Obama administration convinced EU to drop measure that would have blocked NSA spying

June 12, 2013

President Obama meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Senior officials in the Obama administration successfully lobbied the European Union's executive body to drop an "anti-FISA clause" from its privacy legislation over a year ago, the Financial Times reports. That measure, if adopted, could have blocked the U.S. requests for European citizens' computer and telephone data that are made as part of the just-revealed PRISM program.

The measure was dropped from consideration in January 2012, after debate within the European Union, according to the British newspaper. Its name is a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a U.S. law that allows it to monitor foreign communications. The wider privacy legislation is pending.

The Financial Times story may help shed light on the remarkable outrage that the PRISM revelations have drawn from a number of European leaders. The reaction has been particularly severe in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to raise the issue directly with President Obama, and one lawmaker compared it to East Germany's infamous Stasi secret police. Surely much of this is driven by public outrage in Europe. But it's easy to see how European leaders who knew about the U.S. effort to remove the "anti-FISA clause" might be feeling particularly betrayed.

The Financial Times says that Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and top commerce department lawyer Cameron Kerry, whose brother happens to be Secretary of State John Kerry, both visited Brussels to lobby European Union officials. "White House officials were making the rounds here and especially targeting commissioners who have close relationships to the US to get them to remove Article 42," an EU official told the paper, referring to the "anti-FISA clause" by its official name.

Ultimately, the European Union was persuaded to drop the rule, apparently out of fear that it might complicate a proposed trade deal between the U.S. and EU and that the rule would in any case be too difficult to enforce, as most tech companies that would provide the data are in the United States.

Computer privacy can be a sensitive issue in Europe, particularly Germany, where U.S. tech companies are treated with a touch more suspicion than they are at home. Tech giants such as Google have become politically unpopular in France for their perceived violations of privacy and are outright opposed in Germany, where activists have successfully forced changes in Facebook's use of user data and halted Google's street views project.

We in the U.S. might see tech companies and U.S. intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency as very different sorts of animals, but in Europe they are increasingly seen as part of a larger American privacy invasion. The now-public revelation that the U.S. lobbied the European Union to drop a measure that might well have blocked PRISM snooping would seem to risk exacerbating European mistrust of the U.S. on privacy. European elected officials may find themselves vulnerable to charges of being strong-armed by the Americans, something that is likely to only sharpen their anger with Washington.

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Max Fisher · June 12, 2013