Attorney General Eric Holder is in Spain trying to revive a Bush-era counterterrorism program that the U.S. views as a key tool in tracking terrorist money transfers but European Union lawmakers reject because of civil liberties concerns.
The Obama administration argues that 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 vote of the European Parliament in February.
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 Bush White House's hard line, U.S. officials are committed to maintaining the data-sharing program abroad.
Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Treasury Department officials were to meet with European officials Thursday in Madrid 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 U.S. and EU authorities," said David Cohen, assistant treasury secretary for terrorist financing.
Speaking 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 U.S. 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 between 7,800 banks and other financial institutions in 200 countries, recording customer names, account numbers and other identifying information.
American officials say SWIFT has provided new leads, corroborated identities and uncovered relationships between suspects in an al-Qaida-directed plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights in 2006.
The EU now plans to add new data protection guarantees to the deal, including a ban on transferring bulk data — but not leads — to other countries. It also wants data to be held no longer than five years — and says it wants to terminate data-sharing if the U.S. doesn't keep to the new privacy restrictions.
Such a deal would formalize a secret program that skirted Europe's strict privacy rules by transferring millions of pieces of personal information from the U.S. offices of SWIFT to American authorities.
Since the existence of the U.S. anti-terror program was disclosed in 2006 — angering European legislators — American authorities have promised that the information it collects from the databases is properly protected and used only in anti-terror probes.
Stewart Baker, a former top U.S. Homeland Security official, said EU lawmakers were "shockingly irresponsible" to vote to end it. But EU officials claim that cooperation has already gone too far.
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding is promising to take far more account of civil liberties. "During the past decade, Europe's policies have too often focused only on security," she said recently. "And neglected justice."
She will soon decide changes to another counterterrorism cooperation deal that swaps details on airplane passengers between Europe and the U.S. — and has threatened to investigate the wider use of body scanners at airports.
Hugo Brady, an analyst at the Centre for European Reform, a political think tank, said European governments are now eager to analyze financial data before it is handed over to the U.S.
American officials are unlikely to accept this because they prefer to scan bulk data with their superior technology, and "they don't trust the European security services to do as good a job as they would do themselves," he said.
Members of the European Parliament were more worried about U.S. privacy laws that don't allow non-U.S. citizens any recourse to information held about them. U.S. officials have tried to calm those fears by saying foreigners can use other means to check on their data.
The EU's 27 nations will discuss the new deal on April 23, allowing them to restart talks with the U.S. on an agreement that could be signed by the end of June.
That will also require a second vote by the European Parliament, a widely ignored assembly that only recently acquired the power to block major security cooperation deals with other countries.
Brady said the parliament's "no" vote was a show of its power and that it was now anxious to "sit down and countenance a serious deal that was workable for the Americans and increases protection for European citizens."
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