Investigation Into NSA's
Top Secret ECHELON Spy
Network Dropped By EU
By Niall McKay
Wired News
The European Parliament has swept aside concerns about alleged surveillance and spying activities conducted in the region by the US government, a representative for Europe's Green Party said Monday. Specifically, the EU allegedly scuttled parliamentary debate late last month concerning the Echelon surveillance system. Echelon is a near-mythical intelligence network operated in part by the National Security Agency.
"The whole discussion was completely brushed over," Green Party member of European Parliament Patricia McKenna said.
The US government has refused even to acknowledge Echelon's existence. But since 1988, investigative journalists and privacy watchdogs have uncovered details of a secret, powerful system that can allegedly intercept any and all communications within Europe.
According to scores of reports online and in newspapers, Echelon can intercept, record, and translate any electronic communication -- telephone, data, cellular, fax, email, telex -- sent anywhere in the world.
The alleged system has only recently come under the scrutiny of the European Parliament, which has grown concerned about EU government and private sector secrets falling into US hands.
The debate fizzled mysteriously, said McKenna, who suggested that the Parliament is reluctant to probe the matter fully for fear of jeopardizing relations between the EU and the United States.
"Basically they didn't want to rock the boat," she said.
Furthermore, she said the debate was held two days ahead of schedule, hindering preparations for the discussion by European Members of Parliament.
While the NSA has never officially recognized Echelon's existence, it has been the subject of heated debates in Europe following a preliminary report by the Scientific and Technical Options Assessment, a committee advising the parliament on technical matters.
On 19 September, the Parliament debated both the EU's relationship with the United States and the existence and uses of Echelon.
The Green Party believes the resolution to defer its decision on Echelon, pending further investigation, was influenced by pressure from the US government, which has tried to keep the system secret.
Glyn Ford, a member of the European Parliament for the British Labor Party and a director of STOA, missed the debate because of the schedule change but does not share the Green Party's view.
"There is not enough information on Echelon, beyond its existence, to debate the matter fully," said Ford.
According to Ford, the Omega Foundation, a British human rights organization, compiled the first report on Echelon for the Parliament committee.
"It is very likely that Omega will be commissioned again," Ford said. "But this time I believe the EU will require direct input from the NSA."
Simon Davies, the director of the privacy watchdog group Privacy International sees the debate as a major civil rights victory.
"It's unheard of for a parliament to openly debate national security issues," said Davies. "This debate fires a warning shot across the bows of the NSA."
Echelon is said to be principally operated by the National Security Agency and its UK equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters. It reportedly also relies on cooperation with other intelligence agencies in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
"These spy systems were seen as a necessary part of international security during the cold war," said Ford. "But there is no military reason for spying on Russia now unless they (NSA) want to listen to the sound of the proto-capitalist economy collapsing."