No monopolies on government eavesdroppingBy Joseph Fitchett
Paris, Monday, February 28, 2000
PARIS - The wave of concern in Europe about U.S. intelligence services' intercepting commercial phone, fax and e-mail messages around the world has been surprising, diplomats say, mainly because it seems to demonstrate deepening international fears about the global reach of U.S. power.
The only new element in the discussion, triggered by a European Parliament report last week, is that Washington has for the first time dropped its denials that U.S. agencies routinely tap private conversations on a huge scale.
For more than a decade, after an earlier report first raised questions about worldwide U.S. electronic intelligence capabilities, Washington has maintained officially that the National Security Agency and National Reconnaissance Office and other U.S. listening agencies targeted only military and political antagonists.
Now the European Parliament report, filed in December and debated publicly last week, has taken a fresh and deeper look at Echelon, as the system is known.
While not entirely new, these disclosures - that the United States and its closest allies have developed a post-Cold War system that can record up to 2 billion telephone messages daily - fit a pattern of diffuse, persistent fears that Washington is ready to use any means, fair or foul, to advance toward U.S. global hegemony in power and business.
In a bid to clear up some misapprehensions, U.S. and European officials and specialists, some with links to intelligence services, were willing to disclose some aspects of current signal intelligence, as electronic eavesdropping is known, on the condition that they not be identified.
They all asserted that listening to private conversations was common practice among governments, including those of Britain, Australia and Canada, which are associated with the United States in a worldwide effort.
France, too, where the media and some officials have gone furthest in accusing the United States of commercial espionage, has its own worldwide network to listen to international telephone communications, the officials and specialists said.
A secret facility in French Guiana is targeted on the main commercial communications satellite frequencies over North America and also has antennas designed to pick up calls inside the United States, they said.
Declining to comment on current French practices - except to praise Paris for cooperation in this area against international terrorists - the sources said France had a record into the 1990s of turning over secrets to French industry, which until recently has been largely state-owned.
Similar charges have been leveled at the U.S.-run worldwide program. In the European Parliament report, this complaint - that information gleaned by the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies is given to American companies to help them against foreign competition - cites two often-mentioned cases where U.S. companies beat out French rivals at the last minute.
Providing fresh detail about these deals, which involved aircraft in Brazil and in Saudi Arabia, the sources disclosed that the U.S. government did use intelligence information and phone intercepts to influence the outcome by proving that the French bids involved bribery.
"We just gave them the stuff, the tapes, and they were faced with the evidence," said a person with access to the secret records of both cases. Confronted with this proof, Brazil felt compelled to award the contract to Raytheon and Saudi Arabia to McDonnell-Douglas, the source said.
The United States, and more recently France and other European countries, have passed laws against corruption in sales to foreign governments. As a result, recent U.S. administrations have felt entitled to use their secretly acquired information to prevent American companies from losing important deals because of bribes from competitors, presumably from American as well as international rivals.
But the sources vigorously denied, as U.S. officials have consistently done, that intelligence information about rivals is ever passed on to individual American companies.
The clarifications were aimed at blunting suggestions in France and other European countries about the uses to which eavesdropping is put. In the widespread European rumor, U.S. electronic intelligence, developed as a military arm in the Cold War, has been redirected at targets in allied countries for commercial advantage.
U.S. officials have tried to dispel this suspicion, but their efforts seem to be hindered by the reluctance of the intelligence community, notably the branches involved in signal intelligence, to open up radically to allied services, even during joint operations in the Gulf and the Balkans, the sources said.
Governments in Europe have responded to the growing U.S. electronic reach by emulating it, albeit on a smaller scale.
The secret facility in French Guiana scans across the Caribbean in hopes of capturing phone traffic within the United States. France has two other main installations, one in Dordogne, in southwestern France, and one in New Caledonia.
The distinctly muted official reactions in Europe to the controversy over Echelon has other explanations, too: Few of these countries have any substantial safeguards against official eavesdropping on their own citizens.
"If they go too far in denouncing us, they are liable to end up with questions at home about the fact that the French authorities, for example, can do almost whatever they want," said an official involved in bilateral intelligence.
Another hard-to-quantify factor is the changing European perception of Britain. Echelon, in which Britain is the technical linchpin and direct beneficiary in Europe, is being viewed by some Europeans as confirmation that London is a Trojan horse of U.S. power in Europe.
But that image is blurring now that the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair is seriously exploring European military cooperation with Paris and other EU capitals.