ACLU Launches Web Site On Global Surveillance System

November 16, 1999 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union today launched a web site designed to shed light on a global electronic surveillance system known by the code name "Echelon" that reportedly allows the United States and other governments to eavesdrop on private citizens.

"Echelon is perhaps the most powerful intelligence gathering network in the world," said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU. "But it is still very much a black box, which apparently operates without the oversight of Congress or the courts."

The website -- -- encourages public discussion of the potential threat that Echelon poses to civil liberties, and allows visitors to fax free letters to Congress, urging their support for a congressional inquiry into the Echelon project. It also provides a collection of research documents on Echelon.

After many years of reports by investigative journalists, the existence of Echelon became an international issue when the European Parliament received two reports detailing its operations and after the Australian government confirmed its participation in the operation. According to those reports, Echelon is led by the U.S. National Security Agency in conjunction with its counterpart agencies in England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Echelon reportedly attempts to capture all satellite, microwave, cellular and fiber-optic communications worldwide, including communications to and from North America. Computers then use sophisticated filtering technology to sort through conversations, faxes and emails searching for keywords or other flags. Communications that include the flags are then forwarded to the intelligence agency that requested them. The report to the European Parliament charged that Echelon had been used in the United Kingdom to spy on charities such as Amnesty International and Christian Aid.

"Echelon can no longer be dismissed as an X-Files fantasy," Steinhardt said. "The reports to the European Parliament make it quite clear that Echelon exists and that its operation raises profound civil liberties issues."

The NSA has refused to share with Congress and the public the legal guidelines for the project. This refusal prompted passage of a bill, now in the final stages before becoming law, requiring the intelligence agencies to prepare a report on the legal standards they use for monitoring communications. Within the next few months, the U.S. House Government Reform and Oversight Committee will hold hearings on Echelon.

"It appears that the U.S. government is once again spying on Americans' private communications," said Gregory T. Nojeim, a legislative counsel in the ACLU's Washington National Office. "Congress must determine if Echelon is as sweeping and intrusive as has been reported, and most importantly, it must ensure that Americans' conversations are not intercepted without a court order."

The ACLU created and administers the site in conjunction with the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Omega Foundation of Great Britain, which prepared the first report to the European Parliament.

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