Fri, Apr 09, 2010 - Page 7 News List

US trying to woo EU back to terror finance program


US Attorney-General Eric Holder was in Spain trying to revive a counter-terror program under former US president George W. Bush that Washington views as a crucial tool in tracking terrorist money transfers, but which EU lawmakers reject because they think it violates civil liberties.

The administration of US President Barack Obama says the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program has helped protect lives on both sides of the Atlantic and should continue with European cooperation. European governments are seeking wide changes and safeguards to protect civil liberties as they renegotiate a deal stopped in its tracks by a February vote in the European Parliament.

The gap between the two sides shows the complicated contours of the Obama administration’s efforts to set a centrist course on national security. Even as the administration struggles at home to remain vigilant against terrorism while separating its policies from the prior Bush White House’s hard line, US officials are committed to maintaining the data-sharing program abroad.

Holder, US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Treasury Department officials were scheduled to meet in Madrid yesterday with European officials to discuss the effort.

“Each day we go without it, we run the very real risk that information crucial to preventing an attack ... is not available to US and EU authorities,” said David Cohen, US assistant treasury secretary for terrorist financing.

Speaking on Wednesday at a forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Cohen voiced frustration about the impasse.

“I don’t know what else we can or, frankly, that we need to do to ensure the protection of personal financial data,” he said.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the Belgium-based SWIFT European bank transfer consortium has given US authorities access to European financial data. The agreement was kept secret until 2006, when legal worries that the deal could violate EU privacy standards forced it to be redrawn.

SWIFT routes about 11 million financial transactions daily among 7,800 banks and other financial institutions in 200 countries, recording customer names, account numbers and other identifying information.

US officials say SWIFT has provided new leads, corroborated identities and uncovered relationships between suspects in an al-Qaeda-directed plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights in 2006.

The EU plans to add new data protection guarantees to the deal, including a total ban on transferring bulk data — but not investigative leads — to other countries. It also wants data to be held for no longer than five years and says it wants to terminate data sharing if the US does not keep to the new privacy restrictions.

Such a deal would make formal a secret program that skirted Europe’s strict privacy rules by transferring millions of pieces of personal information from the US offices of SWIFT to US authorities.

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