BERLIN – The U.S. could lose access to an important law enforcement tool used to track terrorist money flows, German officials said Monday, as Europe weighs a response to allegations that the Americans spied on their closest European allies.
With European leaders dissatisfied with the U.S. response so far, officials have been casting about for a way to pressure Washington to provide details of past surveillance and assurances that the practice will be curbed. The challenge is to send a strong message to Washington against wholesale spying on European citizens and institutions without further damage to the trans-Atlantic relationship.
As possible leverage, German authorities cited last weeks non-binding resolution by the European Parliament to suspend a post-9/11 agreement allowing the Americans access to bank transfer data to track the flow of terrorist money.
German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said Monday she believed the Americans were using the information to gather economic intelligence apart from terrorism and that the deal, popularly known as the SWIFT agreement, should be suspended. That would represent a sharp rebuke to the U.S. from some of its closest partners.
It really isnt enough to be outraged, she told rbb-Inforadio. This would be a signal that something can happen and make clear to the Americans that the (EUs) policy is changing.
Suspending the agreement, officially known as the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, would require approval by an overwhelming majority of the 28 European Union countries. The agreement allows access to funds transferred through the private, Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, which is based in Belgium and handles the movement of money between banks worldwide.
Asked Monday whether the NSA intelligence gathering had been used not only to protect national security but American economic interests as well, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: We do not use our intelligence capabilities for that purpose. We use it for security purposes.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday that she was open to the idea of suspending the SWIFT agreement, saying she needed to look at this again more closely and weigh what we will lose for the security of our citizens and what we dont.
Germany and other European governments have made clear they dont favor suspending the U.S.-EU trade talks which began last summer because both sides stand to gain so much from the proposed deal, especially against competition from China and other emerging markets.
The European Parliaments foreign affairs committee chairman, Elmar Brok, told reporters that failure to resolve the differences over data protection could threaten the trade talks. Brok, a member of Merkels party who was in Washington to discuss the spy allegations, said the challenge was to strike a balance between security and personal freedom.
We are fighting for the rights of our citizens, he said.