The Wall Street Journal Europe, op-ed page

March 30, 2000


Spies Like Us

By Kenneth Neil Cukier


Every now and then the issue of "friendly spying" -- the practice of snooping among allied countries -- hits the media, causing a little uproar that usually dies down fast. Now the pot has been stirred again by reports that the U.S. and Britain spy on Europe using an extensive surveillance system called "Echelon." The European Parliament, which last month issued a report on Echelon, is scheduled to hear testimony today from the European Commission and representatives of member-state governments on the matter. The Parliament is also likely to establish a special investigative committee next month.


Of course, U.S. monitoring of communications abroad has long been a well-established fact. During the Cold War, many a Warsaw Pact communique landed on the U.S. president's desk the morning after it was issued. Today, U.S. officials claim the eavesdropping is aimed at more modern threats to security, such as terrorism and drug trafficking, though a former head of the CIA has admitted that it's also used to stop bribing by European companies. The Europeans suspect it is also used to help U.S. companies gain a competitive edge abroad.


Missing from the allegations, however, is one overlooked aspect of the debate surrounding friendly spying, namely, who else does the same thing? The short answer is everyone, to varying degrees of magnitude and success. A more specific answer is France.


Call it "Frenchelon": An international system of spy satellites and surveillance stations spread throughout France and its overseas territories that systematically eavesdrops on communications traffic in the U.S. and elsewhere. Monitoring stations reportedly exist in French Guyana, New Caledonia, and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to four points in mainland France and Corsica. The country admits such technology exists and that it regularly performs international surveillance activities, although it claims the system is aimed at preventing security threats such as international terrorism.


Although we do not know the official name of "Frenchelon," one French intelligence official familiar with the operation privately confirmed that the program does exist, but on a "vastly smaller scale" than Echelon. The French system intercepts roughly two million messages per month, compared with Echelon's "billions of messages per hour" as Duncan Campbell, the author of the European Parliament's study, claims. (The French official put Echelon's interceptions significantly under that amount, at around three million messages per minute.)


Part of the momentum propelling "Frenchelon" along is France's fear of the U.S.'s overwhelming superiority in surveillance capabilities. The French intelligence establishment has made no secret of its outrage that the country depends on U.S. surveillance information, as in the case of U.S. satellite imagery during the conflicts in Kosovo and Iraq. What's more, French politicians have continually voiced suspicion about U.S. espionage within its borders. The country went so far as to reverse its long-standing ban on encryption technology last year partly as a measure to protect French corporate data from the prying eyes of other nations.


But "Frenchelon" may not be France's alone. The espionage system could well serve as the start of a program for pan-European intelligence cooperation, intended to counter-balance the Anglo-American Echelon. Such high-tech spy gadgetry is expensive, and a single country like France lacks the financial means to foot the bill itself. Germany is said partially to fund France's surveillance initiative in return for access to the information it collects. It shouldn't come as a surprise, considering that the two countries already cooperate on military reconnaissance satellites systems.


If everybody is guilty of friendly spying to a greater or lesser extent, the question becomes what happens to the information that is retrieved. James Woolsey, director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1993 to 1995, recently acknowledged in these pages that the U.S. regularly collects economic information in cases such as commercial bribery and overseeing the sale of so-called "dual-use" technologies that have both civilian and military applications, like supercomputers. As for passing along trade secrets to American firms, Mr. Woolsey dismissed the idea: "most European technology," he wrote, "just isn't worth stealing."


Despite such denials -- or perhaps because of them -- the Europeans remain irked. The French, poised to investigate "Echelon" with a commission of their own, are quick to recall that in December 1995 a number of U.S. Embassy personnel were expelled from France under accusations of spying during a period of French-U.S. trade negotiations. Two years later, a U.S. official was forced to leave Germany under a similar cloud of suspicion.


As for the French, it's not as clear what happens to the data once it's intercepted. According to Jean Guisnel, a respected journalist covering intelligence activities for the French weekly Le Point , the information obtained from "Frenchelon" goes directly to the heads of French companies, who share cozy relations with the state. And in terms of economic espionage in general, France has been a prime suspected violator for some time.


Now that the broad question about Echelon has been raised, European countries will likely prefer to handle it on a bilateral inter-governmental basis with the U.S. and Britain, where their ability to influence policy is stronger than among the media microphones at the European Parliament. In fact, the Parliament is prevented from addressing issues of national security, which is why all the complaints about Echelon have focused on privacy rights and the economic consequences, where the Parliament does have jurisdiction. Once the national-security card is played, the Parliament will be forced to stand down.


Yet to some degree, Echelon will not follow the trend of other friendly spying incidents; it can never be shunted away entirely. Fueled on by the Parliament's committee of inquiry, the issue will linger, providing ample fodder for privacy advocates to raise the important questions about how advanced technologies threaten individual freedom. But as Europeans beat their breasts about Echelon, they might do well to look up to the heavens and consider that France, among others, watches and listens to them too.


Mr. Cukier is international editor for Red Herring magazine, which covers technology and business.