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"Echelon" engaged months before terrorist attacks

The US National Security Agency (NSA) engaged the so-called Echelon communications monitoring network as long as three months ago, following warnings of possible terrorist attacks, according to a report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) newspaper.

Citing "information available to this newspaper", FAZ claimed Western and Middle East intelligence services had received warnings more than six months ago that terrorists were planning attacks using hijacked aeroplanes against "prominent symbols of American and Israeli culture" in the US and elsewhere.

Warnings had circulated among US, Israeli and apparently also UK secret services, the report said, citing sources in German security agencies. Israeli authorities also were following indications that Arab extremists planned to hijack Western planes within Europe and divert them toward Tel Aviv and other coastal cities, the paper continued.

Echelon is widely believed to be a satellite-based espionage network capable of monitoring worldwide communications at the behest of the US and other English-speaking countries. While US authorities have never officially admitted to its existence, a European Parliament investigative committee concluded recently that Echelon is real.

Human-rights and free-speech groups critical of the use of Echelon or other electronic monitoring systems have restated their position that the technology is ineffective since it failed to head off the attacks on 11 September. But some acknowledged that while they stood for information privacy for citizens in general, they did not oppose the use of Echelon in the fight against terrorism.

Richard Tomlinson, a former employee of the UK intelligence service MI6, told the FAZ that a terrorist organisation large enough to pull off the attacks in the US should have been obvious to secret services. Tomlinson spoke of an "obvious total failure" of intelligence, the newspaper said.

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