Connect to share and comment

Will Europe block a US anti-terrorism program?

The European Parliament's new powers allow it to block agreements like SWIFT.

Members of the European Parliament take part in a voting session about the freedom of information in Italy and in the E.U. at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Oct. 21, 2009. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The fate of the United States government’s Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP) may hinge on how Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert’s week turns out. And it’s not looking particularly rosy for the TFTP at the moment.

Hennis-Plasschaert, a Dutch member of the European Parliament (MEP), was on Wednesday named as the rapporteur for the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs on the question of whether to approve a nine-month interim agreement on U.S.-EU sharing of European banking data known as the “SWIFT" program while a longer-term framework is worked out.

And prospects for the interim agreement do not look good. "We're heading for a 'no,'" Hennis-Plasschaert said Friday.

SWIFT is a Belgium-based organization that since 1973 has run a network over which most of the world’s banks now exchange millions of messages per day. The records include account details and private data on clients, whether individual, corporate or government.

Shortly after 9/11, the U.S. government used a special administrative subpoena to access SWIFT records for the then-secret TFTP. The access and the program became public — including to the Belgian government — only in 2006 through articles in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other news organizations.

Europeans were shocked, not just that millions of data records had been secretly handed over to the U.S., but that there was apparently nothing the EU could do about it, even though the transfers were found to have broken Belgian and EU privacy laws. SWIFT was also bound by U.S. law to comply with the subpoenas. The company emphasized that it had fought diligently to put in place practices that reduced the amount of data the U.S. could obtain and that its compliance was “legal, limited, targeted, protected, audited and overseen.”

At the time, Bush administration officials told the New York Times that leads provided by SWIFT data were invaluable to capturing terrorists and, as one example, had been directly responsible for leading them to the man believed to be behind the 2002 Bali bombing, Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali.

Now new powers vested in the European Parliament by the Lisbon Treaty, which went into effect Jan. 1, give it the power to end the program, and the data-sharing.