Intelligence bill targets NSA, Echelon upgrades

A bill that would authorize appropriations for the fiscal 2000 operations of the U.S. intelligence community includes funding for infrastructure upgrades at a key facility in what many suspect is a global, electronic surveillance network.

According to language in a joint report on the fiscal 2000 Intelligence Authorization Act, an undisclosed amount of funds have been earmarked for upgrades to the Menwith Hill signals intelligence listening post in England. The top-secret facility is widely suspected of being one of the central European-based processing centers for the "Echelon" system, an electronic surveillance network sponsored by the National Security Agency.

The Cold War-vintage global spy system consists of a worldwide network of clandestine listening posts capable of intercepting electronic communications such as e-mail, telephone conversations, faxes, satellite transmissions, microwave links and fiber-optic communications traffic. Known as Echelon, the system came under attack last year after the Scientific and Technological Options Committee of the European Parliament pledged a full-scale investigation into suspected NSA privacy abuses ["European Union may investigate U.S. global spy computer network", fcw.com, Nov. 17, 1998].

Commenting on the floor of the House, Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) praised the House/Senate conference report, which was agreed to Nov. 9, for its insistence that NSA be made to account for its methods of intercepting electronic communications. "We direct...the NSA to report in detail on the legal standards that it employs for the interception of communications," Goss said.

Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.) said that although NSA is facing "tremendous challenges coping with the explosive development of commercial communications and computer technology...[the agency] has not demonstrated much prowess in coping with the challenge."

According to Bishop, a "sustained funding increase" may be necessary to fix NSA's dwindling eavesdropping capabilities. "Action is...imperative since the nation cannot navigate with an impaired sense of hearing," he said.

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