NSA moves to defuse Echelon controversy

Days before the Feb. 27 broadcast of a "60 Minutes" story focusing on the

U.S.-backed global electronic surveillance network known as Echelon, the

National Security Agency sent a letter to every member of Congress reassuring

them that the super-secret agency respects the privacy of U.S. citizens.

The letter, delivered on Feb. 24 by Kenneth Heath, chief of staff for

NSA's Legislative Affairs Office, included attached documents about NSA

and congressional oversight and a list of frequently asked questions concerning

allegations that the agency is tuning in on private citizens' communications

around the world and rifling through them with the help of mainframe computers

at its Fort Meade, Md., headquarters.

Echelon is NSA's Cold War-vintage global spying system, which 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. The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are NSA's

partners in the system. However, the European Union last year raised concerns

that the system may be regularly violating the privacy of law-abiding citizens.

NSA assured lawmakers that the agency'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 agency stopped short, however, of confirming

the existence of any ongoing intelligence gathering operations.

But in a speech delivered Feb. 17 at the Kennedy Political Union of

American University, NSA director Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden acknowledged,

"it is inevitable that NSA will inadvertently acquire information about

U.S. citizens in the course of its foreign intelligence collection activities."

Steven Aftergood, an intelligence specialist with the Federation of

American Scientist's Project on Government Secrecy said the "60 Minutes"

episode reflects poorly on Congress' oversight of intelligence operations.

"Questions about Echelon have to be raised on '60 Minutes' because they

are not publicly addressed in Congress," Aftergood said. "[Rep. Porter]

Goss, [Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence],

may be satisfied with the accountability he receives, but many members of

the public obviously are not. This will have to change."

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