WASHINGTON — The word from Brussels is that the European Parliament is worried about Echelon, but after a year of investigating, can't find out much about it.
Echelon is a global electronic eavesdropping operation run by the National Security Agency in partnership with Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In the face of official American denials, European companies suspect that America's "big ear" provides a way to give American industry a competitive advantage in international trade.
The NSA, with its acre after acre of recorders, computers, and decoders, can intercept telephone calls, fax messages, and e-mail communications - virtually everything that goes through the air, and some traffic that does not.
My friend James Bamford has written in his prodigious book "Body of Secrets" that without proper oversight, Echelon could become a sort of cyber-secret police.
So there we go again with the NSA, created by President Truman in 1952 as a cold-war agency. It was so secret that its name was a secret, and some joked that NSA stood for "No Such Agency."
But it was there and it was powerful, as I discovered in 1975, when I was detained by US Marine guards for standing outside the agency's vast perimeter in Maryland trying to film a narration for CBS News.
The NSA had its finger in many a cold-war pie. The U2 spy flight shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 was, in part, an NSA eavesdropping operation.
The Navy surveillance ship Pueblo, captured off North Korea in 1968, was an NSA operation. So was the USS Liberty, attacked by Israel during the Middle East war in 1967.
The agency was brought out of the shadows in a Senate investigation of intelligence agencies in 1975 in a hearing that the Ford administration tried to block. And for good reason. The NSA had to confess that, in violation of its mandate to eavesdrop only on foreigners, it had, on orders from the Nixon White House, listened in on international phone calls of 1,700 Americans on a "watch list" of antiwar dissidents, along with drug smugglers.
So now we have Echelon, the "big ear" that makes Europe so nervous. A committee of inquiry from the European Parliament came to Washington last month, but the NSA refused a meeting. Now the European committee has written a report proposing an international agreement to guarantee privacy protection.
Don't hold your breath waiting for the United States to sign it.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. His memoir, 'Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism' (Pocket), has just been published.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor