NSA Admits to Spying on Princess Diana
By Vernon Loeb
The National Security Agency has disclosed that U.S. intelligence is holding 1,056 pages of classified information about the late Princess Diana, inspiring a flurry of sensational headlines this week across London's tabloids.
"America's spy chiefs admitted last night they snooped on Princess Diana for years -- and learned some of her most intimate love secrets," The Mirror reported on Thursday. The Daily Record claimed that the NSA intercepts "have gone on right until she died in the Paris car crash with Dodi Fayed."
The truth, while intriguing, is unlikely to be so lurid. The source of the Fleet Street speculation was a simple, two-page NSA denial of a Freedom of Information Act request. In the denial, released last month, the super-secret U.S. spy agency admitted possessing a Diana file.
The document says nothing about the contents of those 1,056 secret pages, why they were gathered or how they were obtained. One U.S. intelligence official said yesterday that the references to Diana in intercepted conversations were "incidental."
Diana, the official insisted, was never a "target" of the NSA's massive, worldwide electronic eavesdropping infrastructure. The NSA system sucks up millions of electronic signals from around the world every hour, but only "targeted" communications are actually analyzed and deciphered after a vast array of supercomputers sort them out on the basis of programmed search terms, such as "Saddam Hussein."
The Diana controversy is not the only, or the most serious, dispute in Europe that has raised the profile of the reclusive NSA.
The giant spy agency, Maryland's largest employer, has been the subject of intense controversy in Britain and across Europe since a report released in January by the European Parliament concluded that "within Europe, all e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency."
The report focused on a system called Echelon through which the NSA and its spy partners in Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia share communications intercepted from around the world and systematically divide the huge task of analyzing the "take."
"Each of the five [countries] supply 'dictionaries' to the other four of keywords, phrases, people and places to 'tag,' and the tagged intercept is forwarded straight to the requesting country," according to the report.
"The end of the Cold War has not, apparently, brought an end to the [NSA's] Echelon eavesdropping system," a state-funded Russian daily, the Rossiyskaya Gazeta, complained last month. "This system has become a weapon of 'economic warfare.' "
Il Mondo, an Italian weekly news magazine, called Echelon "this incredible communications vacuum cleaner."
Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said he can't understand why the Echelon controversy has gone unnoticed in the United States. The lack of interest, he acknowledged, may stem from the fact that the NSA is prohibited by law from targeting American citizens for communications intercepts, here or abroad.
"What is clear," Aftergood said, "is that the U.S. and our allies promiscuously collect electronic communications around the world. Whether the descriptions of Echelon are accurate or not, that much is definitely true."
The Freedom of Information Act request seeking classified material on Diana was submitted earlier this year by an Internet news service based in New York, apbonline.com.
In denying the request, the NSA disclosed existence of a 1,056-page Diana file and reported that Fort Meade, where the agency is located, had produced 39 "NSA-originated and NSA-controlled documents," totaling 124 pages.
Those documents, the NSA denial said, had been classified top secret "because their disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security."
If unclassified and released, one U.S. intelligence official explained, the damage would be caused not by the information about Diana, but because the documents would disclose "sources and methods" of U.S. intelligence gathering.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company