London (CNSNews.com) - The European Parliament Wednesday agreed to set up a committee to investigative claims that a global spying network, run by the National Security Agency, has been abused to conduct commercial espionage for the benefit American companies.
In the next eight months or so, the committee will investigate whether the reported network, codenamed Echelon, even exists; and if so, whether its reported capacity to monitor billions of communications transmitted via satellite has damaged European businesses.
It will also look at ways in which individuals' privacy can be protected from this type of spying.
Lawmakers were divided over how to tackle the issue, which one far-right French deputy called an "Anglo-Saxon Calvinist" conspiracy against Europe. Some wanted an inquiry empowered to call witnesses, but eventually the legislature voted in favor of a "temporary committee" with limited powers.
Portuguese deputy Carlos Coehlo, who is expected to head the committee, said: "In addition to wanting to distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy, the commission will also try to ascertain how European citizens can see their privacy safeguarded."
Earlier, France launched a judicial inquiry into claims that the U.S. has used Echelon to benefit American firms bidding for lucrative contracts against European rivals.
The system is said to use listening stations located mostly in the U.S. and UK, and to be able to intercept massive numbers of phone, fax, data and email communications transmitted worldwide via satellite each day.
Both the U.S. and Britain have denied conducting commercial espionage through Echelon. Set up during the Cold War, the network also involves Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
French state prosecutor Jean-Pierre Dintilhac will undertake a preliminary investigation into the workings of the network, a spokesman announced Tuesday, adding that the probe would not necessarily lead to legal action.
At Dintilhac's request, France's counter-intelligence organization, DST, reportedly carried out a preliminary investigation into whether the monitoring could be construed as having been "harmful to the vital interests of the nation."
A French lawmaker had urged a judicial inquiry, claiming French citizens and companies were being prejudiced by Echelon.
Earlier this year Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou told the French parliament that Echelon had apparently been used to spy on commercial rivals to major American corporations involved in bidding wars.
She urged French businesses to be especially alert, and said vital information should never be contained in communications, especially those transmitted via satellite.
The European Parliament has considered a report claiming that Echelon spying had resulted in the European consortium Airbus losing out to Boeing Corp. in a 1993-4 bid for a $6 billion aircraft contract with the Saudi national carrier.
The French communication firm Thomson-CFS lost a radar contract in Brazil two years later to the American Raytheon Corp., again allegedly after the NSA intercepted communications relating to the deal.
A former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, James Woolsey, has confirmed that companies suspected of bribery and corruption and sanctions-busting have been monitored.
He said the U.S. discovered that Airbus representatives had been offering bribes to Saudi officials at the time the aircraft contract was being considered.
"U.S. intelligence agencies are not tasked to engage in industrial espionage or obtain trade secrets for the benefit of any U.S. company or companies," former State Department spokesman James Rubin said earlier this year.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair also denied the charges, saying "extremely strict rules" governed espionage activities.
Lawmakers in the British Conservative Party have suggested there may be a broader anti-U.S. agenda behind the dispute.
One Conservative member of the European Parliament, Daniel Hannan, said the extraordinary sharing of intelligence resources among the U.S. and its English-speaking allies resulted in "great paranoia among the kind of European federalist who sees the destiny of the EU to challenge the hegemony of the U.S."
Another Conservative Euro-MP, Timothy Kirkhope, added: "It would be convenient for some people with certain agendas to try and drive a wedge in what is a very important relationship [between the U.S. and Britain]."
"There are people with [European] federalist or integrationist plans whom I think would like to weaken if they can the strong alliance between ourselves and the Americans."
"I think there are reasons to believe there is some domestic policy in France that would be advantaged if such a thing could be achieved," Kirkhope added, noting the leading role of the French in protesting against the alleged spying.
Whatever the case, the civil liberties concerns about communications interception on a massive scale have prompted U.S. congressmen, led by Republican Bob Barr, to call for an inquiry. Congressional hearings are scheduled for later this year.
Barr has accused the NSA of "invading the privacy of American citizens." British lawmakers, who have been urging the Blair government to come clean, voiced similar concerns.
Also see earlier story:
NSA Spy Network Violates Civil Liberties, Says British Lawmaker (Feb 17, 2000)