no official confirmation in Britain or America until declassified US Defence Department papers were posted on the Internet last week.
The first reference to Echelon came in a 1991 document relating to military Sigint (signals intelligence) units at Sugar Grove in West Virginia. Despite the release, the NSA continued to refuse to confirm or deny Echelon's existence.
The report is to be presented to the European Parliament's civil liberties committee on 22 February.