European Parliament Launches Official Inquiry in US; Concerned With Implications of Top-Secret ECHELON Surveillance System

May 8, 2001 12:00 am

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Tuesday, May 8, 2001

WASHINGTON – Capping an official inquiry into a highly secret U.S.-led electronic eavesdropping network, a delegation from a committee of the European Parliament has taken the unusual step of traveling to the United States for a week-long fact-finding mission.

“It’s high time that the government disclose just how far it’s gone in the name of national security,” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “If, in fact, this system operates as has been reported, the American intelligence community has brashly ignored congressionally mandated privacy protections.”

Previous inquiries by the European Parliament have resulted in reports detailing the existence of a surveillance system known as ECHELON, which is led by the NSA in conjunction with its counterpart agencies in the United Kingdom, 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 searching for keywords and other triggers. Communications that include triggers chosen by the intelligence agencies are transcribed and forwarded for further investigation.

In addition to members of the intelligence and defense communities, the European Parliament delegation will meet with a number of privacy advocates. Representatives of both the ACLU and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) are expected to express their support for the delegation’s inquiry and their hope that it will prompt the U.S. government to be more forthcoming with details on ECHELON on Wednesday.

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

The European Parliament is also highly concerned with reports that suggest that ECHELON is secretly being used to gather intelligence on European industry, civilians, and even not-for-profit relief organizations. Previous reports have charged ECHELON with spying on charities such as Amnesty International and Christian Aid in the United Kingdom.

“Congress must ensure that our government does not intercept Americans’ conversations without a court order,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, Associate Director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office. “Hopefully, this inquiry will finally prompt lawmakers to ensure that the American intelligence community does not maintain extra-constitutional peepholes into the private lives of our citizens.”

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