The fiscal 2000 Intelligence Authorization Act contains a provision for
an undisclosed amount of money earmarked for “infrastructure upgrades at a
key facility in what many suspect is a global, electronic surveillance
network,” according to a Nov. 18
Federal Computer Week (FCW)
The report said the upgrade funds will go to the “Menwith Hill signals
intelligence listening post in England,” a “top-secret facility (that) is
widely suspected of being one of the central European-based processing
centers for the ‘Echelon’ system, an electronic surveillance network
sponsored by the National Security Agency (NSA)” here in the U.S.
In his Nov. 4
column, WorldNetDaily editor Joseph Farah wrote, “Every international
telephone call, fax, e-mail, or radio transmission can be listened to by
powerful computers capable of voice recognition.” The network has the
capability to “home in on a long list of key words or patterns of messages,”
he said, which allows the NSA and their global intelligence partners to look
“for evidence of international crime, like terrorism.”
The system can also track satellite transmissions, microwave links, and
fiber-optic communications traffic, according to FCW. Worse, the NSA appears
to be operating the system with little congressional knowledge or oversight.
The problem with Echelon isn’t its capabilities, per se, as much as its
uses. Nobody who is sane minds the fact that the U.S. is trying to
protect Americans and Europeans against “international crime and terrorism.”
But with such a system comes the inherent risk of violating the
fundamental principles of privacy and independence — principles that are
sacrosanct in democracies and constitutional republics. Echelon will do what
it is programmed to do; but the programmers — and those who supervise the
programmers — have to be entrusted not to turn such a system against their
own people and especially for no other reason except that they can.
Finally, though — albeit somewhat tardy — a few voices in Congress are
beginning to address this inherent risk by questioning whether or not the
NSA or its global partners are capable of such restraint. Before handing
over “undisclosed” billions of taxpayer dollars, some lawmakers are
demanding to know how this system works and exactly how it is being
employed — and against whom.
“Commenting on the floor of the House,” said FCW, “Rep. Porter Goss,
R-Fla. praised the House/Senate conference report, which was agreed to Nov.
9, for its insistence that NSA be made to account for its methods of
intercepting electronic communications.”
Goss wants to know, among other things, what “legal standards” the NSA
employs “for the interception of communications.”
Earlier this month Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., said, “As a former intelligence
officer, I support legitimate intelligence activities. However, I also
believe Congress has a duty to make absolutely certain the massive
capabilities our intelligence agencies have developed, are allowed to be
used only with adequate safeguards against abuse.”
He added, “The massive technological changes that have occurred since the
last significant update of our foreign intelligence surveillance laws, mean
our existing legal structure is not adequately protecting the privacy rights
of Americans. My concerns in this area are heightened by the reluctance of
intelligence agencies to fully cooperate with congressional oversight.”
“The sheer power and potential for abuse created by Project Echelon
demands congressional attention,” Barr said.
Not everyone in Congress, however, seems to agree that the biggest
problem here is the potential for abuse.
Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr., D-Ga., told FCW that although NSA is facing
“tremendous challenges coping with the explosive development of commercial
communications and computer technology … (the agency) has not demonstrated
much prowess in coping with the challenge.” His answer is to provide the NSA
with a “sustained funding increase” because that “may be necessary to fix
NSA’s dwindling eavesdropping capabilities.”
“Action is … imperative since the nation cannot navigate with an
impaired sense of hearing,” Bishop said.
Without meaning to directly question Bishop’s integrity, I am left
wondering just what he considers “dwindling eavesdropping capabilities.”
When you have a system in place that can monitor, decipher, de-code, and
track virtually every form of communication on earth short of notes written
on small pieces of paper, how is it the nation is left “with an impaired
sense of hearing?”
I think Bishop is missing the big picture.
The issue is the personal and unabridged privacy of innocent
people, not funding. People who are no more planning domestic
terrorism or conducting international economic treason than I am deserve to
have their right to privacy honored and respected. Congress is right to
ensure that it is.
Considering the mindset of the people who created and operate Echelon,
the system poses a bigger threat to liberty than to domestic terrorists or
economic saboteurs if it is being used improperly. After all, Echelon was
developed and operated in secret for years.
It’s past time to “out” Echelon for what it really is — a massive “Big
Brother” system designed to spy on everyone, not just the guilty.
Barr and Goss are correct to question whether Echelon is being used
improperly until NSA proves otherwise.