French security service opens inquiry into US spy system

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The Independent Online

France and the United States could be on a diplomatic collision course because of the launch of a criminal investigation in Paris into the activities of Echelon, the American electronic espionage system.

France and the United States could be on a diplomatic collision course because of the launch of a criminal investigation in Paris into the activities of Echelon, the American electronic espionage system.

The chief public prosecutor in Paris has asked the country's counter-espionage service to investigate the possibility that American interception of telephone calls and e-mails in France amounts to an "attack on the vital interests of the nation". The preliminary investigation, which could lead to a full-scale judicial and criminal inquiry, will also consider whether Echelon's electronic spying breaches the right to telephone privacy of French individuals and companies.

If the case proceeds, it might also cause embarrassment to the British Government, which shares in the information gathered by the Echelon system.

The investigation follows a formal complaint by a French Euro MP and former investigating magistrate, Thierry Jean-Pierre. A report presented to the European Parliament last year said that Echelon had been widely used, since the end of the Cold War, to spy on America's allies and to intercept commercial secrets.

The US, while still formally denying the existence of Echelon, has partly admitted the charge. Washington says that its espionage resources are used against businesses in friendly countries that offer unfair competition to US firms by bribing potential customers.

The European Parliament is expected to vote today to set up a committee of inquiry.

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