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13th Dec 2019

Belgium to probe US monitoring of international money transfers

Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt has ordered a probe into whether a Brussels-based banking consortium broke the law when it provided US anti-terror authorities with confidential information about international money transfers.

The consortium known as SWIFT – society for worldwide inter-bank financial telecommunications – was brought into the limelight when the New York Times last week reported that officials from the CIA, the FBI and other US agencies had since 2001 been allowed to inspect the transfers.

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Prime minister Guy Verhofstadt asked the Belgian justice ministry on Monday (26 June) to investigate whether SWIFT acted illegally in allowing US authorities to inspect the transfers without the support of a Belgian judge.

"We need to ask what are the legal frontiers in this case and whether it is right that a US civil servant could look at private transactions without the approval of a Belgian judge," said government spokesman Didier Seus, according to the International Herald Tribune.

Also on Monday, US president George W. Bush called the media coverage of the SWIFT case "disgraceful" while the European Commission said it had no authority to investigate it.

"The disclosure of this program is disgraceful," Mr Bush said at a Washington news conference according to press reports.

"We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America. And for people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America," he said.

"At first sight, it would appear that there is no European legislation covering this type of transfer," commission spokesman Friso Abbing Roscam said. "Therefore it is a matter for national law."

"Everyone agrees that in the fight against terrorism we do need to have measures against the funding of terrorism," he added. "But the emphasis is that this must be done with full respect in the respect of data privacy."

Although SWIFT is based in Belgium – a European Union member – it is also subject to US laws as it has offices there. The US tapping into confidential bank transfers could therefore be legal as long as it is outside of Belgium where court-approved warrants are required.

The case comes at a time when the EU and the US have been criticised for the extent to which civil liberties can be sacrificed in the war on terrorism.

In May, Europe's highest court of justice overturned an EU-US deal which provides Washington with personal data on airline passengers flying from Europe to the US.

Nearly 8,000 financial institutions in 205 countries use SWIFT, which works as a central global centre operating a secure electronic messaging service.

The networks transmit nearly €4.8 trillion daily between banks, stock exchanges and other institutions.

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