US attorney general: obtacles block renewal of US-EU anti-terror data accord

Friday, April 9, 2010

Obstacles block US-EU anti-terror data accord

MADRID — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday that obstacles continued to block the relaunching of a U.S.-EU anti-terror data-sharing accord.

It stems from a secret program launched after the Sept. 11 attacks that gave U.S. authorities access to European financial data, but was found to have skirted Europe’s strict privacy rules.

News of the program broke in 2006, angering EU legislators. An interim deal lapsed late last year and U.S. and EU officials have since been trying to reach an agreement to restart it.

“There are issues that we still have to work through,” Holder said at a news conference following a EU-U.S. ministerial meeting on counterterrorism cooperation.

But he reiterated his confidence that a deal would be struck “relatively soon.”

“I think we have committed to being creative in trying to craft solutions to the issues that still divide us, ” he said, without giving any details of what the impediments were.

“What is important is that we are united in our determination to ensure the safety of our people and to use all the tools that we possibly can,” Holder added.

The matter was complicated last month, when the European Parliament rejected extending that temporary deal because there were not enough safeguards for civil liberties. It and EU governments must jointly agree any major international agreement.

On Friday, EU Commissioner for Justice Vivian Reding said she hoped data sharing could be restarted in the coming months with another temporary deal which EU governments will likely approve April 22. The Parliament will also have to vote on it again.

She said the EU could then start discussing a longer-term deal with the U.S. that could demand concessions of the Americans. She previously said Washington should be prepared to share banking data with European authorities.

“This discussion should put into equilibrium the questions of security, which are in the interests of Europeans and of the American side,” she said.

Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, who chaired the meeting, echoed Holder’s confidence of a prompt resolution.

“I think there will be an accord and there will be one soon,” he said.

The Obama administration argues that the Terrorist Financing Tracking Program, or TFTP — referred to as the SWIFT program in Europe — has helped protect lives on both sides of the Atlantic by providing numerous leads in counter-terror operations.

Under the program, the Belgium-based SWIFT European bank transfer consortium gave U.S. authorities access to European financial data. SWIFT routes about 11 million financial transactions daily between 7,800 banks and other financial institutions in 200 countries, recording customer names, account numbers and other identifying information.

U.S. officials insist the program as it stands contains sufficient protection and that information collected is properly protected and used only in anti-terror probes.

The EU now plans to add new data protection guarantees to the deal, including a ban on transferring bulk data — but not leads — to other countries. It also wants data to be held no longer than five years — and says it wants to terminate data-sharing if the U.S. doesn’t keep to the new privacy restrictions.

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