Does Europe Covet Own Echelon?


BRUSSELS, Belgium - Maurizio Turco, an Italian member of the European Parliament, shook up the last scheduled meeting of the temporary committee investigating the Echelon interception system in more ways than one Wednesday afternoon.
Turco, who describes himself as a "radical," charged that the committee's year-long investigation may have raised international awareness about the satellite-based surveillance system, but it was in effect nothing more than a smokescreen.

"The fact is, the Europeans set the whole thing up to distract attention while they set up their own system," Turco alleged.
Committee chairman Carlos Coelho dismissed Turco's accusation as an attempt to grab the spotlight for himself, and there was no question that Turco has his own agenda.
Minutes after the meeting started, Turco moved for an adjournment on the grounds that parliamentary procedure had been violated by the failure to translate and circulate all the minutes from previous Echelon committee meetings.
What at first seemed a mere attention-grabbing ploy set off a lengthy discussion, and in the end the committee postponed its final vote on its resolution. It also delays consideration of the final version of a 113-page report on Echelon, prepared by Rapporteur Gerhard Schmid, a German Parliament member.
Now, a vote on whether to submit a formal protest to the United States concerning Echelon, originally planned for Thursday, has been pushed back to July 3.
But whether or not Turco -- president of a block called the Radical MEPs of the Lista Bonino -- was grandstanding, his charge that Europe is establishing its own Echelon-type system was not dismissed lightly.
The reasoning is simple enough: If the United States and its partners are monitoring telephone calls, faxes and e-mail through Echelon, can anyone be surprised if other governments covet similar capabilities?
Ilka Schroeder, a German Green Party member who spoke at the meeting, said that while she often disagrees with Turco, she thinks he might have a point about European efforts to establish their own version of Echelon.
She referred to recent talks among European ministers concerning the expansion of a program called ENFOPOL to include such sensitive areas as credit-card information and IP ports.
"This could be much worse than Echelon," Schroeder said. "If this is a report (from the Echelon committee) that pretends to protect the fundamental right to privacy in the European Union, then it must talk about ENFOPOL, because that could be a worse threat to privacy than Echelon.
"Even as a member of Parliament, it is hard to get information about what they have decided. They aim to have complete surveillance of anyone in the European Union in real time."
Her position is that all secret services are fundamentally untrustworthy and ought to be disbanded. She objects to the Echelon committee's emphasis on trying to bring the satellite-based surveillance activities of the United States -- in league with Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada -- under some kind of legal oversight, perhaps even through the World Trade Organization.
"This is not a matter of law," she said. "Secret services have broken laws so many times, you cannot just make a law. Any democratic control makes secret services more legitimate."
As for whatever efforts are underway to give Europe an Echelon-type system, Turco said he was serious about the charges he made in the meeting.
"I think that certainly in Europe, there is the political will to establish a snooping system which has the same technical aspects as Echelon, a kind of European Echelon," he said. "Surely in Germany, for example, there is already the technology that makes it possible."
Coelho, the Portugese Christian Democrat who oversees the committee, looked weary when the subject of Turco came up later.
"I can't understand why he says what he says, and I can't understand why he tables the amendments (to the resolution) that he does," Coelho said. "It seems to me he is trying to make a good headline in the Italian press. If I say something strong like that, I can make headlines, too. But I don't want to do that."
But as Schroeder pointed out, there were other signs during the committee meeting of strange currents at work.
For example, one of the 160 amendments up for discussion Tuesday -- Amendment 151 -- called on the European Commission and the member states "to invest in new technologies in the field of decryption and encryption techniques."
And if the point was lost on anyone, Erika Mann of Germany, who offered the amendment, reiterated the point in the meeting.
"If we are to have an independent security policy, and we've said that we want that in the European Union, then we should make the necessary investment in decryption," she said. "It's just as important as encryption."
Decryption? Not just encryption? Sounds like more fodder to get the conspiracy theorists running wild again.