It is reported a Canadian agent spied on at least two cabinet ministers using the Echelon surveillance network during Margaret Thatcher's premiership, according to revelations on US TV this week.
Ex-spy Mike Frost told the CBS 60 Minutes programme that Thatcher had ordered surveillance on two cabinet colleagues according to excerpts released on Thursday. The allegation comes in the same week that a European Parliament report said Echelon, a surveillance system run by the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, was used for industrial espionage.
Echelon was originally designed as a crime-fighting network: to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists, drug lords and governments hostile to the five members. It is capable of intercepting phone conversations, faxes and email messages around the world.
In excerpts released by 60 Minutes, Frost talks of the spying ordered by Thatcher. "[Thatcher] had two ministers that she said 'they weren't onside'... so my boss went to London and did intercept traffic from those two ministers." He does not identify the ministers.
The UK government has constantly denied Echelon's existence. On Wednesday it claimed Echelon was not used in Europe to help US firms win contracts ahead of European companies. A senior Foreign Office official said in response to the European Parliament report that "any surveillance that there is in Britain has to be authorised in accordance with the law, as does any American activity here."
Frost claims he worked for Canadian intelligence for 20 years -- from 1972 until 1992. He explains that the five countries involved in the Echelon network got around domestic laws against spying on citizens by asking other members to do it for them. "The British Parliament now has total deniability," Frost said, referring to the alleged spying on the two ministers. "They didn't do anything... we did it for them."
Explaining why the surveillance took place, Frost claims Thatcher felt the ministers disagreed with her over certain policy matters. No indications of what those disagreements were was given.
Frost also claims Echelon was used to monitor the communications of ordinary, innocent civilians. He cited a woman whose name and telephone number went into the network's database as a possible terrorist because she had told a friend on the phone that her son had "bombed" in a school play.
"The computer spit that conversation out," Frost was quoted as saying. "The analyst was not too sure what the conversation was referring to, so, erring on the side of caution, he listed that lady."
Earlier this week, the French government accused software giant Microsoft of working with the US National Security Agency to spy on it using Echelon. Microsoft denied the accusations as nonsense.
Reuters contributed to this report