Swift rebuke

Monday, March 1, 2010

THE PROGRAM has been credited with helping to capture the mastermind of the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed more than 200 people, including some 50 Europeans. It was instrumental in 2006 in thwarting al-Qaeda plans to detonate liquid bombs on North American-bound flights from London's Heathrow Airport and critical in 2007 in helping to disrupt terrorism plots involving the Islamic Jihad Union, including one in Germany. Over the past eight years, it has generated some 1,500 reports that have been shared with European allies.

Yet almost 400 members of the European Parliament want nothing to do with it and have effectively and indefensibly shut it down.

The tool in question is the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, which the United States created shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks in hopes of using financial transactions to trace the whereabouts of suspects. The United States subpoenaed records held by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a consortium of banks that serves as middle man for billions of transactions each year. Although based in Belgium, SWIFT kept most of its databases in the United States until January, when it moved parts of its operations -- including most of its data on non-U.S. transactions -- to the Netherlands. This move triggered the need for the United States to have the Europeans sign off to continue that part of the program. The European Commission hashed out an interim deal to allow the United States to continue operations, but the European Parliament objected, largely on the basis of bogus privacy concerns.

Since its inception the tracking program has had in place safeguards, including outside audits of all searches, to prevent abuse and invasions of privacy. Only the records of those already identified as terrorism suspects are in play. "Fishing expeditions" in which law enforcement officials troll for data to uncover terrorist connections are not permitted, nor is it legal to use the program to pursue non-terrorist crimes. A French judge appointed by the European Commission to review the program noted in a report released this year that privacy protections were robust and effective.

Casting off this important program is highly unfortunate but need not be permanent. The Obama administration should work with E.U. leaders to push for reconsideration. If need be, additional oversight should be considered. But the administration must not go too far. Gutting a legal and effective program for the sake of imagined privacy gains would be as unwise and potentially dangerous as having no program at all.

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