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France reviews U.S. surveillance system


PARIS - A French prosecutor has begun a preliminary investigation into whether the U.S. global surveillance system, which listens in on millions of telephone calls, faxes and electronic messages each day, is a threat to French well-being.

The prosecutor, Jean-Pierre Dintilhac, has ordered France's counterintelligence agency, DST, to appraise the actions of the system, Echelon. The system links computers in at least seven sites around the world to receive, analyze and sort information captured from satellite communications.

If the French agency finds the system "harmful to the vital interests of the nation," legal proceedings could begin, though it is difficult to see how a U.S. government agency could be sued in a French court.

Still, the issue is taken seriously in Europe. Many fear that America's vast surveillance system, developed during the Cold War, is being used to further U.S. economic interests.

U.S. officials have repeatedly denied that. But the issue continues to arouse passions. This is particularly true in France, where even the justice minister, Elisabeth Guigou, contended in February that Cold War-era spy systems had been converted to "economic espionage."

Earlier this year, the European Parliament held hearings on the subject, which led to an emotional debate. A report commissioned by the parliament and written by a British journalist said evidence indicates that the Echelon system had twice helped U.S. companies gain an advantage over Europeans, though few details were provided. The parliament is deciding whether to create a commission to continue its investigation of Echelon.

A spokesman for Dintilhac, Marie-Annick Darmaillac, said the prosecutor had decided to begin his investigation after receiving a letter from a member of the European Parliament.

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