Trade Secrets : Is the U.S.'s most advanced surveillance system feeding economic intelligence to American businesses?

Kurt Kleiner
Mother Jones November 1, 1999

No one is surprised that the United States uses sophisticated electronic spying techniques against its enemies. But Europeans are increasingly worried about allegations that the U.S. uses those same techniques to gather economic intelligence about its allies.

The most extensive claims yet came this spring in a report written for the European Parliament. The report says that the U.S.

National Security Agency, through an electronic surveillance system called Echelon, routinely tracks telephone, fax, and e-mail transmissions from around the world and passes on useful corporate intelligence to American companies.

Among the allegations: that the NSA fed information to Boeing and McDonnell Douglas enabling the companies to beat out European Airbus Industrie for a $ 6 billion contract; and that Raytheon received information that helped it win a $ 1.3 billion contract to provide radar to Brazil, edging out the French company Thomson-CSF. These claims follow previous allegations that the NSA supplied U.S. automakers with information that helped improve their competitiveness with the Japanese (see "Company Spies," May/June 1994).

Is there truth to these allegations? The NSA is among the most secretive of U.S. intelligence agencies and won't say much beyond the fact that its mission is "foreign signals intelligence." The companies involved all refused to comment.

"Since the NSA's collection capabilities are so grotesquely powerful, it's difficult to know what's going on over there," says John Pike, an analyst at the watchdog group Federation of American Scientists, who has tracked the NSA for years.

This much is known: The NSA owns one of the largest collections of supercomputers in the world, and it's an open secret--as documented in the European Parliament report--that Echelon vacuums up massive amounts of data from communications satellites and the Internet and then uses its computers to winnow it down. The system scans communications for keywords--"bomb," for instance--that might tip off analysts to an interesting topic.

Fueling allegations of corporate espionage is the fact that defense contractors and U.S. intelligence agencies are linked extensively through business relationships. Raytheon, for instance, has large contracts to service NSA equipment, according to the European report.

Englishman Glyn Ford, the European Parliament member who initiated the study, wants the NSA to come clean about its activities in Europe. And the Europeans have some leverage on this issue, if they decide to use it. In a drive to improve surveillance, the United States is pressuring European governments to make telephone companies build eavesdropping capabilities into their new systems. But if that's what the U.S. wants, says Ford, it's going to have to be open about what information it's collecting: "If we are going to leave the keys under the doormat for the United States, we want a guarantee that they're not going to steal the family silver," he says.

In the meantime, congressional critics have started to wonder if all that high-powered eavesdropping is limited to overseas snooping. In April, Bob Barr (R-Ga.), a member of the House Government Reform Committee, said he was worried by reports that the NSA was engaged in illicit domestic spying.

"We don't have any direct evidence from the NSA, since they've refused to provide any reports, even when asked by the House Intelligence Committee," Barr says. "But if in fact the NSA is pulling two million transmissions an hour off of these satellites, I don't think there's any way they have of limiting them to non-U.S. citizens."

Last May, after the NSA stonewalled requests to discuss the issue, Congress amended the intelligence appropriations bill to require the agency to submit a report to Congress. (The bill is still in a conference committee.) And the NSA will face more questions when the Government Reform Committee holds hearings on Echelon and other surveillance programs.

"We ought to prevent any agency from the dragnet approach--where they throw out a net and drag anything in," Barr says.