- Europe is discretely gearing up for one of the most interesting
legal battles in its history. At stake is the future of the world's most
secretive intelligence organization, America's National Security Agency.
- The NSA is in the business of eavesdropping on the world's
communications networks for the benefit of the United States. In doing
so, it has built a vast spying operation that reaches into the telephone
systems of nearly every country. Its operations are so secret that this
activity, outside the U.S., occurs without any democratic oversight and
without any legal basis.
- Over the past year, members of the European Parliament
have learned, to their astonishment, that the NSA, in collusion with the
British government, has created the means to intercept almost every fax,
e-mail and telephone call within the European Union. The revelation has
irritated governments throughout Europe, culminating in a current Italian
judicial inquiry into the legality of the NSA's activity.
- Sketchy details of the NSA's spying in Europe had been
common currency here for decades but had never been formally acknowledged.
Attempts by British MPs had for decades been ignored.
- The issue has erupted now because of two recent European
Parliament studies that confirm the existence in Britain of a network of
communications intelligence bases operated by the NSA. The publication
last year of the first report, "An Appraisal of the Technologies of
Political Control," confirmed for the first time that the NSA had
established a surveillance capacity over the entire European communications
network. It also described a grid of supercomputers, known as Echelon,
capable of scanning vast areas of the communications spectrum to detect
- Of particular interest to Parliament was the report's
assertion that the NSA was beefing up its commercial espionage activities.
Its claim is that the NSA has been routinely intercepting sensitive traffic
relating to bids, takeovers, mergers, investments and tender offers, all
for U.S. economic benefit.
- Questions have been raised by parliamentarians in Germany,
Norway, Denmark, Holland and Sweden. Then, in September, the plenary session
of the European Parliament took the unprecedented step of openly debating
the activities of the NSA. In a consensus resolution, the Parliament fired
a shot across the bow of the spooks by demanding more openness and accountability.
- Any thoughts that these matters were simply paranoid
musings by fans of "The X-Files" were scuttled in June when the
second report, "Interception Capabilities 2000," set out the
technical specifications of the interception system. The report revealed
details of a secret plan to create a "seamless" web of telecommunications
surveillance across all national boundaries. The strategy was advised by
national security agencies and by the FBI, which instigated with Brussels
a top-secret planning organization called the International Law Enforcement
Telecommunications Seminar. In time, two vast systems--one designed for
national security and one for law enforcement--would merge and, in the
process, would cripple national control over surveillance activities.
- The scandal has found its way to Washington. The House
Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has ordered the NSA to hand
over documents relating to Echelon. The NSA has for the first time in the
committee's history refused, claiming attorney-client privilege.
- The stand-off may well end the NSA's privileged position.
Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), worried by the potential breach of constitutional
privacy rights, has introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2000 Intelligence
Authorization Act requiring the directors of the CIA and the NSA and Atty.
Gen. Janet Reno to submit a report outlining the legal standards being
employed within project Echelon in order to safeguard the privacy of American
- The NSA's silence has fueled the present inquiry by the
Rome judiciary. The head of the inquiry, Deputy Dist. Atty. Vittorio De
Cesare, intends to determine the extent to which the activities of the
NSA may breach Italian law. Italy's privacy watchdog, Stefano Rodota, has
also expressed his concern, and recently told local media, "The U.S.
government [has] not replied to the requests for clarifications made explicitly
by the European Parliament." Rodota has motivated his fellow privacy
commissioners throughout Europe to formally investigate the Echelon system.
- These recent events have left observers contemplating
two distressing facts. First, national borders have disintegrated. The
NSA and its partner agencies now can intercept any communication worldwide.
Second, the distinction between traditional police and security agencies
has blurred. The future is without doubt a seamless, borderless, surveillance
web that touches all facets of our communication.
- Simon Davies Is a Visiting Fellow in the Computer Security
Research Centre in the London School of Economics and Director of the Human
Rights Group, Privacy International