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25 Sep, 2013 11:01

NSA spy scandal may scuttle EU-US anti-terrorist agreement – EU commissioner

The European Union is threatening to suspend a data-sharing deal with the United States that is designed to track terrorist bank funding. However, there are suspicions the National Security Agency was stealing financial data from EU citizens.

Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU commissioner responsible for investigating the implications of the NSA and GCHQ spy scandal, said the Terror Finance Tracking Program (TFTP) of 2010, which supplies bank and credit card transaction information to the US treasury in an effort to trace funding to terrorist groups, may be in jeopardy if it is determined the Americans were abusing the agreement.

Malmstrom said she was unhappy with the information supplied by the US government, saying the Americans need to provide more data

"I am not satisfied with what we have received so far," the commissioner told a European parliament committee debating the NSA disclosures. "Whilst from the US reactions last week we now have some understanding of the situation, we need more detailed information in order to credibly assess reality and to be in a position to judge whether the obligations of the US side under the agreement have been breached.

Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is a British intelligence agency that has also come under suspicion of EU commissioners when it was revealed the organization was collecting all online and telephone data in the UK via the Tempora program, also revealed in the NSA disclosures.

"A decision to maintain the agreement or to consider proposing its suspension is a serious matter,” Malmstrom admitted.

Ever since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, a number of controversial security measures were passed under then President George W. Bush. Much of the legislation, however, was put into effect without any public debate.

Reuters / Kai Pfaffenbach

The Terror Financing Tracking Program (TFTP) was one such piece of legislation that is now, following the NSA revelations, raising eyebrows among some of America’s leading allies.

TFTP is a collaborative effort between the Central Intelligence Agency and US Treasury that has provided US officials “with a unique and powerful window into the operations of terrorist networks and is, without doubt, a legal and proper use of our authorities," Stuart Levey, an undersecretary at the Treasury, said in an interview with The New York Times in June 2006.

The agreement required EU authorities to transfer data to the US treasury from the Brussels-based system Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT).

This provided US officials with a large amount of data since the majority of international interbank messages use the SWIFT network. According to the SWIFT website, “more than 10,000 financial institutions and corporations in 212 countries…exchange millions of standardized financial messages” daily.  

Although Levey ensured that “multiple safeguards” were put in place to protect against any unwarranted searches of records, EU MEPs are demanding that TFTP be scrapped following recent reports that the NSA was “also tapping into the SWIFT databases to gain access to the private data of Europeans on their financial dealings,” The Guardian reported. 

A New York Times report ("Bank data is sifted by U.S. in secret to block terror," June 23, 2006) on the program detailed a “significant departure” as to how the government acquires financial records through TFTP.

“Treasury officials did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions, instead relying on broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records from the cooperative (SWIFT),” it said.

Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament, said the US spying activities aimed at the European Union meant that bilateral agreements - including another one divulging European air passenger details to US authorities - should be canceled.

"For me the TFTP agreement is effectively dead ... null and void," she said, as quoted by The Guardian.

The EU parliament, however, does not have the authority to cancel agreements with the United States. Such a move would require proof that the NSA had abused its powers, and then propose a cancellation of the EU-US agreement to which all 28 EU member states would need to endorse unanimously.

Britain, for example, which played a large part in the NSA surveillance work, would be able to veto any legislation that moved to punish the United States over the scandal.

Senior EU officials and a SWIFT executive denied the reports that the NSA was collecting financial data on European citizens.

SWIFT's lawyer, Blanche Petre, told the EU members that the financial organization had "no reason to believe that there has been an unauthorized access to our data."

Meanwhile, Rob Wainwright, head of Europol, the EU's law enforcement agency, possessed no evidence that crimes had been committed against the Brussels-based financial institution.

However, Wainwright said the agency had not been asked by any EU government to investigate the NSA scandal.