The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) engaged the so-called Echelon communications monitoring network, following on warnings of possible terrorist attacks, as long as three months ago, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) newspaper reported.
Western and Middle East intelligence services had received warnings more than six months ago that terrorists were planning attacks using hijacked airplanes against "prominent symbols of American and Israeli culture" in the U.S. and elsewhere, the FAZ said Wednesday, citing "information available to this newspaper."
Warnings had circulated among U.S., Israeli, and apparently also U.K. 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 U.S. and other English-speaking countries. While U.S. authorities have never officially admitted to its existence, a European Parliament investigative committee has concluded that Echelon is real.
Human-rights and free-speech groups that have been critical of the use of Echelon or other electronic monitoring systems restated their position that the technology is ineffective, since it failed to head off Tuesday's attacks. But some acknowledged that they while they stand for information privacy for citizens in general, they do not oppose the use of Echelon in the fight against terrorism. Richard Tomlinson, a former employee of the U.K. intelligence service MI6, told the FAZ that a terrorist organization large enough to pull off Tuesday's attack should have been obvious to secret services. Tomlinson spoke of an "obvious total failure" of intelligence, the paper said.