The Age
US accused of spying on its allies

By GEOFF KITNEY

Friday 25 February 2000


Berlin - Australia is being sucked into a row between the US and its European allies over claims that an American-controlled Cold War electronic spying network is being used for commercial espionage against European governments and companies.

The French Government has claimed that the satellite-linked network, which includes a ground station in Australia, is being used by the US, Britain and their "Anglo-Saxon" partners to eavesdrop on European telephone, fax and e-mail communications to obtain commercially sensitive information to gain an unfair advantage in winning contracts and developing products.

European intelligence sources backed the French claim, saying that the Western Australian ground station near Geraldton was a vital part of the network and "sucked up" vast amounts of commercially valuable electronic communications from about one-third of the Earth's surface.

The ground station is connected to the US eavesdropping satellite network established during the Cold War to listen to the Soviet Union's communications.

The Geraldton station monitors electronic communications throughout the region and is said to have played a vital role during the East Timor crisis, allowing Australia to monitor the Indonesian military.

But allegations were made in the French and European parliaments this week that the spy network, known as Echelon, has a leading role in commercial espionage. It was alleged that Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Canada all help the US in gathering commercial information.

The European Parliament has called for an inquiry into the charges of industrial espionage after receiving a report from the British journalist and writer on espionage issues, Duncan Campbell. He produced detailed allegations about the spy system and claims of specific business contracts lost because of illicitly obtained information.

A German conservative MP from the European Parliament said the spying activities had already cost European business more than $US20 billion in lost contracts.

Both the US and Britain have denied that the satellite system is being used for commercial spying. A US State Department statement reads: "US intelligence agencies are not tasked to engage in industrial espionage or obtain trade secrets for the benefit of any US company or companies."

But in his report, Campbell listed incidents in which he alleged the Echelon system was used to help US firms win commercial contracts. He said information gathered from eavesdropping had cost the French firm Thomson a radar contract in Brazil and had caused the European Airbus consortium to miss out on a $6 billion aircraft contract won by the Boeing Corporation of the US.

After presenting the report to the European Parliament's committee for justice and home affairs, Campbell urged the EU to protect against unwanted interception of communications, insisting eavesdropping violated human rights.

Mr Campbell alleged that national security agencies were using several major US corporations to aid their interception of data. He named Microsoft, IBM and a certain "large American microchip maker" as providing product features that allow the interception of information.

The French Justice Minister warned French businesses to be vigilant to the possibility of eavesdropping on sensitive commercial communications, saying they should never carry vital information.

A spokesman for the Australian Defence Minister, Mr John Moore, said the Government did not comment on intelligence matters.




Original article