"Today it gives 55,000 British and American operatives access to data gathered by 120 spy satellites worldwide. Every minute of every day, the system can process three million electronic communications."
One after another the shutters in Washington came down on the European Union delegation as soon as they mentioned Echelon.
No one in the United States Government would admit that the electronic spying system, the most powerful in the world, even existed. And if it did, they made clear, they would rather not go into it.
The National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and even the Department of Commerce refused to talk to the committee of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) on a fact-finding trip last month.
Stonewalled wherever they turned, the MEPs left, angry and frustrated, cutting short their trip.
Now, with the European Parliament's groundbreaking report into the global spy network published in Brussels, the MEPs who were left out in the cold know whom to blame. Not just the American authorities but the British Government, they are convinced, colluded in the obstruction.
The 108-page report, the fruit of seven months' investigation by the Parliament, does nothing to dampen the controversy long associated with the clandestine network and raises fresh, disturbing questions.
Echelon was set up during the Cold War by the United States, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia to collate electronic intelligence. The network has grown to keep pace with the explosion in information technology.
Today it gives 55,000 British and American operatives access to data gathered by 120 spy satellites worldwide. Every minute of every day, the system can process three million electronic communications.
The spy network is very much an Anglo-American show, with the Americans as senior partners, run from Fort Meade in Maryland, Menwith Hill, Yorkshire, and GCHQ at Cheltenham. In Germany, 750 Americans operate an intercept station near Bad Aibling, taken over by the US Army in 1952.
New Zealand espionage expert and author Nicky Hager says New Zealand's Waihopai surveillance facility near Blenheim eavesdrops on two major satellites funnelling enormous amounts of information across the Pacific, whether between Asia and the Americas or between countries on Asia's Pacific edge.
This daily barrage is fed through a computer system which sifts out messages containing keywords or individual names and divides them between various intelligence agencies for further study.
Officers of New Zealand's largest intelligence agency, the GCSB or Government Communications Security Bureau, sit in Wellington checking screen after screen of communications from Pacific sources.
"The bureau has a name designed to be forgotten," says Hager. "Despite a best-selling book about them, very few people know they exist."
The communications passed to the GCSB can come from any Pacific nation or source south of the equator and east of Papua New Guinea.
Other data received in New Zealand, but obtained from different areas, is never sighted here but sent direct to Washington or Canberra.
Hager doubts whether there is any political will in New Zealand to withdraw from this alliance as it would fundamentally alter our relationship with the United States.
One of Europe's main worries is the claim that Echelon gathers industrial espionage from European companies for American rivals.
Boeing and McDonnell Douglas are said to have beaten France to a $6 billion contract to supply Airbus jets to Saudi Arabia, thanks to Echelon intercepts of faxes and phone calls.
There has also been scathing criticism of Britain - and its obsession with secrecy - from its European partners for siding with the "Anglo-Saxon" club rather than Europe in espionage matters.
The MEPs were alarmed to learn that their mobile phones were being used to track their movements and could be transformed into bugging devices.
At least they can take some comfort from claims that the network is just as capable of being used against the United States.
A former employee of Canada's security agency has claimed that Canadian spies once managed to overhear the American ambassador in Ottawa discussing a pending trade deal with China on a mobile phone.
The information gained was used to undercut the Americans and land a $2.5 billion Chinese grain sale.
But while the European report is revealing, the authors did not vindicate all the claims made about the spy system. They failed to prove conclusively that Echelon had been used by the United States, or indeed Britain, for commercial spying on European competitors. And its scope is not as extensive as had been feared. But the report warned businesses and ordinary individuals that they were being spied on and that users should encrypt their e-mails. It said: "That a global system for intercepting communications exists ... is no longer in doubt. They do tap into private, civilian and corporate communications."
Nicky Hager expects increasing concern over Echelon and similar networks to encourage more individuals and businesses to turn to encryption, which will in turn pressure communication networks to offer such a service to customers.
"Moving to encryption is a similar step to deciding to start using e-mail. It's very simple, but it isn't a great hassle to intelligence agencies yet because hardly anyone knows about them other than the very people the United States says Echelon is aimed at, such as terrorists shipping plutonium."
Hager uses an apparently unbreakable encryption system which can be easily downloaded free from www.pgpi.org.
"As long as the person you are e-mailing has the same system, you simply push a button and the message can be decoded in 20 seconds. To break the encryption would take about 100 years and I don't think you'd be around to worry about it."
But even as the means to negate electronic surveillance becomes available, Hager fears the United States is moving to another level.
The Navy's newly launched $2.5 billion Seawolf-class attack submarine USS Jimmy Carter is the third of a class suspected of being capable of attaching tapping devices directly to the fibre-optic cables which criss-cross our oceans.
The 106.7m, 9297-tonne nuclear-powered vessel can dive to a depth of 800m where it can deploy minisubs and remote-controlled underwater vehicles.
Such taps would be extremely difficult to detect and easy to replace.
But if the European Union appears powerless to do much about such developments within America, the members' report has pointed out that Britain's role could breach the European Convention on Human Rights.
And, as the report was being debated in Brussels, the MEPs voiced their suspicion of a British hand in ensuring their investigation in Washington DC went nowhere.
Gerhard Schmid, the vice-president of the European Parliament, who drafted the report for the MEP Echelon committee, said: "We think perhaps it was one-half of this famous Anglo-American partnership telling the people in Washington not to be too open with us."
Elly Plooij-van Gorsel, vice-chairwoman of the committee, added: "The way we were treated in Washington was very insulting to a senior mission. We were very surprised when all these meetings began to be cancelled by officials using exactly the same language.
"The visit had been arranged by the EU mission in the US and we had been told it was all right. We are very concerned about the role we think the British Government has played in this. There is a lot of concern it was they who had told the Americans not to speak to us.
"But we must also question the behaviour of the British. When Britain held the [EU] presidency in 1997, I asked about Echelon and I was told it did not exist.
"Britain will have to decide where it wants to stand. How can we have a common European Union security policy if they continue with this attitude towards other member states."
The committee members did meet the oversight committee of Congress and former intelligence officials and civil liberties groups.
"Not one Government official would even admit even the name Echelon," said Ms Plooij-van Gorsel. "The only person who did was James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA. He said it was just a codename for a search engine."
Mr Woolsey had conceded that the United States did spy on European companies "but only because they bribe" to get lucrative contracts.
And although European states criticise Britain and the United States, they have been busy building their own electronic eavesdropping networks.
France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Denmark all have similar systems in place. But Echelon and the British connection is a difficult field for British members of the European Parliament.
One MEP, Neil MacCormick, says: "Obviously, national security should be protected, but the UK Government must be aware of its obligation not just towards human rights but member states of the European Union."
The four-year search for the truth about Echelon began in one of the more obscure outposts of the European Parliament, the Scientific and Technological Options Assessments unit, which keeps MEPs abreast of complicated areas of new technology.
In the 1970s the Labour MEP Glyn Ford had read a book called The Technologies of Political Control. He wondered whether the Parliament's researchers could lift the lid on the murky world of electronic surveillance.
Mr Ford pulled out of the race for an official position on the committee after eyebrows were raised in the Labour Party hierarchy.
This week he said he did not want to pursue past agendas but was looking forward.
"Maybe you cannot prove that Echelon exists but you can make a reasonable judgment. There are good reasons to believe it exists and it has been abused. There may not be hard evidence that it has been abused, but we want a system to guarantee that it isn't."
Mr Ford and his colleagues say the work raises fundamental issues about respect for individual rights.
But Echelon is not always the all-pervasive, powerful monster sometimes portrayed.
"Often," he says, "it just takes them so long to analyse this stuff that it is useless. Maybe in three weeks, they will find out that the Independent is planning to write an article on Echelon today."