- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

U.S. and European officials signed an agreement yesterday to exchange information on international airline passengers in a joint effort to fight terrorism.

The agreement ends nearly two years of disputes about whether U.S. demands for the personal information violates the privacy of European travelers.

The 25-nation European Union approved the agreement May 17 after the United States scaled back the list of information it wants.

EU officials said the agreement signed at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center provides “adequate protection” for travelers from Europe.

“I cannot claim it is perfect — negotiated solutions never are — but it constitutes a balanced solution that fulfills most of our aims at the current stage,” said Chris Patten, the European Union’s external relations commissioner.

The data — called passenger name records, or PNR — include credit card numbers and contact information. Sensitive items, such as meal requests, that could indicate a passenger’s race or religion will not be transferred or will be filtered out by U.S. authorities, the officials said.

The data are limited to 34 categories, most of which are being kept secret. They are supposed to be purged from law-enforcement records after 3 years, compared with the 50 years originally requested by the United States.

The European Union reserved the right to appeal to a Homeland Security “chief privacy officer” on potential abuses of data or failures to correct inaccuracies.

“A global enemy requires a global response. It is an essential security measure that allows us to link information about known terrorists and serious criminals,” Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said during the signing ceremony.

The deal takes effect immediately. Airlines face fines up to $3,000 per incident each time they allow an “inadmissible” person on board a U.S.-bound airplane. Inadmissible persons refer to anyone without proper credentials, such as criminals with forged passports.

They face similar penalties if they do not turn over their passenger information to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“It could go so far as to lose landing rights in the United States if someone failed to comply,” said Bill Strassberger, Homeland Security spokesman. “This applies to airlines flying to, from or through the United States.”

U.S. airlines also could be penalized for failing to turn over information to European authorities.

The agreement also allows the U.S. government to use the data in a test of an anti-terrorism program that assigns threat levels to airline passengers.

Airlines have resisted participating in the program, called the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS II, after being criticized last year for giving passenger information to the government.

Northwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways and American Airlines were sued by passengers and investigated by Congress after they shared passenger data with the TSA.

Homeland Security officials said in March they would issue a security directive “in a few months” to force airlines to turn over the data.

European airlines have been sharing passenger data with the United States since March 2003 under an interim agreement, which U.S. officials said already has helped them identify terrorists and criminal suspects.

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