- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2010

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Parliament on Thursday strongly rejected a deal that would have allowed U.S. authorities access to European bank transfers — a vote the United States said disrupted an important source of information for anti-terror investigators.

EU lawmakers in Strasbourg, France, voted 378-196 against the deal with 31 abstentions. The parliament’s president, Jerzy Buzek, said the assembly wants more safeguards for civil liberties and believes human rights has been compromised in the name of security.

The U.S. mission to the EU said it was “disappointed” with the EU move, calling it “a setback for U.S.-EU counterterror cooperation.” The vote came after lawmakers were contacted in recent days by several top U.S. officials — including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner — “about the importance of this agreement to our mutual security.”

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The U.S. must now rely on national agreements with each of the EU’s 27 nations to access financial data — which can mean different legal conditions for each nation.

European governments will have to renegotiate the deal with the parliament, which will allow data sharing for the next nine months while the EU seeks a longer-term deal with the U.S. They also want such an agreement to let European authorities see U.S. banking information.

Lawmakers have been very critical of EU government moves to share information with the United States with few conditions, warning that this could breach European privacy rules.

EU governments rushed through an interim deal in November, a day before a new treaty came into force that would require them to consult the parliament. Following an outcry, they agreed to let the EU parliament have a say in the matter.

The European socialist party said their opposition to the deal was “constructively driven towards improving the current agreement.” They said a better agreement would limit data retention periods, bulk transfers of data and give Europeans the right to legal redress.

The deal would have formalized a secret program launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that skirted Europe’s strict privacy rules. It did that by transferring millions of pieces of personal information from the U.S. offices of the bank transfer company SWIFT to American authorities.

SWIFT had no immediate reaction to the vote Thursday.

Since news of the U.S. anti-terror program broke 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. They said “data mining” — or open-ended searching — was strictly forbidden.

Americans officials say the data have helped provide new leads, corroborate identities and uncover relationships between suspects in an al-Qaida-directed plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airplane flights in 2006. They also said it helped to identify financial transactions made by an al-Qaida terrorist suspect involved in planning a possible aircraft attack earlier this year.

Overall, the program has generated some 1,450 tips to European governments and 800 to other states — 100 of them from January to September last year, officials said.

SWIFT, the global electronic payments consortium used by banks worldwide, is moving its data stores from the United States to Switzerland by the end of this year, which means the U.S. needs an international agreement to keep the data flow going.

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Associated Press writer Gretchen Mahan in Brussels contributed to this story.

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