Echelon: An Anglo-Saxon Conspiracy Claim

From: The Economist / London - April 29 - May 5 2000
" This is an Anglo-Saxon Protestant conspiracy. So much for Britain’s commitment to European solidarity; its real union is with America.” So complained Jean-Claude Martinez, a French member of the European Parliament after a debate on eavesdropping by Britain and other English-speaking countries. Is electronic snooping in danger of driving a further wedge between Britain and its European allies?
The spy system Mr Martinez decried, dubbed Echelon, has long been a target of conspiracy theorists and campaigners for civil liberties. They claim that western spies routinely gather and share private information by monitoring electronic communication and satellites. In particular, the Anglo-Saxons (American, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, as well as Britain) are said to listen to Europeans by using equipment set up during the cold war.

A recent report for the European Parliament by a British journalist, Duncan Campbell, detailed how easily communications can be monitored. He described various sites in Britain (some used by American security services) where information is gathered and processed. This report, along with earlier ones and allegations in the French press, spurred demands from more than 170 MEPs for a further inquiry: it is “a very dangerous attack on the sovereignty of member states”, complained one speaker. The MEPs will get a temporary committee of inquiry and Portugal, the current president of the European Union, plans a discussion of industrial espionage for an informal meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers next month.

There are two broad accusations against Britain and its English-speaking allies: that they illicitly monitor communications among European governments and businesses, and share that information between themselves; and that such monitoring is done for commercial gain.

The first claim is more plausible. Spying on allies is common practice, as is collaboration with other countries’ spies. Interception of communications is common too. But British intelligence co-operation with the United States is unusually close. One former foreign secretary objected that too much sensitive information about the EU was passed to America. David (now Lord) Owen, foreign secretary between 1977 and 1979, told a closed session of the Franks Committee (on the Falklands war) in 1983 that tapping was routine.

Quite honestly I was, and I remain to this day, very concerned about the fact that we are listening to our European allies. I did not like this and I tried to change it. I lost that battle. It is one of the very few battles that I lost with my prime minister. I thought it was unethical...

In particular Mr Owen emphasised that Britain routinely sent information it had gathered to the American government:

...it struck me as wrong in our new relationship with Europe that we should be tapping into the European Community and passing some of that stuff on to the United States. I wanted to have an arrangement whereby anything that dealt with negotiations within the European Community, which after all can influence the United States in trade negotiations, should not be passed on. I wanted to have a ring fence around it. There was terrific resistance to this, unbelievable resistance, from everyone...

Mr Owen was speaking almost 20 years ago. But the intervening years and the end of the cold war do not appear to have changed the nature of the Anglo-American intelligence relationship. James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA in the Clinton administration, describes the “Anglo-Saxon” relationship as “very close...although no one is a complete friend in the intelligence world, with Britain and America it is as close as it gets.” And, while America has intelligence sharing arrangements with “dozens of countries around the world”, that with Britain is particularly tight. A former under-secretary of state for the navy, Mr Woolsey even suggests that America’s navy has had closer ties with Britain’s navy than with other parts of the American armed forces.

The second accusation, that the Echelon surveillance system is now used for commercial gain, is particularly controversial and harder to prove. A report compiled last October for the European Parliament (which preceded the Campbell report) concluded that “there is wide-ranging evidence” that governments “utilise communications intelligence to provide commercial advantages to companies”. It suggested that satellites used by telephone companies are monitored by sites in Britain, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, while cables under sea and on land, as well as microwave tower networks, are also tapped. Such monitoring is increasingly useful, because of the growing use of e-mail, faxes and the Internet by businesses to communicate. The Campbell report agreed that there is “wide-ranging evidence” suggesting governments use spies to benefit companies.

One German MEP, Christian von Boetticher, claimed in February that Echelon had cost European businesses $20 billion. Charles Pasqua, a prominent French Euro-sceptic, has complained that “Britain benefits from priority information” from the Echelon system, giving its companies an unfair advantage over continental ones. But concrete examples of companies that have gained—or lost—because of this surveillance system are rarely offered. One case that is cited by the Campbell report is that of America’s Raytheon Corporation, which won a contract to assist with a $1.3 billion surveillance system for the Amazon rainforest. Spies are said to have revealed a rival’s attempt to bribe Brazilian officials.

Other accusations concern the aircraft industry. Various articles in the French press have claimed that Boeing, an American aircraft company, was given secret information on Airbus, its European rival, which could have been gathered only by using a system such as Echelon. The French are particularly sore about a large order that Boeing won from Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990s. They claim that American spies scuppered a rival bid by Airbus.

Responding to these allegations, Mr Woolsey last month gleefully admitted to journalists that “my continental friends, we have spied on you”, claiming it was done “because you bribe”. But he denied that America uses espionage to gain economic advantage for its companies since “most European technology just isn’t worth our stealing”. This week he added to The Economist that Britain and America both aim to “get other countries in the West to play by the same rules on bribery; America’s national policy is to undermine bribery—if we discover bribery, we bring it to the attention of the bribee.” He also suggested that there is “feuding with some of our continental friends” over bribery, but he denied that the aim was to help particular American firms.

In Britain, says the Foreign Office, interception for the sake of “economic well- being” is permitted, although not for the specific benefit of companies. But Tom King, chairman of the House of Commons intelligence committee and a former defence secretary, concedes that drawing a firm distinction between these two activities is a “difficult area”. Mr King also notes that economic espionage has “certainly grown” since the end of the cold war and that there has been “bad blood for some time between the Americans and the French” about this.

Mr King’s own committee has looked into the activities at Menwith Hill, a monitoring station in Yorkshire, which is jointly manned by the British and Americans. But regulating electronic interceptions is difficult. American or British spies who want to monitor a particular target need a warrant. But they are also believed to carry out large-scale routine monitoring of communications, which searches for trigger words that might (for example) lead investigators to drug smugglers or terrorists. This kind of activity is much harder to control. The Foreign Office says “any operations by visiting agencies must comply with UK law”. But this kind of bland reassurance is unlikely to quell the suspicions of European parliamentarians.