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Industrial Espionage By U.S.?

European Parliament members investigating allegations about a U.S.-led electronic eavesdropping network known as Echelon head for Washington next month seeking a response to charges that secrets gleaned are used to benefit U.S. companies.

Chairman Carlos Coelho and about a dozen members of his special committee plan to meet with members of Congress, Bush administration officials, the "intelligence community" as well as privacy organizations during the week of May 7, spokesman David Lowe said Thursday.

Lowe described the trip as "extremely important" for the committee, which intends to have the draft of its final report and recommendations finished by late May.

"Until we have had such discussions, we clearly are not in a position to form a balanced judgment on the basis of allegations that have been made," Lowe said.

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.

Last year, European media reports suggesting that Echelon was listening in to billions of telephone calls, fax transmissions and e-mails set off a new round of concern over privacy violations and allegations of industrial espionage.

After six months of testimony from communications and security experts, the European Parliament's vice president conceded in March that the committee had no solid evidence that Americans were passing on European trade secrets to give U.S. businesses a competitive advantage.

"Until we get a secret service or industry to come forward ... we have no proof that it is happening," Gerhard Schmid said.

U.S. officials have never publicly confirmed the Echelon network exists and deny that the United States engages in industrial espionage.

However, in a series of interviews last year, former CIA director James Woolsey acknowledged the United States secretly collects information on European companies.

But the director insisted it did so only in cases when companies were suspected of violating U.N. or U.S. sanctions, of offering bribes to win contracts, or to keep tabs on the sale of so-called "dual-use" technologies that have both civilian and military applications, like supercomputers.

"It is not a question of industrial espionage for the benefit of American companies," Woolsey told the French newspaper Le Figaro. "That is something the U.S. absolutely doesn't do."

Lowe said the committee expects to vote on the recommendations by the end of June and that they would forward it to the full 626-member EU assembly by September.

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