Echelon Furor Ends in a Whimper

In the end, a year of hard work boils down to this: Echelon exists and the Europeans don’t like it, but there isn’t much they can do except wring their hands in impotent fury as the Americans continue spying on whomever they please.

STRASBOURG, France — In the end, a year of hard work boils down to this: Echelon exists and the Europeans don’t like it, but there isn’t much they can do except wring their hands in impotent fury as the Americans continue spying on whomever they please.

The resolution approved Tuesday by a European Parliament committee set up to investigate the satellite-based surveillance system condemned Echelon’s existence but, aside from agreeing to step up meaningful rhetorical pressure on the Americans, achieved very little.

The committee officially wrapped up its inquiry late Tuesday by passing more than 60 of 160 amendments before approving the entire resolution, 27-5. There were two abstentions.

Some of the amendments sought to add a harder edge to the language of committee head Gerhard Schmid of Germany, whose 113-page report was hailed for its balance and fairness, which is often politician-speak for blandness.

Giuseppe Di Lello Finuoli of Italy, one of three vice chairmen, protested that the committee’s emphasis on legalisms would not prevent Europeans from having their e-mail, faxes and phone conversations monitored by nosy Americans, along with their English-speaking partners, England, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Di Lello Finuoli believes the system widely known as Echelon — which Schmid’s report says may or may not be accurate — will continue to operate with impunity.

“That failure to protect European citizens will have been endorsed by the failure to take action,” Di Lello Finuoli said through the official translator.

“Everything will continue on as it has in the past. It is possible to conduct espionage from one country of the European Union on another without any consequences. This group has done some very good work, but I think the mountain has given birth to a mouse.”

That’s how his remarks were translated, at any rate.

Schmid defended his support of European investment in decryption, not just encryption, which some critics see as de facto acknowledgement that Europe has its own plans for an Echelon-type system. Then he hurried out of the meeting room, waving off questions and saying his comments would come at a press conference scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Nevertheless, committee chairman Carlos Coelho pronounced the yearlong inquiry a success, saying that given the parliament’s diverse constituency — one with a legendary reputation for fractiousness and squabbling — he was pleased by the level of consensus.

“I don´t think any of the amendments we approved was anything quite different,” Coelho said. “But there are more references to the United States than what was in the draft.”

For example, Amendment No. 105 “Calls on the Member States to negotiate with the USA a Code of Conduct similar to that of the EU.”

Not exactly the kind of tough talk expected to cow the Bush administration, but it may have some symbolic value if the full European Parliament approves the committee’s resolution in September.

Then there’s Amendment No. 94, stating that the committee “regards it as essential that an agreement should be … signed between the European Union and the United States stipulating that each … should observe … the provisions governing the protection of the citizens and the confidentiality of business communications applicable to its own citizens and firms….”

In other words, knock off the industrial espionage, Yank.

That expands on previous language urging the UN secretary general to push for Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to be updated so that it “guarantees the protection of privacy, into line with technical innovations.” Article 17 also calls upon the United States to sign this “Additional Protocol,” so that individuals can submit complaints to the Human Rights Committee set up under the covenant.

Language was also added referring to “authoritative sources” confirming a U.S. congressional report which estimated that economic intelligence funneled from the government could give U.S. companies up to $7 billion in added contracts.

Damning stuff, at least compared with the cautious tone taken by Schmid in his report, or even in the amendments he offered Tuesday, all of which were passed.

One of Schmid’s seven amendments, for example, noted that “the U.S. intelligence services do not merely investigate general economic facts but also intercept detailed communications between undertakings, particularly where contracts are being awarded, and they justify this on the grounds of combating attempted bribery…. (This) detailed interception poses the risk that information may be used for the purpose of competitive intelligence-gathering rather than combating corruption, even though the U.S. and the United Kingdom state that they do not do so.”

This focus on industrial espionage reflects the general thinking of many in the European Parliament that the threat to commerce is as much a concern as potential violations of individual privacy rights. But it was criticized by some committee members, at times quite fiercely.

“We are being completely hypocritical,” said Alain M. Krivine of France. “All countries are engaged in political and (industrial) espionage. It is just a question of power, and the United States has the most power. It is part and parcel of globalization. However, the United States are not the only ones who are promoting capitalism this way.”

Author: Steve Kettmann

News Service: Wired News


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