ACLU Calls for Investigation into Global Surveillance System

April 6, 1999 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union called on Congress today to investigate reports that a global electronic communications surveillance system known as “ECHELON” is being operated by the National Security Agency and may be engaged in the illegal interception of Americans’ private communications.

Inquiries by the European Parliament resulted in reports detailing the existence of ECHELON, which is led by the NSA in conjunction with its counterpart agencies in England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. According to the reports, ECHELON has communications receiving stations all over the world and attempts to capture all satellite, microwave, cellular and fiber-optic communications worldwide, including communications to and from North America. Computers then sort through conversations, faxes and emails for searching for keywords. Communications that include keywords chosen by the intelligence agencies are transcribed and forwarded for further investigation.

“It appears that the NSA is engaged in a surveillance system of epic proportions,” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU. “If these reports are true, ECHELON dwarfs the extensive surveillance of Americans already conducted by the FBI and other domestic law enforcement agencies.”

The ACLU’s request for an investigation came in a letter to the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member of the House Committee on Government Reform. “Congress should establish rules to protect the privacy of these communications because privacy is important to Americans today, and was important to the framers of our Constitution,” the ACLU letter said.

“If the ECHELON system operates as reported, it appears that the NSA is violating or circumventing laws Congress passed for the express purpose of protecting Americans from this very type of surveillance,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, legislative counsel in the ACLU’s Washington National Office.

“It is the duty of Congress to determine if the ECHELON program is as sweeping and intrusive as has been reported, and to ensure that it does not intercept Americans’ conversations without a court order,” Nojeim added.

The report to the European Parliament detailed charges that ECHELON had been used in the United Kingdom to spy on charities such as Amnesty International and Christian Aid.

Steinhardt today moderated a panel discussion on Global Surveillance at the Computers Freedom and Privacy Conference, where ECHELON was discussed. The panel included Steven Wright, the principal author of the report to the European Parliament. Also on the panel were Representative Bob Barr (R-GA), Scott Charney of the U.S. Justice Department and several European journalists.

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