Belgium Rules Sifting of Bank Data Illegal

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 29, 2006

PARIS, Sept. 29 -- A secret U.S. program to monitor millions of international financial transactions for terrorist links violated Belgian and European law and will have to be changed, the Belgian government said Thursday.

The decision, announced by Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, came as the country's Data Privacy Commission released a 20-page report finding that the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, had improperly turned over data from millions of global financial transactions to U.S. anti-terrorism investigators.

"It has to be seen as a gross miscalculation by SWIFT that it has, for years, secretly and systematically transferred massive amounts of personal data for surveillance without effective and clear legal basis and independent controls in line with Belgian and European law," the report says.

Leonard H. Schrank, SWIFT's chief executive, said in a telephone interview that the cooperative "believes we complied with everything and respected to the fullest extent possible the privacy law in Belgium. But the trouble is data privacy laws in Europe are quite difficult to follow. They're not drafted for national security issues."

SWIFT said in a statement that it had relinquished data to the U.S. Treasury Department only after it had been "subject to valid and compulsory subpoenas" from U.S. authorities.

The Belgian ruling is the latest in a string of European complaints about how the United States is conducting global operations against terrorism. European governments, politicians, human rights groups and citizens have also criticized the treatment of inmates at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the operation of secret prisons by the CIA -- including some reportedly in Europe -- and the CIA's extrajudicial transfers of terror suspects.

Europeans tend to support strong efforts against terrorist groups -- many of their countries have terror cells within their borders, and two, Britain and Spain, have suffered major attacks on their transit systems. But many Europeans believe that U.S. policies go too far and fuel radicalism in the Muslim world.

Belgian authorities announced no plans for legal action against SWIFT, which conveys funds among 7,800 banks in 206 countries and territories. Verhofstadt called the anti-terrorist monitoring "an absolute necessity" and said U.S. and European negotiators should find a way to bring it into compliance with European law.

Asked about the Belgian ruling, U.S. Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said in an e-mail that the department was "mindful of privacy concerns and for that very reason implemented significant safeguards" for what the department calls the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program.

"The U.S. Treasury Department welcomes the suggestion of the Belgian government to engage in greater dialogue at an EU level on how to make the [tracking program] a more cooperative effort. The dialogue is already underway with our European counterparts; such cooperation can only further our common goals," Millerwise said.

Schrank added, "The message today is that there is a recommendation at long last that says, let's get the E.U. and the U.S. sitting down to get a framework for dealing with national intelligence and counterterrorism and the concerns of data privacy. Border security and data privacy are drawn different in every country, and the politicians have to draw the line."

None of the network's banks had made a privacy complaint in connection with the program, he said. "No one that I am aware of has been harmed in any way. . . . Thousands of lives have been saved" as a result of the program, he said. "Let's not forget that."

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