European Affairs

Fighting Terrorism: Transatlantic Differences Over the Details     Print Email
Reginald Dale

As the United States gears up to fight the war on terrorism by introducing new measures to improve homeland security, there has been concern in some quarters in Europe over the possible implications for U.S.-European relations, in fields ranging from data privacy to improved security procedures for shipping containers.

There are fears that Washington will use information acquired from Europe in ways that conflict with European practices on data protection, and that proprietary information could be given to U.S. companies to help them compete with European rivals. While they hope to reach agreement with the United States on new anti-terrorism measures, Europeans also worry that Americans do not fully understand how the institutions of the European Union operate.

Some Europeans are also concerned about U.S. research into a possible total information awareness program, which would consolidate government information on individual citizens; and they feel that Europe ought to be giving America lessons on how to deal with terrorists, rather than the other way around.

Americans, on the other hand, say that many Europeans are mistaken in thinking that the United States is exaggerating the terrorist threat, which they believe to be truly global. They argue that the threat now facing the United States and its allies is far greater than the kind of Northern Irish or Basque terrorism with which Europeans are familiar. And they insist that information transferred from Europe to the United States will never be used for purposes other than those originally intended.

Many of these differences of view emerged during a recent visit to the United States by a delegation of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), led by James Nicholson, an Ulster Unionist from the United Kingdom (PPE-DE Group in the European Parliament*). The following report reflects points made by both sides in a discussion among the MEPs and senior U.S. government and congressional officials, organized by The European Institute in Washington in November.

The War Against Terrorism

Members of the European Parliament from Spain, Ireland and Britain all felt that they could offer valuable lessons from the experience of fighting terrorism in Europe. A typical comment came from Mr. Nicholson, who said: "I come from Northern Ireland. I went through 30 years of terrorism; so don't talk to me about it. I know all about it."

While insisting that Europeans had fully supported the United States in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Mr. Nicholson added, however that "Europe has moved on." Euro bills and coins had been introduced in January 2002, and ten new countries were being invited to join the European Union. "We have not been looking back - we have been looking forward," he added. "That is not to say that we do not care. Please do not think that we do not understand. It is just that we are not as close to it as you were."

Turning to U.S. anti-terrorist legislation and the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security, several of Mr. Nicholson's colleagues suggested that excessive surveillance, and draconian legislation against terrorism could be counter-productive. Brian Crowley from the Irish Fianna FÌÁil Party (UEN Group) said that "it is a commonality among freedom fighters or terrorist groups around the world that, ‰Þ÷You may kill the revolutionary but you won't kill the revolution.'

"If anything, actions by the British government in Northern Ireland, with special laws, special courts, special internment procedures, did nothing to stop violence or prevent violence or terrorist acts from happening. It was only through dialogue, through participation, through creating an equality between people and between groups, that you actually achieved the end results." Bringing the two sides together isolated "the criminal elements, with the money laundering and the racketeering and so on," Mr. Crawley said.

A similar point was made by Imelda Read of the British Labour Party (PSE Group) who said that in both Northern Ireland and Spain, organized crime had become part of terrorism. "People are making money, serious money, under a mask of political fighting."

It was not cheap, however, to run a terrorism campaign, she said. It was important that there be "surveillance of international money laundering, of how banks operate, of how the money is actually moved around the world."

Another MEP from Northern Ireland, Arlene McCarthy, also of the British Labour Party (PSE Group), warned Americans not to "create a future generation of young people who have a sense that they live in a nation under siege." If that happened, young Americans would want to travel less, which would not be good for U.S.-EU relations.

American officials, on the other hand, were concerned that Europeans did not always understand the scale and urgency of the problem. Richard Falkenrath, special assistant to President George Bush for homeland security, said: "There is no question that many Europeans believe that we have exaggerated the threat." Europeans seemed to believe that, "Yes, 9/11 happened, but terrorism has been around for a long time and it will continue to be around and it can be managed.

"I sort of bristle when people tell us that they think we are overreacting to this," Mr. Falkenrath said. "The capabilities of this terrorist network (al Qaeda) to inflict mass casualties and mass harm against our countries exist today and are growing with time. The United States may be the biggest target, but no free country is exempt from attack . . . . this is truly a global problem."

The Need to Protect Privacy

 Marco Cappato of the Italian Radicals Party (NI) said that Europe and the United States were already exchanging personal data to help track down terrorists under exceptional circumstances, and that it was very important to establish a legal framework for such exchanges.

A bigger problem was establishing a legal framework for the international interception and surveillance of data, so as to make sure that provisions of the European Court of Human Rights were respected. When Europeans and Americans put in place a system of data collection or surveillance, "we should agree on basic principles."

Like other MEPs, Mr. Cappato was concerned about reports that the United States was considering establishing a so-called total information awareness program to consolidate data on individual citizens from different sources. The Europeans were concerned that such a system might endanger citizens' rights and lead to abuse of data transferred to the United States from Europe.

Harlem Desir, a French Socialist (PSE Group), said that such a total information awareness system could be compared to the operations of Stasi, the notorious former East German secret police. But he doubted whether it would be efficient because of the difficulty of processing so much information.

He repeated European concerns about the U.S. Echelon network of listening devices in Europe, "which shows there are problems both for personal privacy and for the privacy of company transactions." As two democratic societies fighting common enemies, Europe and the United States should formally agree that each would offer the other's citizens the same restrictions on personal data collection, and the same protections, that they applied to their own citizens, he said.

For the United States, Mr. Falkenrath responded: "We are committed to doing everything we need to do to assure European governments, subject to the privacy laws of the European Union, that any information they share with us is used only for the purpose for which it is shared."

European institutions sharing information for law enforcement purposes "are fairly satisfied with the seriousness with which we protect that information," he added. "Our intelligence community is not in the habit of sharing information very well with other parts of the government, let alone with private business."

As for the total information awareness program, both Mr. Falkenrath and Peter Verga, special assistant for homeland security at the Department of Defense, stressed that the project was only at the research stage. "It is a technical effort aimed at better integration of existing data in disparate databases - it is not some massive data collection project," Mr. Verga said.

Such technology was widely used in the commercial sector, for example, when Americans applied for finance to buy houses, Mr. Verga said. The aim was to make it easier to focus attention on "bad people" and let "good people" go about their business.

"There is no question that the trend is an ever greater reliance on information and information systems to ferret out the terrorists in our midst," Mr. Falkenrath, said. At "smart" borders, for instance, information would be used to focus on high-risk traffic and let low-risk traffic pass through quickly - "to speed globalization, as it were." That would make life more convenient for both travelers and traders.

Dealing with the EU Institutions

 As the United States and Europe try to agree on joint measures against terrorism, Dirk Sterckx, a Belgian Liberal Democrat (ELDR Group), predicted twin problems on either side of the Atlantic: Europeans would find it difficult to move fast enough, and Americans would have trouble understanding the workings of the European Union, which had only "a very small part of the powers needed to tackle the problem."

Mr. Sterckx cited problems that had arisen when Washington sought agreement on tighter security measures in European ports, particularly with regard to sea borne container traffic. The issue had been raised by the United States in the Group of Eight, where four EU member states (Britain, France, Germany and Italy) and the European Commission are represented.

Rotterdam and Antwerp, however, the two biggest ports in the European Union, are respectively in the Netherlands and Belgium, which are not represented in the G8. Mr. Sterckx said there had probably been a communications breakdown in the Commission and the Netherlands and Belgium were unaware of what was happening, causing a great deal of panic and confusion.

In any case, Mr. Sterckx said, U.S. customs officials had finally discovered that security measures in the Port of Antwerp were much better than in U.S. ports. "Can we be sure that the same kind of security measures are taken for cargo that is leaving the United States for European ports?" he asked.

Mr. Falkenrath said U.S. authorities would welcome visits from European customs officials to American ports to improve the security of global trade. But he was not sure how that would work, as there were still 15 national customs services in the European Union. "Europe has not sorted that out yet, because there is no European customs service."

As for the G8, Washington could be forgiven if there was a communications problem inside the European Union. In seeking to improve cargo security, Washington had found very willing partners in the national governments in Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, but difficulties had arisen once the issue came up for discussion in the EU institutions. That was a matter for the European Union and the member states to resolve.

"We will work with whomever they tell us to work it out, but when we do the deal in the G8, we want to move quickly," Mr. Falkenrath said.

Reginald Dale is the Editor-in-Chief of European Affairs, and a Vice President at The European Institute. He was previously a Washington-based syndicated columnist for the International Herald Tribune. Before that he was the IHT's Economic and Financial Editor and international economics correspondent in Paris, and a senior editor and foreign correspondent for the Financial Times.

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number IV, Issue number I in the Winter of 2003.