Associated PressWASHINGTON (AP) - Reacting to a spate of charges, a low-profile U.S. government spy agency is defending to Congress controversial information-gathering that allegedly includes eavesdropping on ordinary Americans.
February 27, 2000
NSA Defends Eavesdropping PolicyBy ALICE ANN LOVE, Associated Press Writer
The National Security Agency mailed a letter to all members of Congress last week that says: "We want to assure you that the NSA's activities are conducted in accordance with the highest constitutional, legal and ethical standards, and in compliance with statutes and regulations designed to protect the privacy rights of U.S. persons."
The letter, provided to The Associated Press, was signed by Kenneth A. Heath, the NSA's chief of staff for legislative affairs. It noted that the CBS's "60 Minutes" was airing a report on Sunday that criticizes the agency's activities.
The NSA is less well known by the American public than other U.S. spy agencies, such as the CIA. A joke in the intelligence community was that NSA was so secret that its initials stood for "No Such Agency."
In the CBS broadcast Sunday, a former Canadian intelligence agent said NSA cooperates with Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand to run a satellite listening operation. The eavesdropping operation, known as Echelon, allegedly monitors phone calls, e-mails and faxes in order to sift out useful information about foreign governments, drug trafficking and terrorism.
As an example, the Canadian, Mike Frost, said one woman ended up in Echelon's database as a possible terrorist because she told a friend on the phone that her son had "bombed" in a school play.
In addition, the European Parliament in a report last week accused the United States of using Echelon for commercial spying - a kind of industrial espionage - to help American companies win contracts over European competitors.
State Department spokesman James Rubin refused in a Feb. 23 briefing to confirm whether Echelon exists, but said the NSA "is not authorized to provide intelligence information to private firms," and operates "in strict accordance with American law."
In its letter to Congress, the NSA said that, as a matter of policy, it does not publicly confirm or deny specific intelligence activities.
"However, we can tell you that NSA operates in strict accordance with U.S. laws and regulations," the letter said.
Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said the NSA is "probably the most secretive agency of the U.S. government" and usually limits its communication with Congress to the House and Senate intelligence committees.
"In this case, they have broadcast this letter to everybody seeking to allay any anxiety from this recent attention," Aftergood said. "I think it's part of their growing concern about the NSA's public image."
Attached to the letter are several pages that describe legal constraints under which the NSA does its business, including a flow chart showing how activities are supervised by the Defense and Justice departments, as well as House and Senate committees on intelligence.
Also, the papers note that Americans are entitled by law to request to see all government records about themselves, including the NSA's.
Nevertheless, the American Civil Liberties Union has been requesting congressional hearings on Echelon for nearly a year. In a letter sent to the House Government Reform Committee in April 1999, the ACLU said: "It is important that Congress investigate to determine if the Echelon program is as sweeping and intrusive as has been reported."
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