How Europe puts America at risk

By Stewart Baker
Friday, October 8, 2010; A17

During the presidential campaign, it sometimes seemed that Barack Obama was even more popular in Europe than in the United States. If anyone could span transatlantic differences on fighting terrorism, you might have thought it would be Obama.

But since he took office, Europe has consistently opposed the Obama administration's counterterrorism initiatives. The latest rebuff may be the most serious -- and a last straw for the administration. That's because it strikes at the heart of Obama's effort to construct a less controversial strategy for stopping terrorists. Everyone knows about his expanded use of Predator drones. Less dramatically, the administration has also begun to rely heavily on travel and reservation data at the border to spot suspicious travelers.

The technique has proved its worth in almost every domestic plot the president has faced. Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was pulled from his international flight because alert officials at the Department of Homeland Security were scanning airline data in real time. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be Christmas Day bomber of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, had already been flagged for border questioning by DHS officials with access to travel data -- but was given no special treatment by officials who did not have that data.

So it's no wonder that, as reported in Bob Woodward's new book, "Obama's Wars," one of the administration's top negotiating priorities with Pakistan has been access to airline passenger data. Access grows only more vital as reports filter back of European passport holders training in Pakistan for terrorist assaults in the West. Understandably, the administration wants to know which Europeans and Americans have spent months in Pakistan without family connections or visible means of support.

Obama is right to see this kind of scrutiny at the border as lawful, effective and far less controversial than many of the counterterrorism measures that he has reluctantly kept in place.

That doesn't mean it's going to be easy to accomplish, however. Pakistan and other countries in a position to share useful travel data have been slow to share the information.

But the real roadblock is in Brussels, where the European Parliament has unilaterally demanded that the administration renegotiate the E.U.-U.S. agreement on travel reservation data -- launching the fourth set of talks on this topic in seven years. More recently, the European Commission announced plans to insist that other countries join what amounts to a data boycott of the United States. Under the commission's proposal, Pakistan and other countries would be prohibited from sharing travel data about Europeans with the United States except on a "case-by-case basis."

That would leave U.S. border officials in the dark at the most crucial stage -- when they're trying to decide which travelers will be questioned carefully at the border and which will be waved through.

Perhaps most remarkably, the new European position violates a solemn written promise that the E.U. would never do such a thing again.

In 2007, the United States promised to help several Caribbean countries keep track of dangerous travelers attending the Cricket World Cup. Both sides benefited. The Caribbean nations could order airlines to hand over the data, but they couldn't process it quickly. The United States could, and it had at least as strong an interest in identifying risky travelers before they arrived in a region that is sometimes called the United States' "third border."

Sharing the data seemed to make all the sense in the world -- but an E.U. official barged in, threatening trade sanctions against Caribbean countries if the sharing did not get European approval.

I was the lead U.S. negotiator at the time, and I hit the roof. With the talks hanging in the balance, the E.U. backed down. To make sure it didn't happen again, we insisted that the E.U. add a promise in the 2007 agreement about travel data -- that the E.U. "will take all necessary steps to discourage" third countries from interfering with U.S. travel data programs.

But the Europeans have evidently concluded that promises made to an earlier administration can be ignored.

The timing is atrocious. Intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic are warning of European terrorists trained in Pakistan -- precisely the kind of threat that travel data could help to stop.

As so often is the case in foreign affairs, this is not a challenge the president wanted, or one that he could have foreseen two years ago. But how he handles it will tell Europeans -- and Americans -- a lot about his determination to protect the United States from another terrorist attack.

Stewart Baker is a Washington lawyer and a former official of the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. He is the author of "Skating on Stilts," a memoir about terrorism and technology.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company