NSA listening practices called European 'threat' European Parliament report accuses agency of widespread spying

September 19, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

The National Security Agency has incurred the wrath of some U.S. allies and triggered debate about increased global eavesdropping, thanks to a new report that accuses the agency of spying on European citizens and companies.

With the help of a listening post in the moors of northern England, NSA for nearly a decade has been snatching Europe's electronic communications signals, according to a report for the European Parliament.

"Within Europe, all e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency, transferring all target information to Fort Meade," said the report.

'Powerful threat'

It warned that the NSA's tactics represent a "powerful threat to civil liberties in Europe" at a time when more communication -- and commerce -- is conducted electronically.

A preliminary version of the report circulated overseas in recent months, touching off heated debate, with front-page stories in Italy, France, Scotland, England, Belgium and even Russia.

The NSA won't discuss the report or even admit that the listening post exists.

But this week, two days of debate in the European Parliament continued the extraordinary public disclosure of comprehensive post-Cold War spying by the agency. On Wednesday, the Parliament passed a resolution seeking more accountability from such eavesdropping arrangements and more assurances that they won't be misused.

"We want to make sure that somebody's watching them," said Glyn Ford, a British member of the European Parliament, the legislative body for the 15-member European Union.

Observers say this was the first time a governmental body has described in detail -- and then criticized -- the NSA's tactics.

"The cat's well and true out of the bag," said Simon Davies, director of the London-based watchdog group Privacy International. "I would argue that we have made the grandest step in 50 years toward accountability of such national security transparencies."

The report describes a sophisticated program called Echelon, which the NSA established in conjunction with British intelligence agencies. The program includes a listening post in Menwith Hill, in Yorkshire, whose satellite dishes soak up the satellite and microwave transmissions carrying Europe's telephone conversations, faxes and e-mail.

Unlike Cold War spying aimed at the military, Echelon is a global electronic surveillance system that targets individuals, businesses, governments and organizations, the report says.

The U.S. shares the information with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as part of an intelligence-sharing agreement called UKUSA. Each nation has its own set of key words, so it can seek information on specific issues, the report states.

Europe is but a fraction of Echelon's target area -- and the Menwith Hill post is one of at least 10 around the world, the report adds.

"One reason its a bigger deal over there than it is over here [in the U.S.] is because the SIGINT [signals intelligence] systems are over their heads and not our heads," said Jeffrey Richelson, an analyst with the National Security Archives, a U.S. group seeking to declassify intelligence related documents.

Echelon repercussions

But the disclosure of Echelon could soon resonate across the Atlantic after the European Parliament action. Furthermore, it could complicate current negotiations between the U.S. and the European Union over encryption programs that scramble or encode computer information, said Parliament member Ford.

The U.S. has been lobbying for back-door access to such codes for security reasons.

Pub Date: 9/19/98

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