NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Is A Security Agency Listening In?

November 15, 1999

High-ranking Republicans in Congress are concerned that the National Security Agency may be intercepting and reading telephone calls, faxes and e-mail Americans send overseas. Public concern has been building around Echelon -- the code name for a worldwide network run by the NSA and Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

  • The NSA has never publicly acknowledged the network, but the European Parliament issued a report in January 1998 claiming that the agency "routinely intercepted" such messages in Europe.
  • Meanwhile, Congress has added a provision to the fiscal 2000 intelligence budget that requires the agency to report within 60 days on its legal standards for intercepting communications in the U.S. and abroad.
  • The reporting requirement was sponsored by Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), after Rep. Porter J. Goss (R.-Fla.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, accused the agency of stonewalling when its lawyers declined a request for documents on the grounds that would violate attorney-client privilege.
  • Some reports say the Echelon system may intercept as many as 3 billion communications each day.

The NSA is Maryland's largest employer, with well over 30,000 employees -- but it keeps a very low profile, observers report.

NSA defenders assert it strictly adheres to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which prohibits the agency from deliberately eavesdropping on Americans, either in the U.S. or overseas -- unless it can establish probable cause to believe that they are agents of a foreign government committing espionage or other crimes.

Otherwise, any communication incidentally intercepted in the course of intelligence gathering abroad cannot be disseminated within the government and must be destroyed within 24 hours unless it contains "a threat of death or serious bodily harm" to some person.

Source: Vernon Loeb, "Critics Questioning NSA Reading Habits," Washington Post, November 13, 1999.


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