Europeans decry US electronic interceptsBy Charles Trueheart
Thursday, February 24, 2000
PARIS, Feb. 23 –– A report released today describing massive U.S.-led eavesdropping on private telephone conversations, faxes and e-mail messages around the world prompted a wave of concern and indignation in Europe.
The report by a special European Parliament commission said that the electronic intelligence-gathering network had the potential to violate the privacy of millions of European citizens and suggested that it has been used to benefit U.S. corporations in economic and industrial espionage.
The ground- and satellite-based intercept system, which is known as Echelon, was designed primarily for use against nonmilitary targets, such as terrorists, drug traffickers and money launderers, the report says.
But the system "enables the countries using it to obtain significant economic information and, hence, to secure a leading position on the commercial markets," according to the report.
The system, which is operated by the National Security Agency in partnership with the intelligence services of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, intercepts "billions of messages per hour," said Duncan Campbell, the report's principal author, in Brussels. "We are not talking about a trivial thing here."
The inquiry's findings precipitated a flurry of comment from European politicians.
"In effect, democratic states and a member of the European Union could have organized large-scale espionage operations in order to reinforce their economic interests to the detriment of Belgium and other European countries," said Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel.
"The Anglo-Saxon Echelon eavesdropping network constitutes a serious infringement on national security and on the freedoms of all French people," said Rene Galy-Dejean, a French legislator.
U.S. officials routinely have dismissed European alarm over Echelon as unwarranted, saying the system is strictly for national security use.
Intelligence officials also dispute the economic espionage charge on practical grounds, claiming that the sheer volume of intercepts makes targeted industrial spying all but impossible.
"U.S. intelligence agencies are not tasked to engage in industrial espionage, or obtain trade secrets for the benefit of any U.S. company or companies," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said today. He declined to acknowledge the existence of the Echelon program.
The surveillance network dates to 1947 but has aroused deep concern among Washington's European allies in recent years as the scope of the surveillance of foreign telephone calls, faxes and e-mail became more apparent.
Echelon was created in the mid-1970s and grew in complexity and reach in the last years of the Cold War.
Using artificial intelligence methods and a global network of eavesdropping dishes and relays, Echelon sifts through voice and data communications in search of key words that its overseers suspect may represent security threats.
Many Europeans wary of U.S. economic prowess are convinced that the system is being used to collect information on behalf of U.S. companies bidding against European competitors for lucrative contracts.
The report cites two cases in which Echelon intercepts supposedly clinched deals for American companies locked in bidding wars with their European rivals. But the report cites only news accounts to buttress that claim.
The committee's inquiry was assisted by the declassification of NSA documents, through Freedom of Information Act requests and by scholars at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
One of the archive's senior fellows, Jeffrey Richelson, said in a telephone interview that Echelon posed "a potential for abuse both in the areas of privacy and economic espionage."
But, he added, "the problem with the Echelon hysteria is that it doesn't look at what other countries are doing. The U.S. and its allies are hardly the greatest offenders. The countries doing the most whining about [Echelon], like France, are into this major league."
Today's report is the latest and harshest in a recent series on the monitoring network by the European Parliament.
The report is critical of the enormous power wielded by the United States in the surveillance system, but it is equally critical of the role of the European Commission, the executive body of the 15-member European Union. The report insinuates that EU member countries have been weak in standing up to U.S. initiatives that facilitate the network.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked today if Britain had betrayed its EU allies by participating in the surveillance program. " 'No' is the short answer," he told reporters in Brussels. "These things are governed by extremely strict rules, and those rules will always be applied."