U.S. Reaches Tentative Deal With Europe on Bank Data
WASHINGTON, June 28 ? A new agreement between the Bush administration and the European Union will allow the United States government to continue a once secret program to obtain banking records from a Brussels-based consortium for use in counterterrorism investigations, American and European officials said Thursday.
In the deal, announced by the European Union late Wednesday, the Bush administration has agreed to impose new privacy safeguards on the program, which gives the Treasury Department and the Central Intelligence Agency access to one of the global banking system’s most important conduits of international financial records. In one provision of the agreement, the United States has agreed that it will keep the banking data collected under the program for only five years, officials said.
The deal, which follows extensive talks between the sides, seeks to quell public criticism of the program in Europe. Privacy advocates there have charged that it violated European law, and formal investigations into the program were begun after the existence of the program was disclosed last year.
Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration secretly gained access to the banking data through a Brussels-based banking network called Swift, an acronym for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a cooperative that routes about $6 trillion daily among banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions. The access to Swift’s database enabled American counterterrorism investigators to examine banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others across the United States and Europe.
Administration officials have said that the program, run by the C.I.A. and overseen by the Treasury Department, has been limited to tracing the transactions of people suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda. The records obtained through Swift mostly involve wire transfers and other methods of moving money overseas and into and out of the United States, and most routine financial transactions confined to the United States are not in the database.
But under the secret program, the Bush administration did not follow the normal practices the government uses to acquire the financial records of Americans. The Treasury Department did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions, and instead relied on broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records from Swift.
The program was the biggest and most far-reaching of several secret efforts carried out by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 attacks to try to trace terrorist financing. The access to large amounts of confidential data was highly unusual and stirred concerns inside the administration about legal and privacy issues.
After the program was disclosed in news reports last year, there was criticism in the United States ? at least one lawsuit has been filed against Swift, in federal court in Chicago. But there was a much greater outcry over the program in Europe. By the time of the program’s disclosure, many in Europe were already angry over reports that the C.I.A. had operated secret prisons in Eastern Europe and that it had been kidnapping terrorism suspects in Europe and then transporting them to countries that used torture.
Under the new agreement on the Swift program, the Treasury Department has said that it will respect the European Union’s privacy rules, that it will use the program only for counterterrorism purposes and that it will not retain data collected through the program that has not been subpoenaed for more than five years.
European banks that use the Swift network will inform their customers that the United States can gain access to their data. The European Union will also appoint an outsider who will monitor the program to make sure that the Treasury Department adheres to its promises.
The European Union’s justice and security commissioner, Franco Frattini, said the new guarantees from the Treasury Department were adequate to take account of the European Union’s privacy standards for data collection. In a statement Thursday, the Treasury Department said the agreement “verifies the legality and value” of the Swift program.
“Citizens around the world are safer today because of affirmative counterterrorism measures,” like the Swift program, the statement added.
Separately, Swift said that it welcomed the new deal, which it said would enhance the “legal certainty for Swift? for its cooperation with the program.