US defends spy programme to sceptical EU
US attorney general Eric Holder aimed to reassure his EU counterparts at a ministerial meeting in Dublin that the secret Prism snooping operation on EU citizens by the American intelligence agency operates within the law.
“The collection of intelligence in this programme is subject to an extensive oversight regime in co-operating reviews of the legislative, executive as well as the judicial branches,” said Holder at a joint-press conference with EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding on Friday (14 June).
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Prism, along with a separate programme that leaked metadata of telephone calls from Verizon to the US National Security Agency (NSA), has caused public furore in the EU and abroad.
But whereas the Verizon case sought out telephone metadata on Americans, Prism allows the NSA to make automatic requests for the personal communication details of EU citizens via an interface provided by nine major US companies.
The companies, including Google and Microsoft, have all denied the accusation.
Former NSA analyst Edward Snowden disclosed the spy scandal to The Guardian and the Washington Post last week. He has since gone into hiding after he revealed his identity in a Guardian interview on Monday.
The US has yet to issue an official arrest warrant because the case is still under investigation.
Holder says the leaks have endangered the lives of Americans and put its allies at risk.
He noted Prism does not target anyone unless there is an “appropriate and a documented foreign intelligence purpose for the acquisition.”
The programme, he says, is used to prevent terrorist and cyber attacks as well as nuclear proliferation.
Holder’s explanations about Prism attempted to ease some of Reding’s concern that the NSA was sweeping up all the personal details of EU citizens.
“I hope that Eric Holder can confirm what has been told during the meeting,” she added, speaking of the assurances Holder gave during the ministerial.
“Even if there is a national security issue, it cannot be at the expense of the fundamental rights of EU citizens,” she said.
Reding said they need to conclude the EU-US data protection agreement in police matters to help answer remaining questions like access to justice.
For their part, the Americans were successful in watering down the commission’s draft on the data protection regulation leaked in November 2011.
Safeguards that aimed to create a legal foundation when transferring data to third countries were removed as a direct result of pressure from the US department of commerce.
Joe McNamee, the executive director of the Brussels-based European Digital Rights, told this website that keeping the safeguards would have created a situation where the US would have been forced to negotiate a compromise, with Europe in a position of strength.
“Bizarrely, the majority of commissioners decided that they wanted to give up this strategic advantage, in return for, it appears, nothing,” he said.
The issue is also causing divisions in the European Parliament, where the rules are currently being negotiated.
The parliament's lead negotiator on the file, German Green MEP Jan Albrecht, reintroduced transfer safeguards in his draft currently under legislative scrutiny.
But UK liberal Baroness Sarah Ludford moved to weaken them.
She proposed to delete a paragraph that would require people to be informed that their data may be transferred to a third country or an international organisation.