October 21, 1999, Thursday


It may not be 1984, but is Big Brother reading your e-mail? There are some who say the government is doing just that. Here's our own Gary Matsumoto.


MATSUMOTO: "Jam Echelon" is the clarion call on the Web to cyber- savvy activists around the world -- also known as hacktivists -- to gum up the works for a super-secret global electronic surveillance network called Project Echelon. Echelon is reportedly run out of the National Security Agency at Fort Gordon Meade in Maryland, in conjunction with governments in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Any e-mail is allegedly fair game; any fax or phone call.

UNKNOWN COMMENTATOR: By some stories I've seen, up to two million communications every hour of every day, and the only basis apparently on which the government is listening in on these conversations is the computer picks up a certain key word that you don't know what it is.

MATSUMOTO: This web site has some ideas -- words like Unabomber, e-mail filled with such words to attempt to clog up Echelon. The National Security Agency faxed a statement saying it does not confirm or deny the existence of Echelon, adding that NSA operates in strict accordance with U.S. laws and regulations in protecting the privacy rights of U.S. persons.

There are many skeptics who complain that NSA and Project Echelon are accountable to no one.

UNKNOWN COMMENTATOR: Echelon sucks up billions of communications every week. This dwarfs anything that goes on domestically in terms of wiretapping, and it's really kind of a black box. We don't know what's inside. We don't know who's being targeted, what they're being targeted for, and what's being done with the information.

MATSUMOTO: Are we one step closer to that Orwellian nightmare of Big Brother and a state that eavesdrops on everyone?

As things stand now, there's no way of knowing. Congressman Barr is among those who want hearings on Capitol Hill about Echelon to help ensure that privacy is a right that Americans don't lose without their even knowing it.

In New York, Gary Matsumoto, Fox News.

ZAHN: And joining me now, Georgia Republican Congressman Bob Barr, a member of the Judiciary Committee; and John Pike, an intelligence analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. Welcome gentlemen.

PIKE: Good to be here.

BARR: Thank you.

ZAHN: Congressman Barr, how much is the government snooping on all of us?

BARR: By all accounts that we've been able to tell, far too much and without any oversight or reasonable or probable cause basis on which to listen in to by some stories I've seen, up to two million communications every hour of every day. And these are communications such as e-mails, Internet transmissions, phone conversations.

And the only basis apparently on which the government is listening in on these conversations is the computer picks up a certain key word that you don't know what it is. It then scoops up those communications, feeds them into a computer and uses them for heaven knows what. But this, if in fact the government is doing this, and there have been a number of reports that it is, that raises very serious concerns about the government spy agency snooping on American citizens without proper constitutional and legal safeguards in place.

ZAHN: Which agencies can we prove are doing this right now, congressman?

BARR: Well, we haven't been able to prove anything yet because the agencies are refusing to acknowledge even the existence of the program. And that is why I have called for and thus far have been successful in legislation in obtaining a requirement that the NSA, the National Security Agency, simply provide to the Congress the legal basis on which it is conducting such surveillance. And I've also called for and expect that we will have public hearings early next year on this.

ZAHN: Mr. Pike, Congressman Barr said we sometimes don't know what the words are that would trigger the government looking at our e-mails. Do you have any suspicions?

PIKE: Well, I think that obviously just about anything that's in the news these days having to do with out national security is the sort of thing that our foreign intelligence agencies are properly looking for. They, after all, are at the forefront of our defense against international terrorists, international crime, arms smugglers, drug kingpins. And obviously, when we're trying to track down Osama bin Laden or go after Colombian drug cartels, the National Security Agency is going to be monitoring international communications looking for information that will help us bring them to justice.

ZAHN: But what's the purpose of monitoring domestic e-mails? What are they trying to learn from the average e-mailer?

PIKE: Well, the National Security Agency almost certainly is not monitoring purely domestic communications. They are, however, trying to monitor most international communications, and unavoidably since Americans are a very chatty people, that's going to involve law and under international -- and under regulation, they're not supposed to retain information about the American side of that communication. They can't retain information on U.S. persons. And if they follow those regulations, I don't think that Americans would have nearly as much to worry about as Osama bin Laden does.

ZAHN: Congressman Barr, is there any indication any of these online companies are cooperating with the government to help them eavesdrop on our communications on a daily basis?

BARR: Well here again, we don't know. But the problem is, Paula, you cannot separate out the way the computers switch domestic conversations off of international satellites and vice versa constantly, you could have a purely domestic conversation or e-mail transmission from one point in the U.S. to another, and it might at some point in that instantaneous transmission go over an international telecommunications satellite.

So saying that, well, the government doesn't really listen in on communications from one point in the U.S. to another or involving U.S. persons, we don't think is accurate. We think that this is scooping up, vacuuming up vast numbers of domestic American conversations without any probable cause or reasonable basis, and that's what worries us.

ZAHN: Congressman, what is one key word you think they're looking for right now -- besides anthrax?

BARR: Probably something as simple as the word "militia" or "bomb" or "gun." Those are some that I've heard used. And if in fact they are scooping up that broadly, this has very little to do with Osama bin Laden. They always like to say that because they want to scare people. But if they are in fact scooping up every communication that they can involving computer transmissions and digitized phone conversations that mention these sorts of words, you can very easily see that you are talking about millions of communications every day.

ZAHN: Isn't that kind of creepy, John Pike? You've have to tell me in 10 seconds or less.

PIKE: As long as the rules are conformed with, I think we're OK. The question is whether NSA's really obeying the rules.

ZAHN: That's I guess what Congressman Barr is trying to get to the bottom of. Thank you all, gentlemen -- appreciate your time.