29 January 2001

From: "Dan Verton" <Dan_Verton@computerworld.com>
To: jya@pipeline.com
Date: Mon, 29 Jan 2001 17:54:08 -0500
Subject: Europe's preoccupation with Echelon

In response to the posting of my questions to Duncan Campbell regarding Echelon, I thought it might be useful (and appropriate) to layout a few points that due to the whims of editors and space constraints in a news magazine did not see the light of day in my recent writings on Echelon.

I must admit that it was a little surprising and somewhat instructive to see what I thought was a private email end up in the public domain. But it is there (thanks to Mr. Campbell) as are Mr. Campbell's responses and I'd like to make a few important points about Mr. Campbell's position as I understand it, as well as the issue of Echelon and its reported role in economic espionage operations.

At the risk of turning this debate into a case of sparring journalists, I would point out that Mr. Campbell has made a living out of the Echelon controversy during the last few years. Some can make the argument that it is in his interest to see the controversy (or conspiracy, depending on your preference and which side of the Atlantic you live on) get bigger, deeper and wider. But, of course, he is right that the same could be said of me or any other journalist who covers Internet security -- the bigger the threat the better the copy. However, many journalists, like myself, who write for outlets with national and international distribution channels (in my case Computerworld is part of a publishing empire that extends to almost every country in the world and helps fill the Web pages of CNN with technology coverage) understand what it is like to be accused of exaggeration and hyperbole, and take great pains to avoid it in their work. It is not a recipe for longevity in the journalism business.

I am not accusing Mr. Campbell of dabbling in the theoretical and labeling it fact, nor am I accusing him of orchestrating some great fiction. His work covering Echelon for the European Union has been instrumental in the level of understanding that now exists about a system people should know about. However, there are important issues to be discussed regarding the direction that the Echelon debate has taken recently. In fact, it was the comments of others, particularly many senior current and former members of the U.S. intelligence community, regarding the nature of the European inquiry and the apparent tunnel vision of the Campbell inquiry that led me to ask the questions in the first place. I think, unfortunately, that Mr. Campbell considered the act of me simply asking the questions as a challenge to his journalistic integrity, which it was not.

It is relatively obvious even to the neophyte Echelon observer that the debate is no longer centered on whether or not the system exists, or even how those who remain in intelligence circles today refer to it (its code name). The real question is the system's use and the potential for abuse. Those are valid questions that the great majority of observers in the U.S. feel have been answered satisfactorily by the U.S. agencies in question, particularly the NSA. In fact, there are many issues facing the NSA today (too many to mention here) that one could use to make the case against the all-encompassing nature of Echelon, the least of which are technical.

Unfortunately, many believe Mr. Campbell is unable to make the distinction between offensive economic espionage operations and the supporting role of leveling the global economic playing field, uncovering subversive and predatory foreign targeting of U.S. industry, and weeding out foreign intelligence operations as they apply to U.S. military technology that exists in the hands of private U.S. firms. I am aware of what NSD-67 is and the overall direction it has taken the U.S. intelligence community. However, NSD-67 does not overtly address the issue of economic intelligence. Furthermore, the specific shuffling of priorities called for under NSD-67 have not yet been made public.

More than one intelligence official has confided in me that in their view Mr. Campbell is unable to differentiate between the two (economic espionage and leveling the playing field in Europe, where Euro-Echelons abound), and in their view this has hurt the overall objective of the European inquiry and has unmasked other political drivers that the European Parliament would prefer remain thinly veiled behind concerns about the personal privacy of European citizens. This was not my conclusion, but the conclusion of others.

There are European detractors as well, but their testimony is rarely reported. According to Herve Masurel, representative of the European Council presidency who testified on Nov. 28 before the EP's Temporary Committee on the Echelon Interception System, "apart from unsubstantiated statement, there is no proof that this network was used for commercial purposes or in ways damaging to the individual liberties of citizens of the European Union." No European company has ever complained publicly of losing a fair competition to a U.S. firm because of Echelon.

This, of course, doesn't even begin to measure the damage a company (U.S. or otherwise) today would suffer if clear-cut evidence of wrongdoing was produced. I don't care who you are, if you allow NSA keys to be planted in your software or if you willingly accept direct assistance from the NSA on global contracts (contracts where the playing field is assumed to be level and fair and free from criminal activity) you will not be in business very long in this market. The IT staffs of companies around the world today are too talented not to uncover this type of activity.

That was the basis of my inquiry to Mr. Campbell. Nothing more, nothing less.

Dan Verton
Senior Writer