U.S. upbeat about anti-terror accord with E.U.

Holder confident Bush-era data-sharing program considered key to investigations will be relaunched

Published April 8, 2010 6:35PM (EDT)

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday he is confident an accord will be reached shortly with the European Union to relaunch a Bush-era data-sharing program the U.S. considers key to anti-terror investigations.

Holder said he and other U.S. officials would listen to the EU allies' concerns about the accord's effect on civil liberties during a one-day EU-U.S. ministerial meeting in Madrid on Friday focusing on counterterrorism cooperation.

"One of our goals during these meetings will be to outline the extensive privacy safeguards that we have put in place to govern the TFTP, Holder told reporters in Madrid, referring to the Terrorist Financing Tracking Program. "I'm actually confident that in a relatively short period of time the program will be up."

Holder was to meet with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Justice Minister Francisco Caamano and Interior chief Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba later Thursday.

On Friday, he will meet with the EU officials along with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Treasury Department officials. Vice President and EU Commissioner for Justice Vivian Reding and EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom also will be there.

The data-sharing deal stems from a secret program launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that gave U.S. authorities access to European financial data but skirted Europe's strict privacy rules.

News of the program broke in 2006, angering EU legislators.

The European Commission, the EU's executive body, has now drawn up fresh proposals after the European Parliament rejected earlier ones as having insufficient safeguards.

The Obama administration argues that the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program has helped protect lives on both sides of the Atlantic and should continue with European cooperation.

European governments are seeking wide changes and safeguards to protect civil liberties as they renegotiate a deal stopped in its tracks by a vote of the European Parliament in February.

The gap between the two sides has shown the complicated contours of the Obama administration's efforts to set a centrist course on national security.

Even as the administration struggles at home to remain vigilant against terrorism while separating its policies from the Bush White House's hard line, U.S. officials are committed to maintaining the data-sharing program abroad.

"Each day we go without it, we run the very real risk that information crucial to preventing an attack ... is not available to U.S. and EU authorities," said David Cohen, assistant treasury secretary for terrorist financing.

Speaking Wednesday at a forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Cohen voiced frustration about the impasse.

"I don't know what else we can or, frankly, that we need to do to ensure the protection of personal financial data," he said.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Belgium-based SWIFT European bank transfer consortium has given U.S. authorities access to European financial data. The agreement was kept secret until 2006, when legal worries that the deal could violate EU privacy standards forced it to be redrawn.

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.

American officials say SWIFT has provided new leads, corroborated identities and uncovered relationships between suspects in an al-Qaida-directed plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights in 2006.

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.

Such a deal would formalize a secret program that skirted Europe's strict privacy rules by transferring millions of pieces of personal information from the U.S. offices of SWIFT to American authorities.

Since the existence of the U.S. anti-terror program was disclosed in 2006 -- angering European legislators -- American authorities have promised that the information it collects from the databases is properly protected and used only in anti-terror probes.

Reding, the EU commissioner for justice, has promised to take far more account of civil liberties. "During the past decade, Europe's policies have too often focused only on security," she said recently. "And neglected justice."

She will soon decide changes to another counterterrorism cooperation deal that swaps details on airplane passengers between Europe and the U.S. -- and has threatened to investigate the wider use of body scanners at airports.

Hugo Brady, an analyst at the Centre for European Reform, a political think tank, said European governments are now eager to analyze financial data before it is handed over to the U.S.

American officials are unlikely to accept this because they prefer to scan bulk data with their superior technology, and "they don't trust the European security services to do as good a job as they would do themselves," he said.


Barrett reported from Washington and Giles from Madrid. Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Aoife White in Brussels contributed to this report.

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