THE United States spied on conversations between Japan's trade minister and car executives during tense negotiations last June over Japanese vehicle exports to the US. As the threat of sanctions loomed large, and round after round of negotiations failed, American trade officials were accompanied everywhere by a small team of intelligence officers, according to a report in the New York Times. Each morning, they gave US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and his aides inside information gathered by the CIA's Tokyo station and the electronic eavesdropping equipment of the National Security Agency, sifted by CIA analysts in Washington. The paper said Mr Kantor received descriptions of conversations among Japanese bureaucrats and executives from Toyota and Nissan who were pressing for a settlement, and read about the pressures on Japanese Trade Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. When the negotiations came to a climax in Geneva, the intelligence team was in place at the Intercontinental Hotel, working alongside Mr Kantor's negotiators, offering assessments of how far the Japanese side could be pressed. President Bill Clinton made gathering economic intelligence a high priority of his administration, specifically information to protect and defend US competitiveness, technology and financial security in a world where an economic crisis can spread across global markets in minutes. But for the CIA the transition from Cold War warriors to industrial spy had been a difficult one, the New York Times said. At the Treasury Department, the US Trade Representative's Office and the Commerce Department, officials said they now received a torrent of information from the CIA. But the agency, they complained, often could not separate the vital from the trivial, and its analysis of economic data was still amateurish. Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers questioned whether it 'can add much value' to the financial information and analysis the private sector produces from a wealth of public information. The Japanese Government and car companies have not commented on the spying report.