- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2006

ROME — In Europe, Big Brother is listening — and being allowed to hear more and more.

Since the September 11 attacks and the terrorist bombings that followed in Madrid and London, authorities across the Continent are getting more powers to electronically eavesdrop, and meeting less public opposition than President Bush has over his post-September 11 wiretapping program.

As part of a package of European Union anti-terrorism measures, the European Parliament in December approved legislation requiring telecommunications companies to retain phone data and Internet logs for a minimum of six months in case they are needed for criminal investigations.

In Italy, which experts agree is the most wiretapped Western democracy, a report to parliament in January by Justice Minister Roberto Castelli said the number of authorized wiretaps more than tripled from 32,000 in 2001 to 106,000 last year.

Italy passed a terrorism law after the July 7 subway bombings in London that opened the way for intelligence agencies to eavesdrop if an attack is feared to be imminent. Only approval from a prosecutor — not a judge — is required, but the material gleaned cannot be used as evidence in court.

Similar laws have been approved in France and the Netherlands or proposed elsewhere in Europe, prompting some complaints that the terrorist threat is giving authorities a pretext to abuse powers.

“There is clearly a legitimate role for surveillance. It’s a question of what the safeguards are,” said Ben Ward, associate director of the European and Asian division of Human Rights Watch.

The use of hidden microphones in criminal investigations is routine in Italy, but a Swedish government proposal to permit such taps has drawn sharp opposition from civil-liberties advocates.

Still, the complaints are relatively muted compared with the criticism that has arisen in the U.S. Congress and among civil-liberties groups over the Bush administration’s surveillance operations.

In a 2003 report, the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Germany put Italy at the top of the European wiretapping list, followed by the Netherlands, using figures published by governments or information from parliamentary debates.

The Dutch secret service, known by its acronym AIVD, has gained vast powers since September 11. In September 2004, the government passed sweeping measures that lowered the threshold for bugging and surveillance. A turning point in Dutch public attitudes came with the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist who claimed a film he made insulted Islam.

Siebrand Buma, the ruling Christian Democratic Party’s spokesman on anti-terrorism and civil rights issues, said that while the Dutch are liberal on drugs and euthanasia policies, “people see the need to combat serious crime as worth the sacrifice of personal privacy.”

A new anti-crime law introduced in 2004 also made wiretapping easier in France. Prosecutors can now apply for wiretaps when investigations are still in a preliminary phase, rather than wait for an investigating magistrate to take over the case.

Italy’s long tradition of electronic snooping goes back to its fight against the Mafia — and its prosecutors vigorously defend it.

Wiretapping in a criminal investigation needs a judge’s authorization, which must be renewed after 15 days for ordinary crimes and 40 days for terrorism and organized crime.

Wiretapping has yielded two recent intelligence coups for Italian authorities.

After one of the men wanted in the London bombings slipped out of Britain, Italian authorities tracked his cell phone, recorded his conversations and traced him to an apartment in Rome.

When police arrested an Egyptian sought in the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004, they already had listened for weeks to his phone calls from a Milan apartment.

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