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ECHELON Examined - Officials Looking to Uncover How Funds Used for Spy Work

By Barbara Starr -

W A S H I N G T O N, Nov. 22

For years, conspiracy theorists, journalists and others have told of "ECHELON", a top-secret global system operated by the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Although no government has officially acknowledged the existence of the program, aficionados have claimed that ECHELON can intercept and eavesdrop on more than 3 billion telephone, fax and Internet communications around the globe every day.

Much of the most recent reporting, and some speculation, about ECHELON has emerged from a European Parliament report earlier this year (see related story). Many Europeans are convinced that ECHELON provides a means for the United States to spy on its top high-tech industries and then provide that intelligence to U.S. business.

U.S. officials have denied that assertion and all comment about the ECHELON system. Danish and Italian government officials, however, have said they want to look into ECHELON operations.

In Congress

And while many have dismissed the rumors of ECHELON's very existence, at least by that name and in the ways it's described, there may be more reason to pay attention now than ever before.

In Washington, players across the political spectrum are trying to force the NSA to disclose its involvement in worldwide signals intelligence-gathering operations.

And the super-secret National Security Agency, which runs communications intercepts and eavesdropping overseas, is under pressure from Congress to tell taxpayers just what it does with billions of dollars every year.

Rep. Robert Barr, R-Ga., a staunch conservative, is playing a leading role. He says he is concerned that ECHELON is so broad, it opens the door to abuses by the intelligence community.

He has threatened to hold congressional hearings on ECHELON. And he has pushed a measure through the House earlier this month that will force the NSA to give Congress an unclassified report in early January detailing how it eavesdrops.

The Senate passed a similar measure last Friday.

Under U.S. law, it is illegal for the NSA to collect or use intelligence on U.S. citizens not suspected of spying against the United States or similar wrongdoing. But the NSA is finding it increasingly difficult to limit itself in an electronic age, where information and communication freely crosses national boundaries.

If the agency inadvertently intercepts communications involving a U.S. citizen, it is supposed to destroy any information that would identify the citizen.

And at the ACLU

The American Civil Liberties Union has also launched an attack on ECHELON.

"ECHELON is perhaps the most powerful intelligence gathering network in the world," Barry Steinhardt, ACLU associate director, said in a recent statement. "ECHELON can no longer be dismissed as an X-Files fantasy. The reports to the European Parliament made it quite clear that ECHELON exists and that its operation raises profound civil liberties issues."

Steinhardt's comments came as the ACLU announced it was launching a Web site to monitor and discuss ECHELON (see Web links). The site not only is a clearinghouse for discussion, it includes an array of documents, including the European Parliament report, that shed some light on the program.

The documents indicate that using radars and listening posts around the world, ECHELON attempts to "capture" all satellite, microwave, cellular and fiber optic communications around the world. Computers then use advanced word filtering programs to search for keywords or phrases of interest.

Intercepts with those words may then be flagged and sent to intelligence agencies. For example, conversations with followers of alleged terrorists are routinely intercepted and analyzed for keywords or phrases that may suggest another terrorist action is imminent.

On Oct. 21, anti-ECHELON groups around the world tried to jam government computers with messages loaded with those keywords but, according to government officials, failed to have much impact.

More Revelations to Come?

The congressional order to produce public information about how it eavesdrops is just the latest problem for the NSA.

Earlier this year, the House Intelligence Committee was so angry members went "thermonuclear," according to one congressional source, when the committee asked the NSA for similar information.

The NSA initially declined the intelligence panel request for information, citing "attorney-client" privilege as a basis for withholding information from Congress. That dispute has now been resolved in a compromise.

But Congress' new request is broader, and any new congressional report may be the first real glimpse into this very secret world.

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