The British won't talk about it, the Americans use carefully worded statements to avoid mentioning it and the French believe it has been stealing secrets from France for years.
It... is Echelon.
Curiously it is our nearest neighbours, the French, who have the most to say about Echelon. Curious because according to observers, Blair and Chirac are believed to be involved in a pan-european defence initiative that would provide Europe with state of the art defences against unwelcome probing... even by the Americans, yet the French are in fact known to have their own version of Echelon -- Frenchelon.
(Note: Tomorrow ZDNet will provide a world exclusive on Frenchelon with first pictures of the base)
But in a legal case that will reach the courts sometime after the judiciary holidays in September, French companies and nationals will accuse America's National Security Agency (NSA) of using Echelon to unfairly win business deals for American competitors. Ironically, David Nataf, the French lawyer who is leading the French case, won't be telling the US courts anything new when he describes America's habit of sticking its nose into places it isn't welcome.
In March, former United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director James Woolsey let the cat out when he admitted that America steals economic secrets using "espionage, with communications, and reconnaissance satellites". He also emphasised that there was "increased emphasis" on economic intelligence, justified because European companies had a "national culture" of "bribery". He even went so far as to accuse European companies of being the "principle offenders from the point of view of paying bribes in major international contracts in the world".
America's line on its intelligence activities has enraged the French. For us it's just a matter of having international condemnation of their actions," says Nataf. "These sorts of law suits generate a movement and we want to show that what the Americans have been doing is wrong, it is immoral."
In May documents were reportedly unearthed, mostly letters from the CIA to Congress, laying out evidence of an intensive intelligence effort designed to ensure American corporations win contracts overseas. The documents, all published during the Clinton administration, appear to confirm reports that America's electronic eavesdropping apparatus was involved in commercial espionage.
The documents reveal the extent of Washington's effort to promote US business, detailing how often the United States acted on evidence of "unfair" competition by foreign contractors.
In 1993 and 1994, it was widely reported that the US intelligence community helped American firms win an estimated $16.5bn (£10bn) in overseas contracts by alerting the US that Third World governments ministers and others were "on the take". Companies said to have benefited from the surveillance include Raytheon, Boeing and Hughes Network Systems.
And while former CIA officials are admitting they do use espionage, Britain remains tight lipped despite myriad reports of her involvement in Echelon.
But it does exist and its activities are being scrutinised by an increasingly impatient European Parliament (EP). Significantly the EP recently set up a Parliamentary Inquiry Committee on Echelon following moves by the Green/EFA Group after the release of the Interception Capabilities 2000 report (sometimes referred to as the STOA Report).
The Greens are concerned that not enough is being done to protect citizens' rights from Echelon's snooping, despite European laws designed to protect civil liberties. Once the Committee convenes beginning 1 July, it is hoped guidelines on international spying will be established, protecting both individual and business rights to privacy.
At the centre of the Green Party's agenda is the STOA (Science and Technology Options Assessment Panel) report, written by Scottish investigative journalist Duncan Campbell. It provides the first documentary evidence of Echelon.
"The STOA report was significant," says Nataf. "It presented Europe with a framework on which to work with the parliament." That framework has now been forged into an offensive outpost with MEPs urging Europe to have covert operations regulated under the auspices of the EP.
Graham Watson, MEP and chairman of the EP committee on Citizens' Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs, explains. "If the proposals put forward by the MEPs are implemented, spying by international agencies on diplomatic, commercial or personal communications would be outlawed unless specific protocols were followed. Countries including the USA would be asked to end all forms of systematic and general espionage by third countries vis-à-vis the activities of the member states of the Union, its institutions and its citizens."
In essence, spying could continue, just as long as the proper authority was received from the member state whose citizens/businesses were the subject of surveillance.
Experts point to the bizarre Menwith Hill outpost in Yorkshire as being at the centre of Echelon's operations in Europe. Enormous radomes housing surveillance radar stand like giant golf balls on the Yorkshire Dales and have been targeted as the main tools used by the UK/USA alliance to spy on individuals and businesses.
Menwith Hill and its surveillance activities are mentioned in the STOA report, and virtually every article on Echelon, but British authorities, including the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office will not discuss its role.
If reports are to be believed, Menwith Hill houses some of the most advanced surveillance equipment in the world and is operated round the clock by a team of some two thousand employees.
According to Robin Bynoe, partner in London Law firm Charles Russell, if there is any truth in Menwith's spying on citizens, it is in breach of the current Interception of Communications Act (IOCA), soon to be replaced with the most hated of UK hi-tech legislation, the brutal RIP (Regulation of Investigatory Powers) Bill.
Echelon, says Bynoe, has a secondary function: to circumvent domestic privacy laws in the UK. He explains: "In the UK IOCA, like all other acts applies in UK jurisdiction. If we had an episode where an American is found guilty of spying on a British citizen there exist sanctions, put there by governments, to assure that the American has immunity. Similar to diplomatic immunity if a diplomat parks on a double line for example. The American could be expelled." It is far easier for an American operative to spy on the British than for a British operative.
This could explain why, for example, Margaret Thatcher authorised surveillance on two colleagues, during her time as PM, by Canadian spies rather than English ones.
Go to ZDNet's Echelon Special
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