By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Claims the British government operated an elaborate 10-year electronic snooping operation on virtually all phone, fax and e-mail communications in and out of Ireland has caused anger among politicians in Dublin.
Foreign Affairs Minister David Andrews has instructed the ambassador in London to raise the allegations about the phone tapping — made on a Channel 4 TV program — with the British authorities.
Fine Gael’s foreign affairs spokesman, Gay Mitchell, described it as "over the top" that almost every Irish communication appears to have been monitored.
"There seems to be pretty good information this was happening," Mitchell said. "You have to suspect that British Intelligence gets up to these games from time to time. But this is not just politically sensitive material, but commercial and private material as well."
Mitchell described the report as "disturbing" and said it had wider implications.
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"Suppose the IDA were in competition with Welsh or Scottish development authority for some American company to locate here and they transmitted their information by phone or e-mail or fax," he said. "Was that information used commercially to our disadvantage? I think we are entitled to know."
The claims about the systematic monitoring operation emerged following a decision to sell a vital cog in the alleged spying operation, a 13-story communications tower in Capenhurst in Cheshire.
Channel 4 said sources told the program that "although the primary justification for building the tower was anti-terrorism, the information it gathered was also of economic and commercial significance."
The 150-foot high British Ministry of Defense’s Electronic Test Facility, on a British Nuclear Fuels site, stands between two British Telecom microwave radio towers carrying Irish data traffic.
The Channel 4 program claimed the spying operation worked continuously from the late 1980s until 1998.
The high-tech tower is claimed to have given wide coverage of all government, commercial and possible IRA-linked data traffic as part of an interception and scanning network that includes similar facilities in Armagh and Cornwall.
Eight of the tower’s floors housed sophisticated electronic equipment and three contained interception ‘rials. There were special "dielectric" windows which are opaque to visible light but allow radio beams to penetrate.
The snoopers would have sorted through millions of calls and communications by sifting out messages with voice recognition technology, key words and numbers dialed.
Signals experts have made huge breakthroughs in the last ten years in specialist snooping technology that filters through streams of digital information.
The program claimed that when a new fiber-optic sub-sea communications cable from Dublin to Anglesey in Wales was planned in the mid 1980s, intelligence experts realized the opportunity for spying on electronic communications when it was relayed between microwave radio towers in Britain.
Initially they built a temporary interception system on the roof of the BNFL plant. When it proved successful, the Capenhurst Tower was built.
The British government refused to comment on the report.