Other data received in New Zealand, but obtained from different areas,
is never sighted here but sent direct to Washington or Canberra.
Hager doubts whether there is any political will in New Zealand to
withdraw from this alliance as it would fundamentally alter our relationship with the
One of Europe's main worries is the claim that Echelon gathers
industrial espionage from European companies for American rivals.
Boeing and McDonnell Douglas are said to have beaten France to a $6
billion contract to supply Airbus jets to Saudi Arabia, thanks to Echelon intercepts of
faxes and phone calls.
There has also been scathing criticism of Britain - and its obsession
with secrecy - from its European partners for siding with the "Anglo-Saxon" club
rather than Europe in espionage matters.
The MEPs were alarmed to learn that their mobile phones were being used
to track their movements and could be transformed into bugging devices.
At least they can take some comfort from claims that the network is
just as capable of being used against the United States.
A former employee of Canada's security agency has claimed that Canadian
spies once managed to overhear the American ambassador in Ottawa discussing a pending
trade deal with China on a mobile phone.
The information gained was used to undercut the Americans and land a
$2.5 billion Chinese grain sale.
But while the European report is revealing, the authors did not
vindicate all the claims made about the spy system. They failed to prove conclusively that
Echelon had been used by the United States, or indeed Britain, for commercial spying on
European competitors. And its scope is not as extensive as had been feared. But the report
warned businesses and ordinary individuals that they were being spied on and that users
should encrypt their e-mails. It said: "That a global system for intercepting
communications exists ... is no longer in doubt. They do tap into private, civilian and
Nicky Hager expects increasing concern over Echelon and similar
networks to encourage more individuals and businesses to turn to encryption, which will in
turn pressure communication networks to offer such a service to customers.
"Moving to encryption is a similar step to deciding to start using
e-mail. It's very simple, but it isn't a great hassle to intelligence agencies yet because
hardly anyone knows about them other than the very people the United States says Echelon
is aimed at, such as terrorists shipping plutonium."
Hager uses an apparently unbreakable encryption system which can be
easily downloaded free from www.pgpi.org.
"As long as the person you are e-mailing has the same system, you
simply push a button and the message can be decoded in 20 seconds. To break the encryption
would take about 100 years and I don't think you'd be around to worry about it."
But even as the means to negate electronic surveillance becomes
available, Hager fears the United States is moving to another level.
The Navy's newly launched $2.5 billion Seawolf-class attack submarine
USS Jimmy Carter is the third of a class suspected of being capable of attaching tapping
devices directly to the fibre-optic cables which criss-cross our oceans.
The 106.7m, 9297-tonne nuclear-powered vessel can dive to a depth of
800m where it can deploy minisubs and remote-controlled underwater vehicles.
Such taps would be extremely difficult to detect and easy to replace.
But if the European Union appears powerless to do much about such
developments within America, the members' report has pointed out that Britain's role could
breach the European Convention on Human Rights.
And, as the report was being debated in Brussels, the MEPs voiced their
suspicion of a British hand in ensuring their investigation in Washington DC went nowhere.
Gerhard Schmid, the vice-president of the European Parliament, who
drafted the report for the MEP Echelon committee, said: "We think perhaps it was
one-half of this famous Anglo-American partnership telling the people in Washington not to
be too open with us."
Elly Plooij-van Gorsel, vice-chairwoman of the committee, added:
"The way we were treated in Washington was very insulting to a senior mission. We
were very surprised when all these meetings began to be cancelled by officials using
exactly the same language.
"The visit had been arranged by the EU mission in the US and we
had been told it was all right. We are very concerned about the role we think the British
Government has played in this. There is a lot of concern it was they who had told the
Americans not to speak to us.
"But we must also question the behaviour of the British. When
Britain held the [EU] presidency in 1997, I asked about Echelon and I was told it did not
"Britain will have to decide where it wants to stand. How can we
have a common European Union security policy if they continue with this attitude towards
other member states."
The committee members did meet the oversight committee of Congress and
former intelligence officials and civil liberties groups.
"Not one Government official would even admit even the name
Echelon," said Ms Plooij-van Gorsel. "The only person who did was James Woolsey,
a former director of the CIA. He said it was just a codename for a search engine."
Mr Woolsey had conceded that the United States did spy on European
companies "but only because they bribe" to get lucrative contracts.
And although European states criticise Britain and the United States,
they have been busy building their own electronic eavesdropping networks.
France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Denmark all have similar
systems in place. But Echelon and the British connection is a difficult field for British
members of the European Parliament.
One MEP, Neil MacCormick, says: "Obviously, national security
should be protected, but the UK Government must be aware of its obligation not just
towards human rights but member states of the European Union."
The four-year search for the truth about Echelon began in one of the
more obscure outposts of the European Parliament, the Scientific and Technological Options
Assessments unit, which keeps MEPs abreast of complicated areas of new technology.
In the 1970s the Labour MEP Glyn Ford had read a book called The
Technologies of Political Control. He wondered whether the Parliament's researchers could
lift the lid on the murky world of electronic surveillance.
Mr Ford pulled out of the race for an official position on the
committee after eyebrows were raised in the Labour Party hierarchy.
This week he said he did not want to pursue past agendas but was
"Maybe you cannot prove that Echelon exists but you can make a
reasonable judgment. There are good reasons to believe it exists and it has been abused.
There may not be hard evidence that it has been abused, but we want a system to guarantee
that it isn't."
Mr Ford and his colleagues say the work raises fundamental issues about
respect for individual rights.
But Echelon is not always the all-pervasive, powerful monster sometimes
"Often," he says, "it just takes them so long to analyse
this stuff that it is useless. Maybe in three weeks, they will find out that the
Independent is planning to write an article on Echelon today."