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European Central Bank wants EU protection from US

Denies responsibility for past intrusions

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There is some exasperation in Europe that everyone else - the world's financial system, the US authorities and numerous lawyers - appeared to know about the US investigation, but that the EU hadn't a clue.

Trichet said the ECB had been prevented from telling other EU authorities because of a confidentiality agreement it had signed with SWIFT. The Belgian firm, similarly, had been unable to tell the authorities because of an agreement it had signed with the US.

Europeans are getting miffed about the US trampling on their toes when it goes terrorist hunting. The CIA's "rendition" flights of suspected terrorists in and out of European airports is still a hot potato in Brussels.

Airline passenger records are another bone of contention, with the European Court of Justice this year ruled the EU had been acting outside of its legal competence to agree to share passenger data with the US. The EU has no competence over security matters. It is aware that its competence over the SWIFT matter is in question, but is determined to fight for it on economic and privacy grounds.

As if to rub salt in the wounds, the US has refused to give the EU the same assurances over its access to passenger records that it gave SWIFT over access to bank data, noted Stavros Lambrinidis, vice president of the Parliament's Human Rights committee.

Europe's position should be formulated by the end of the week before it goes into talks with the US over the boundaries between civil liberties and security.

SWIFT's position that existing law was inadequate to deal with the unique problems that led the US to mount its unprecedented investigation added credence to its assertion that it broke no data protection laws.

"There was no reason for us to consult the EC because we believe we respected the law," Francis Vanbever, SWIFT's chief financial officer, told the hearing.

In other words, SWIFT and the central banks had not thought that any political or administrative involvement was necessary to protect itself from US intrusions. Their lawyers had advised them as much and they stuck to that position until the investigation was exposed.

Yet now it is in the open, and SWIFT's co-operation with it has been found in breach of data protection laws, the Belgian firm has declared its support for EU involvement.

"We believe that the issue of balance between the need to fight terrorism and the right to privacy can only be resolved by political leadership," Vanbever told the hearing. ®

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