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EU to Look at U.S. Bank Surveillance

Its Parliament has called for an investigation of member involvement and privacy violation.

July 08, 2006|From Times Staff and Wire Services

European Union officials are seeking an investigation of the U.S. government's program for monitoring international banking data, with the most pressing questions aimed at figuring out how much European governments and institutions knew about the secret operation.

Lawmakers of the European Parliament, meeting this week in Strasbourg, France, demanded that the European Central Bank and similar institutions in the 25-nation bloc reveal the level of their cooperation in or knowledge of the U.S. government's policy of searching private financial records as part of its anti-terrorism efforts.

The U.S. program, revealed last month by this and other U.S. newspapers, "could give rise to large-scale forms of economic and industrial espionage," the Parliament said.

Lawmakers voted 302 to 219 to approve the resolution demanding explanations, a sign of Europe's growing unease over Washington's efforts in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.

The Bush administration defends the bank-data program as an important tool in rooting out terrorists.

Belgian authorities are investigating whether the Brussels-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, broke the law by passing bank transaction data to the CIA.

Once that inquiry is concluded, European Commission officials will try to determine whether EU privacy laws were also violated.

"There is no question of a cover-up," said Friso Roscam Abbing, a European Commission home affairs spokesman in Brussels.

Revelations about the SWIFT operation have coincided with growing awareness of the CIA's use of clandestine prisons in Europe for terrorism suspects, the abduction of such suspects, and secret flights to transport them, often to countries where they might be tortured.

Although some European officials have expressed outrage, arrests in Italy this week seemed to offer proof that Italian officials had cooperated in an operation to abduct a radical imam suspected of terrorist links.

"And now we discover that our powerful friend and ally is now riffling through our private bank accounts," said Jean-Marie Cavada, a liberal member of the European Parliament from France. "What will happen next, I ask you?"

Separately, the Parliament has been investigating the allegations of secret prisons and purported CIA abductions, known as extraordinary renditions.

In an interim report issued this week, the Parliament concluded that the CIA was in some cases directly responsible for the "illegal seizure, removal, abduction and detention of terrorist suspects" in Europe.

"It is implausible," the report says, "that certain European governments were not aware of the activities linked to extraordinary rendition taking place on their territory."

Some EU member states might be held liable for failing to comply with European human rights standards, the Parliament said.

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