London (CNSNews.com) - Members of the European Union parliament Thursday called for a full inquiry into allegations that a US-led global espionage network has been abused to help American companies vying for contracts against European competitors.
The Green Party led the calls for a special committee of inquiry, a rarely used device last employed to investigate "mad cow" disease. That probe led to tighter food safety controls in the 15-member EU.
According to a detailed report presented to the parliament last month, the Echelon system allows the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on billions of phone, fax, e-mail and data communications.
The report alleged the system - set up during the Cold War and involving the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - had been used to steal commercial secrets, to the advantage of such American corporations as Boeing.
In a lively debate in Strasbourg, France Thursday, lawmakers from across the political spectrum demanded a probe. Jean-Claude Martinez, of the far-right National Front in France, spoke of an "Anglo-Saxon Calvinist" conspiracy, which he said showed that Britain's real allegiances lay with "Washington, Ottawa, Wellington and Canberra."
This was Prime Minister Tony Blair's idea of European solidarity, he concluded.
Georges Berthu, from another right-wing French party, said Echelon was a dangerous attack on the sovereignty of member states and called for an end to the spying.
Also supporting a committee of inquiry was Paul Lannoye, representing the left-wing Green Party in Belgium. If such a system of industrial espionage did exist, he said, it would be an intolerable attack on human rights.
Similar views were echoed by other lawmakers, according to a transcript of the proceedings, sent to CNSNews.com from Strasbourg.
Robert Evans, of the British Labor Party, stressed that UK intelligence activities were tightly controlled by parliament, and were in line with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Before the debate began, the lawmakers were addressed on the subject by a representative of the EU's executive Commission.
Erkki Liikanen, commissioner responsible for information, told them the Commission had requested clarification from the U.S. and on Wednesday received written assurances from the State Department that "the U.S. intelligence community is not engaged in industrial espionage.
"Further, the letter states that the United States government and the intelligence community do not accept tasking from private firms and do not collect proprietary commercial, technical, or financial information for the benefit of private firms," Liikanen said.
He told the lawmakers the Commission had received assurances from Britain - as the one EU member allegedly involved in Echelon - that interception was only authorized for the purposes of "national security, safeguarding the nation's economic well-being and the prevention and detection of serious crime."
The Commission was asked whether it could confirm the existence of the Echelon network. Liikanen said it was clear that "technological possibilities to intercept electronic communications exist" and there was no evidence that they were not being used.
He said it was a priority to enhance the security of communications by using encryption, but that there needed to be some restrictions on encryption products so that they could not be used by organized crime.
Liikanen assured the parliament that the Commission "attaches utmost importance to the respect of human rights and rule of law" and would not fail to act if European community law was breached.
He underlined the need to strike a balance between the right to privacy and the legitimate needs of national security.
While member states were required to safeguard individuals' right to privacy by protecting personal data, activities by the intelligence agencies of member states fell outside the scope of community law.
Liikanen was addressing an issue that has raised differences among lawmakers about the possible legal basis for an inquiry. Some feel the parliament is not competent to investigate security matters, while others argue that the spying could be probed under the heading of data protection or competition.
Dr. Yaman Akdeniz, director of the British group Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties Group, told CNSNews.com Thursday that when seeking a balance between the right to privacy and national security needs, Akdeniz it should always weigh in favor of human rights and privacy.
"National security is a wide concept and the criteria for national security should be narrowly defined," he said.
Akdeniz, who is based at the Cyberlaw Research Unit at the University of Leeds, challenged the statement by a British Euro-MP that intelligence activities were carefully supervised in this country.
"Currently the UK interception capabilities are under review by parliament with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. The Bill in its current format is a disgrace for human rights and it is very much arguable that [it] complies with the European Convention on Human Rights."
Akdeniz supported the Euro parliament's call for a probe.
"Such an inquiry at a EU level is needed for more transparency and accountability of such systems," he said. "Certainly mass surveillance cannot be justified at an international level."
Former CIA director James Woolsey has in several interviews, most recently on Tuesday, confirmed that the U.S. has been covertly intercepting information on European companies, but said only companies suspected of bribery and corruption or sanctions-busting were targeted.
Woolsey said European technology was not worth stealing.