US, Britain, And NSA ECHELON Spying Draw Anger Of Europe
By Simon Davies


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 keywords.
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 citizens.
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