For those joining the story late--like the vast majority of American media outlets--the National Security Agency's mysterious Echelon surveillance program is finally getting a close look in Washington. This comes two years after a report for the European Parliament first claimed that "within Europe, all e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency." The report further alleged that Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom regularly shared electronic surveillance data with the U.S.
The revelations attracted intense media interest in Australia, including a prime-time TV report that teased out an admission from Australian officials that yes, Echelon existed. After that, the European report didn't seem so kooky.
In November, the American Civil Liberties Union launched a Web site, www. echelonwatch.org, dedicated to watching the watchmen. And in December the Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the NSA in an attempt to get a definitive answer to whether Echelon is used to monitor electronic communications within the United States. Of course, a clear "yes" would mean the NSA is violating the law.
Now Congress seems serious about getting some answers about the program. In the past, the NSA has stiff-armed requests for information about Echelon. But Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), a former federal prosecutor and CIA analyst, hasn't taken no for an answer. He plans to hold hearings on Echelon before the House Government Reform Committee this year. If they take place, they will be the first oversight hearings dealing with U.S. intelligence gathering since the Church Committee hearings 25 years ago.