U.S. looks to provide Europeans access to courts in privacy cases

The Obama administration is seeking to widen its access to information about terrorism suspects in Europe by opening the door to U.S. courts for Europeans who suspect that their privacy rights have been violated by the U.S. government, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Wednesday.

In a speech in Athens, Holder said the administration will urge Congress to provide European Union citizens with the same rights as Americans in cases of “intentional or willful disclosures of protected information.” In return, European countries would share more information with the United States about suspected terrorism activity, especially the movement of European citizens in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

“In a world of globalized crime and terrorism, we can protect our citizens only if we work together, including through sharing law enforcement information,” Holder said.

Privacy has been a particularly fraught issue between the United States and Europe over the past year, after disclosures about the reach of surveillance by the National Security Agency. At the same time, U.S. intelligence officials and their European counterparts are increasingly concerned about the possibility of their citizens receiving training from terrorist groups in countries such as Syria and Iraq and then returning home to carry out attacks.

As many as 12,000 foreigners are thought to have traveled to Syria to join the fighters attempting to topple the government of Bashar al-Assad. Last month, a 22-year-old Florida man became the first U.S. citizen known to have taken part in a suicide bombing in Syria since the conflict there erupted.

It’s unclear whether Congress would support legislation providing Europeans with access to U.S. courts in privacy cases. Such access could allow non-U.S. citizens to seek compensation or redress for the government’s refusal to rectify errors in cases in which their names are mistakenly included on a no-fly list, for example.

Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, said that such legislation could remove an impediment to negotiations between the United States and the European Union over a wider agreement on information-
sharing.

“Legislative action by the U.S. Congress establishing enforceable judicial redress rights for Europeans in the U.S. can open the door to closing the deal on the data protection umbrella agreement,” said Reding, who added that the commission had been urging similar protections for the past three years.

“This is an important first step towards rebuilding trust in our transatlantic relations,” Reding said. “Now the announcement should be swiftly translated into legislation. . . . Words only matter if put into law. We are waiting for the legislative step.”

Sari Horwitz joined The Post’s investigations unit in 2006 after 23 years at paper, where she has reported on crime, homeland security, education and social services.
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