U.S. presses E.U. to allow access to bank data in counterterror efforts

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; 10:20 PM

The outcome of the Obama administration's intense lobbying to continue a global terrorist finance tracking program begun under the George W. Bush administration probably will be decided by a hotly contested vote of the European Parliament on Thursday.

In the past week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called and written the president of the parliament, Jerzy Buzek, urging that the 751-member body approve an interim agreement reached by U.S. and European Union negotiators last November that would allow the United States to continue to have access to bank transaction data from Europe for use in counterterrorism investigations.

A source of contention for European lawmakers is that the pact was reached by U.S. officials and the Council of the European Union, the E.U.'s principal decision making body, without the parliament's involvement.

"Withholding consent could jeopardize a valuable and carefully constructed counter-terrorism program of importance to countries affected by terrorism around the world," Clinton warned in a Feb. 5 letter to Buzek.

And the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., William E. Kennard, threatened last week to bypass the federation entirely in counterterrorism efforts if the parliament nixed the agreement.

The Obama administration's lobbying has not been lost on the European lawmakers, whose Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee nonetheless last week voted to recommend that parliament withhold consent when it votes in Strasbourg, France.

"It is very unusual that we have American officials putting so much pressure on members of this house, including the president of the parliament, interfering in such a way," said committee member Alexander Alvaro, a German member of the parliament's Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.

But Michael Cashman, a Labour Party member from Britain, said: "I think we're in danger of achieving nothing except in getting the United States of America to negotiate one agreement with Belgium and one with the Netherlands. So we don't have an E.U.-wide approach to this."

The U.S. program involves access to portions of vast databases of financial transaction information held by a Brussels-based consortium of banks known by its acronym SWIFT, or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication.

The program was launched in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Treasury Department issues administrative subpoenas every 30 days or so for the financial payment records of terrorist suspects. The searches must be "narrowly tailored" to the suspects, said Stuart Levey, undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Treasury Department.

The classified program's existence was revealed by the New York Times in 2006, touching off controversy, especially in Europe. Lawmakers there were angry because they were not consulted beforehand and European privacy officials said the program violated European data protection laws.

U.S. access to the data has become an open question now that the European Parliament, under the Treaty of Lisbon, has acquired new power to review and approve initiatives that affect internal security, counterterrorism and law enforcement.

U.S. officials want the parliament to use that power now to approve the November agreement reached by U.S. Treasury officials and the Council. The pact took effect provisionally Feb. 1 and will expire in nine months. It allows the United States to conduct terrorism-related searches against millions of financial payment messaging files stored in servers near Amsterdam.

Levey touted the value of the terrorist tracking program in op-eds that ran in European papers last week. It has supplied "more than 1,500 reports and countless leads" to counterterrorism investigators in Europe and more to other countries, and has "played a key role in multiple terrorism investigations on both sides of the Atlantic," he wrote.

He said it aided European governments during investigations into the foiled 2006 al-Qaeda plot to attack transatlantic flights between Europe and the United States. The program "provided new leads, corroborated identities and revealed relationships among individuals responsible for this terrorist plot," Levey wrote. Last September, three people were convicted in Britain and sentenced to at least 30 years in prison.

An E.U. review led by French Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere concluded last month that the program was effective and contained sufficient privacy safeguards.

But the parliament's Civil Liberties Committee said in a report accompanying its vote that the debate is not about SWIFT so much as about how Europe "could cooperate with the US for counterterrorism purposes" and that the agreement was potentially a step "down the slippery slope of accepting other requests for commercial data with, for example, Skype, PayPal and other companies in the information-telecommunication field . . . for law enforcement purposes."

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