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Brits Weary of U.S. Eavesdropping

  • Big Brother isn't just watching you; he's listening to you, too. And not just in the United States.

The European Union (EU) has officially discovered what American patriots have known for decades: electronic communications cannot be kept secret.

A special report commissioned in 1996 by Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament, governing body of the EU, names Uncle Sam as Big Brother.

The report -- Assessing the Technologies of Political Control -- contains details of a network of American-controlled spy stations around the world that "routinely and indiscriminately" monitors countless phone, fax and e-mail messages, according to the Daily Telegraph of London.

The report warns that the United States has developed an extensive spying network which is used to eavesdrop on European citizens, a situation which caused a minor stir in the UK when the Daily Telegraph broke the story, but saw little ink on the Continent and in America.

The global electronic spy network can eavesdrop on every telephone, e-mail and telex communication around the world, the EU officially acknowledged when accepting the report late last year.

According to published stories, the report says, in part:

"Within Europe, all e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency (NSA), transferring all target information from the European mainland via the strategic hub of London, then by satellite to Fort Meade in Maryland via the crucial hub at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire."


The report confirms for the first time the existence of the secretive strong "Echelon" system. Until now evidence of such astounding technology has been patchy and anecdotal. But the report -- discussed by the committee of the office of Science and Technology Assessment in Luxembourg -- confirms that the citizens of Europe are subject to an intensity of surveillance far in excess of that imagined by most governments.

The Daily Telegraph opined that the findings of the committee "are certain to excite the concern of" members of Parliament. But if they did, no one heard about it.

The Echelon system forms part of the U.S. Air Force systems, but unlike many of the electronic spy systems developed during the Cold War, Echelon is designed primarily for non-military targets: governments, organizations and businesses in virtually every country.

For more than a decade, former agents of U.S., British, Canadian and New Zealand national security agencies have claimed that the monitoring of electronic communications has become endemic throughout the world. Rumors have circulated that new technologies have been developed which have the capability to search most of the world's telex, fax and e-mail networks.

Former signals intelligence operatives have claimed that spy bases controlled by America have the ability to search nearly all data communications. They claim that Echelon automatically analyzes most e-mail messaging for data which assists intelligence agencies to determine targets.


According to former Canadian Security Establishment agent Mike Frost, a voice recognition system called "Oratory" has been used for some years to intercept diplomatic calls.

The driving force behind the report, says the Daily Telegraph, is Glyn Ford a Labor Party member of Parliament for greater Manchester East. He believes the report is crucial to the future of civil liberties in Europe.

The report recommends a variety of measures for dealing with the increasing power of the technologies of surveillance being used at Menwith Hill and other centers.

It bluntly advises: "The European Parliament should reject proposals from the United States for making private messages via the global communications network [Internet] accessible to U.S. intelligence agencies."

The report also urges a fundamental review of the involvement of NSA in Europe, suggesting that the activities be either scaled down, or become more open and accountable.

Such concerns have been privately expressed by governments since the Cold War, but surveillance has continued to expand. U.S. intelligence activity in Britain has enjoyed a steady growth throughout the past two decades, said the London newspaper.


The principal motivation for this rush of development, according to published stories, is the U.S. interest in commercial espionage. In the 1950s, during the development of the "special relationship" between America and Britain, one U.S. institution was singled out for special attention.

NSA, the world's biggest and most powerful signals intelligence organization, received approval to set up a network of spy stations throughout Britain.

"Their role was to provide military, diplomatic and economic intelligence by intercepting communications from throughout the Northern Hemisphere," according to the Daily Telegraph.

NSA is one of the most shadowy of all the shadowy U.S. intelligence agencies. Until a few years ago, its existence was a secret. Any mention of its duties are still classified. However, it does have a Web site ( in which it describes itself as being responsible for the signals intelligence and communications security activities of the U.S. government.

One of its bases, Menwith Hill in the UK, was to become the biggest spy station in the world. Its ears -- known as "radomes" [short for radar domes] -- are capable of listening in to vast chunks of communications spectrum throughout Europe and the old Soviet Union.

In its first decade the base sucked data from cables and microwave links running through a nearby Post Office tower, but the communications revolutions of the 1970s and 1980s gave the base a capability that even its architects could scarcely have been able to imagine.

With the creation of Intelsat and digital telecommunications, Menwith and other stations developed the capability to eavesdrop on an extensive scale on fax, telec and voice messages. Then, with the development of the Internet, electronic mail and electronic commerce the listening posts were able to increase their monitoring capability to eavesdrop on an unprecedented spectrum of personal and business communications.

Says the Daily Telegraph, this activity has been all but ignored by Parliament. When Labor representatives raised questions about the activities of NSA, the government invoked secrecy rules.

Ford says he hopes his report may be the first step in a long road to more openness. Some democratically elected body should surely have a right to know at some level opined the London newspaper, and lamented that at the moment that's not the case.