Washington Last week, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., maneuvered an amendment into the national security budget to evoke some answers from the notoriously close-mouthed National Security Agency about a controversial surveillance system code-named Project Echelon.
Project Echelon began with a secret post-World-War-II pact between the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, countries housing ECHELON's half dozen listening posts. These groups funnel intelligence to the NSA and receive in return technology sharing with the NSA to monitor their own people and a chunk of the budget.
The project has five "ear-in-the-sky" satellites capable of monitoring sounds from thousands of miles away. They allow ECHELON to intercept virtually any internationally transmitted phone call, fax, e-mail or data transfer for the ostensible purpose of tracking international terrorist groups or drug cartels. But unlike many spying relics of the Cold War, ECHELON is aimed at surveillance of civilian communications, such as business and personal e-mails. Barr's office estimates ECHELON intercepts up to 2 million transmissions per hour.
While the NSA will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the ECHELON system, a report commissioned by the European Parliament last year confirmed that every communication in Europe has been subject to surveillance for years and the system can decode any clever encryptions. More alarmingly, European business intelligence has been known to leak from the NSA to American businesses, providing American businesses with illicit information on mergers, take-overs and bids.
But the NSA is prohibited from gathering domestic intelligence. So Barr has sought a report from the NSA to ensure that it is not collecting information without the legal authorization or the consent of the American people.
By law, according to John Pike, a military analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, the NSA can record and mark a conversation with an American and an international, via phone, e-mail and fax. But the NSA must black out the name of the American and use a denotation of "U.S. Citizen" for privacy reasons or the information must be immediately discarded. Barr's recent request, however, seeks documentation of every instance where the NSA did not mark out the name of the American, breaking privacy laws enacted in the 1970's.
"I am extremely concerned there are not sufficient legal mechanisms in place to protect our private information from unauthorized government eavesdropping through such mechanisms as Project ECHELON," Barr said after a House floor debate.
Originally, when House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., approached the NSA with questions about Project ECHELON, the super-secret organization hid behind "attorney-client privilege." Goss responded with a hold on the NSA's budget.
Of course, no super computer can process 2 million interceptions an hour. The NSA therefore looks for key words and phrases, including: bomb, militia, gun, explosives and all manner of drug jargon. But other words on the list are related more to domestic issues than international terrorism. Examples are: Oliver North, Vince Foster, Malcolm X, Delta Force, Randy Weaver, Davidian and Whitewater.
Barr's request of the NSA won't affect the project in the slightest, according to Pike. "They are going to continue to gather anything they want to, but the wild card is what will be revealed in the report. We can assume that the NSA did not flat out break the law, but we can also assume that Barr won't be told much and the public will be told less" about Project ECHELON.
Pike says the "NSA denies everything. They will admit only what the initials NSA stand for, which many believe is 'Never Say Anything' or 'No Such Agency.' The CIA are veritable blabbermouths compared to the NSA."
-- Jack Anderson and Douglas Cohn are columnists for United Feature Syndicate.