London Times
French to sue US and Britain over network of spies

ADAM SAGE

February 10 2000


The British and US Governments are to be sued in France after claims that they have spied on French companies, diplomats and Cabinet ministers. Lawyers are planning a class action after confirmation last week that a global anglophone spy network exists.

Codenamed P-415 Echelon, the world's most powerful electronic spy system was revealed in declassified US National Security Agency documents published on the Internet, and is capable of intercepting telephone conversations, faxes and e-mails.

The system was established in the 1980s by the UKUSA alliance, which unites the British, American, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian secret services. In Europe, its listening devices are at Menwith Hill defence base in Yorkshire. French MPs claim to have evidence that the European Airbus consortium lost a Fr35 billion (£3.5 billion) contract in 1995 after its offer was overheard and passed to Boeing. Georges Sarre, a left-wing MP, said: "The participation of the United Kingdom in spying on its European partners for and with the US raises serious and legitimate concerns in that it creates a particularly acute conflict of interest within the European Union."

The European Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee will study a report on the Echelon network on February 23. The debate is certain to fuel criticism of Britain's role.

Until this month, the network was an official secret recognised by none of the members of the UKUSA alliance. But the documents published by the George Washington University prove its existence and its capacity to intercept civilian satellite communications.

Jean-Pierre Millet, a Parisian lawyer, said that Echelon tracked every mobile and satellite call, but only decoded those involving a key figure. "You can bet that every time a French government minister makes a mobile phone call, it is recorded," he said.

M Millet said that Echelon's system leaves it open to legal challenge under French privacy laws. "The simple fact that an attempt has been made to intercept a communication is against the law in France, however the information is exploited." Yesterday he said that he would bring an action on behalf of French civil liberty groups.