Amid the continuing debate over military tribunals for suspected terrorists, another potential challenge to our civil liberties is going almost unnoticed.

Details of this challenge may soon be revealed in a Virginia courtroom, where retired Air Force Master Sergeant Brian Regan will be tried on espionage charges. Regan, you may recall, was arrested late last summer, accused of providing classified spy satellite images, documents on satellite capabilities, and pages from a top secret intelligence manual to a client identified as “Country A” (believed to be Libya). There are also indications that Regan planned to offer classified information to other hostile regimes, listed as “Country C” and “Country D” in the indictment

Officially, federal prosecutors won’t reveal what tipped them to Regan’s activities. Court records indicate that Regan, who worked for a defense contractor at the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office, was under surveillance for several months prior to his arrest. According to the indictment, Regan collected classified information at work and used public library computers to send the data (via encrypted e-mail) to potential foreign clients. After one such transmission, Regan apparently forgot to turn off a computer at a library in suburban Virginia. When FBI agents checked the machine, they discovered Regan had visited a web site containing the embassy address (in Switzerland) for one of the unnamed countries.

As a former intelligence officer, I found this “official” explanation puzzling – at best. First, public libraries have hundreds of patrons that use their computers, making it almost impossible to closely monitor their use. It seems unlikely that an alert librarian somehow observed Regan’s activities and notified authorities of his apparent interest in Libya.

Secondly, it is not a crime (as far as I know) for Americans to visit web sites listing addresses for foreign embassies, even those representing nations hostile to the United States. During my career as a military intelligence analyst, I routinely scanned official web sites for Iraq, Iran and North Korea, looking for bits of useful information. To my knowledge, this work never attracted the interest of the FBI nor any other counter-intelligence organization.

In fact, the “library computer” story may be a ruse, designed to cover other intelligence sources and methods used to identify Regan. There is a strong belief in intelligence circles that Regan may have been the first spy nabbed by “Echelon,” the highly classified information gathering and dissemination network operated by the U.S. National Security Agency and its global partners.

As outlined in a recent European Parliament report, Echelon has the ability to intercept, record and analyze massive amounts of electronic data, including virtually all e-mail transmitted around the world. Given these capabilities, it seems likely that Regan’s encrypted messages to Libya and other hostile countries might have attracted the attention of an allied intelligence service, which, in turn, tipped off U.S. counter-intelligence officers.

To date, U.S. intelligence officials have refused to discuss Echelon, or even acknowledge its existence. Privately, however, military and civilian intelligence representatives confirm that the system does, indeed, exist. One former military signals intelligence officer told me that recent European reports on Echelon are essentially accurate – the operation is alive, well and gathers tremendous amounts of data on a daily basis.

A retired NSA officer went even further. He estimates that Echelon represents “at least 15 to 20 percent” of the agency’s annual intelligence “haul,” providing much of the sensitive economic, political and military data collected by NSA. According to this individual, e-mail traffic represents an area of “significant” growth for Echelon, reflecting the global migration to web-based communications. However, e-mail also presents a particular challenge for the agency, since one NSA department handles actual messages, while another is assigned to sift through e-mail attachments. Tying attached files to a particular message is sometimes difficult, he confided.

If Regan’s alleged activities were identified through Echelon – a very real possibility – it raises very grave legal and ethical questions. Did a foreign intelligence agency – or agencies – become de facto tools of American law enforcement, conducting surveillance on a U.S. citizen, beyond the purview of our courts and the Constitution? While U.S. intelligence agencies are barred from conducting domestic surveillance, Echelon could easily circumvent that prohibition, transforming allied intelligence organizations into surrogates for their American counterparts, gathering information on U.S. residents with virtually no oversight, and no regard for our basic civil liberties.

While it’s unclear whether Regan’s lawyers will explore the Echelon “connection” in court, the upcoming trial could provide our first real glimpse at the system’s capabilities, and its potential relationship to domestic law enforcement. Such an inquiry is long overdue, given our growing reliance on the Internet, and the very serious issue of protecting individual privacy in cyberspace.

Obviously, the web should not be a safe haven for spies, and counter-intelligence organizations need an Internet presence to deal with on-line espionage. But using foreign intelligence services to identify the activities of Regan (and other potential spies) creates serious concerns. The system collects vast amounts of information every day, with virtually no safeguards on how the data is gathered, stored or used. With Echelon’s global reach, foreign intelligence agencies now have the ability to compile dossiers on American citizens and provide the information to the U.S. government. The potential use of foreign intelligence collection as an adjunct for American law enforcement represents a clear and present danger to our civil liberties.

In recent weeks, several members of Congress have expressed misgivings about planned military tribunals for suspected terrorists, accusing the Bush administration of circumventing our justice system, and denying the basic legal rights of the accused. Ironically, these same members of Congress have been largely silent on the Echelon issue, and the threat it poses to our basic freedoms. While it is commendable to demand legal rights for wanton criminals, our elected officials should also demand the same protection for American citizens. A congressional inquiry into Echelon and its capabilities would be a good start, helping to ensure that our fundamental rights don’t become subservient to foreign intelligence collection – and their partners in domestic law enforcement.

“Nathan Hale” is the pseudonym of a retired military intelligence officer. This is his first column for WorldNetDaily.

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