Court Voids U.S.-Europe Passenger Agreement

By John Ward Anderson and Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

PARIS, May 30 -- Europe's highest court on Tuesday overturned a two-year-old anti-terror agreement under which European airlines provide U.S. law enforcement agencies with detailed information about passengers traveling to the United States. The agreement was improperly crafted, the court ruled.

The information-sharing, which privacy advocates have criticized, can continue until Sept. 30 to give officials on both sides of the Atlantic time to fashion a solution, according to the ruling by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

U.S. government officials said they did not believe the decision would nullify the agreement in the long term. "The content of the agreement was not what the court found issue with," said Jarrod Agen, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Instead, the court found issue "with the process of how the agreement was signed."

"There should be enough time to put together a new legal framework that will support the essence of the agreement," said Lufthansa spokesman Tom Tripp.

The agreement requires European airlines to give the United States electronic access to the "passenger name record," a computerized form that includes 34 fields of information, some of which are not necessarily filled out, including the passenger's name, address and credit card information. U.S. officials say the information is needed to more thoroughly screen arrivals to the United States.

The airlines are required to forward information about all of their passengers within 15 minutes of a plane's takeoff. In recent years, several planes from Europe have been turned back in mid-flight or forced to land short of their destination to give U.S. officials more time to check out questionable passengers.

U.S., European and airline officials said they were not surprised by the ruling, and they pledged to work together to find a way to continue to satisfy the U.S. demand for information about people traveling to the United States. They said there would be no disruption of flights or other inconveniences to passengers during the busy summer tourist season as a result of the decision.

"The ruling ensures that there is no lowering of data protection standards, no effect on passengers, no disruption of transatlantic air traffic and that a high level of security is maintained until September 30," European Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger told reporters.

In a telephone interview, a U.S. official in Brussels read a similarly worded statement.

"We've been in touch with European institutions to talk about how to deal with what came down," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "No one knew what it would say until today, but there were contacts between European institutions and U.S. authorities to agree to handle this in a smooth way, whatever happened."

The agreement had been approved by the European Commission -- the European Union's executive body -- in May 2004, but it was opposed by the European Parliament, the E.U.'s elected lawmaking body. The Parliament challenged the agreement in court for, among other reasons, violating the privacy of passengers.

The high court instead struck down the measure for "lacking an adequate legal basis," saying that the law under which it was approved -- the E.U. Data Protection Directive -- was meant to ensure a common data protection standard across the E.U., and not for processing personal data for public security reasons, according to a statement by the Association of European Airlines (AEA), which represents some of Europe's biggest airlines.

The United States has warned of long security checks at U.S. points of entry if passenger information is not provided before arrival, and has threatened to fine airlines $6,000 per passenger and revoke their landing rights for not turning over data.

It was unclear whether collection of the data has averted any terrorist strikes. According to the BBC, U.S. and European officials have reviewed the implementation of the agreement, but their conclusions are classified.

The United States originally wanted to store the passenger data for 50 years, but in a compromise prior to finalizing the May 2004 deal, agreed to save the information for 3 1/2 years. Passing over meal orders and other specialized information that could identify a passenger's religious or ethnic background was also prohibited.

Alexander reported from Washington.

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