December 13, 2000, 3:00 PM — IN JULY 1999, A FRONT page story in The New York Times lifted the lid on
a federal plan to allow government agents to monitor e-mail communications and other
information moving across private networks. The purpose of the plan, officials said,
was to alert law enforcement agents to possible network attacks that might cripple
government operations or the nation's economy.
Privacy advocates, such as those who had sent a draft of the plan to The New
York Times, warned that the proposed system, which was to be called the Federal
Intrusion Detection Network, or Fidnet, could be a first step toward a powerful
government surveillance system that could easily undermine civil liberties. Others
agreed, and within three weeks Congress deleted the $2 million in startup money that
the White House had requested for the $1.5 billion project. In the end, Fidnet was not
a victim of left-wing privacy freaks but of a broad coalition of popular forces,
including an effort led by Dick Armey of Texas, a Republican representative and House
Armey's point man on the issue was aide Richard Diamond, who, two days after The
New York Times story appeared, helped Armey draft a letter to Attorney General
Janet Reno demanding answers. Armey wanted to know the extent to which the government
planned to monitor private computer networks; he wanted to know if the government
planned to monitor any company that carried general Internet traffic; and he wanted to
know how the government intended to ensure the privacy of individuals.
Diamond was pleased, of course, when Congress voted to kill funding for Fidnet; he
thought it was a dangerous idea, and of course, the political victory meant lots of
good press for his boss. But even with Fidnet stalled, Diamond was not persuaded that
private corporations and private citizens were safeguarded from government
eavesdropping. Like many people with access to the intelligence loop in Washington,
Diamond knew about another surveillance system that included the interception of e-
mail, cellular phone messages and more. This other effort, organized by the National
Security Agency (NSA), was known to many as Echelon, and while it was said not to
operate in the United States, it was believed to have been working in several other
countries for many years.
Reached by phone after Congress had denied funds to Fidnet, Diamond was happy to
discuss his concerns about that proposal. But when asked if he had heard of Echelon,
Diamond fell silent, admitting later that what he had heard about Echelon suggested it
was every bit as disturbing as Fidnet.