TOKYO –– A U.S.-led spy network has intercepted Japanese diplomatic communications for 20 years to keep track of Tokyo's economic activities, a major newspaper reported Wednesday.
The network, known as Echelon, focused mainly on electronically transmitted information pertaining to trade and fishing, but also monitored ships transporting plutonium in the South Pacific, the nationwide Mainichi newspaper said.
The article cited Nicky Hagger, a New Zealand researcher who it said interviewed about 50 government, military and political sources familiar with the network.
The report did not elaborate on the plutonium shipments. Resource-poor Japan, which depends on nuclear power for about 30 percent of its electricity needs, periodically imports from Europe shipments of a uranium oxide and plutonium mixture, known as MOX.
The network began eavesdropping on official Japanese communications in 1981, channeling the data back to intelligence agencies in the United States, the newspaper said.
New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau from 1990 used its Waihopai signals base to read documents sent via satellite from the Japanese Embassy, the report said.
The Waihopai facility – and similar facilities in other Echelon members Australia, Canada, Britain and the United States – can intercept fax, e-mail or telephone communications.
The New Zealand facility sent its findings to the United States' National Security Agency, the report said. The NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency are believed to be responsible for Echelon operations.
New Zealand government officials said they never comment on intelligence matters.
The Echelon network, which includes Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, was set up at the beginning of the Cold War for intelligence-gathering and has grown into a network of intercept stations across the globe.
European media reports have suggested that Echelon has listened in to vast numbers of telephone calls, fax transmissions and e-mails, prompting concern over privacy violations and allegations of industrial espionage.
U.S. officials have never publicly confirmed the network exists and deny that the United States engages in industrial espionage.
© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press