"Who's Listening to Whom, and Why?"

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In the taxonomy of scandals, the most unintelligible to the public are often those regarding intelligence. That is one reason a growing controversy over Echelon an American system for monitoring communications in Europe threatens to damage transatlantic relations. But why this scandal, and why now?

The subject surfaced in February with a report to the European Parliament about an electronic surveillance network operated by the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It was troublesome then, but lately the issue has snowballed. Last month, both the E.U. and a French magistrate separately opened investigations into charges that the U.S. has been intercepting communications of European citizens and companies and feeding useful information to American firms.

There is little doubt that a system like Echelon exists. Reports say it is an eavesdropping and relay system that picks up voice and data traffic and sifts through it, looking for key words or phrases. Although journalists have claimed Echelon can sort through "billions" of phone calls, faxes and e-mail messages every day, its actual capacity is unknown to any but its operators.

It is not surprising that an allegation about someone vacuuming up private communications in Europe has struck a nerve. Remote cameras eye public spaces while law enforcement relies ever more on video and audio monitoring. The wonder of the personal computer is increasingly overshadowed by the suspicion that it has become a spy in the house, tracking our preferences to enrich marketers.

Thus discussion of Echelon was bound to cause anxiety. But the persistence of the controversy is odd, because something like Echelon has been around for decades and its existence has not been much of a secret. Efforts by the U.S. and Anglophone allies to build a powerful eavesdropping system reach far back into the cold war era. Russia and China have formidable operations too. France intercepts U.S. and other communications through its monitoring stations.

Behind the criticism of Echelon is the assumption that, after the cold war, the U.S. turned its antenna from the military challenge of the Warsaw Pact to economic competitors. Clinton administration efforts to promote exports fueled fears that the U.S. was using its national security assets to boost its trade advantage. But such thinking misses the mark about what American intelligence does.

The U.S. intelligence community has struggled amid personnel cuts and funding shortfalls to keep up with multiplying threats of the post-cold war world, including the spread of chemical and biological weapons, terrorism and the narcotics trade, not to mention the continued need for intelligence on great powers like China and Russia and on menaces such as Iraq. Keeping pace is tough enough; doing so when the volume of communications is increasing logarithmically makes the challenge Herculean. There have been instances of intelligence collection aimed at European companies. But these involved clear cases of lawbreaking: bribery of foreign governments for contracts illegal under U.S. law and international convention and sanctions-busting trade with Iraq and others. U.S. conduct in these matters is governed by law. The barriers to sharing intelligence with outsiders, including American corporations, are virtually insurmountable. The governments of Europe know this.

Governments cannot be expected to control debate in free societies, but it is striking that some France in particular have refrained from delivering the reassurances that would have quelled criticism of U.S. activities. The impression left is that the U.S. is hyperpuissant and dangerous. And resentment against "Anglo-Saxon" surveillance, as the French have expressed it, puts Britain on the spot. A partner in U.S.-led intelligence gathering and host to one of the largest listening posts, Britain is under pressure to choose between Prime Minister Tony Blair's declared intention of moving Britain to the heart of Europe and the "special relationship" with the U.S. The choice is a false one, and forcing it is the wrong move. The capability built by the U.S. and its partners is among the crown jewels of Western intelligence. It has been used responsibly, and, over decades, has prevented untold harm to both Americans and Europeans. The U.S. could help dampen concerns by explaining what Echelon isn't and discussing, as some have proposed, a "code of conduct" with its Continental allies. But European leaders need to reflect on the broad fabric of U.S.-European relations and ask if it is wise to pull so hard on the intelligence thread.

Daniel Benjamin is a former TIME correspondent and Steven Simon is assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Both served on the U.S. Security Council staff from 1994-99