Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


SWIFT and American Espionage

• March 10, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Europe’s newly empowered Parliament’s first muscle flex involves privacy and tracking terrorist finances.

Last month the European Union staged a minor revolt against American arrogance that must have felt, to some Europeans, like an episode of Asterix clobbering the Romans.

The European Parliament rejected a plan to let U.S. intelligence agencies monitor European bank transfers. The so-called “SWIFT agreement” was supposed to be a quick and relatively quiet extension of an unusual freedom the Americans had enjoyed for years after 9/11 — the capacity to scoop up masses of European bank data and sift them for evidence of terrorist funding.

Other, less democratic arms of the European Union were ready to wave the agreement through. But the European Parliament — the only elected group of EU lawmakers — had been granted new powers at the end of 2009, and on Feb. 11 asserted them by vetoing the SWIFT agreement, saying the U.S. would have too much command of personal data that was frankly none of its damn business.

SWIFT stands for Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. The Brussels-based outfit arranges billions of dollars’ worth of bank transfers every day. Until 2009, it maintained a server in the United States, and just after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, the CIA and other intelligence-hungry government agencies subpoenaed SWIFT and started to help themselves to European data. Some European leaders knew about the snooping, but it belonged to a much wider surveillance project that was largely hushed up.

When American newspapers broke stories about the so-called “Terrorist Finance Tracking Program” in 2006, European privacy advocates howled. They said the Americans were taking data not even their own governments could legally see. “Why does the U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld need to know when I transfer some money from Rabobank to the Sparkasse bank?” Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said at the time.

The data helped catch terrorists, or so a restricted report on the program claims. Three of the four would-be terrorists who were sentenced last week for plotting an attack on German soil belonged to a group called Islamic Jihad Union, which U.S. and German officials reportedly tracked using SWIFT data. The Americans “shared information” with European law enforcement, and the European investigators didn’t mind being privy to otherwise restricted data from their own part of the world.

So the EU drafted a new agreement last year to keep the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program running even after the first of February, by which time SWIFT had moved its servers away from U.S. soil. But in December the EU had also ratified the Lisbon Treaty, a constitution-like document that gives new, more government-like powers to the EU’s lawmaking bodies. Now any international treaty entered into by EU executives in Brussels had to be approved by the normally feckless European Parliament.

The Parliament’s first high-profile act — in the face of Washington’s lobbyist armies led by Vice President Joe Biden — was to veto the SWIFT agreement. European legislators found it a shabby back-room deal, without enough privacy protection. They sent it back for a re-draft.

Some American commentators have lamented the loss of the agreement and accused Europe of leaving everyone more vulnerable to terrorism. But the European Parliament intends to reach a more detailed SWIFT agreement later this year and put the terrorist tracking program on a sound legal footing.

The irony is that politicians in Europe who have hollered loudest about the Americans’ cavalier attitude toward private European data are the ones most aligned with down-home American values. Europe’s liberals — Americans would call them “libertarians” — stand for smaller government, lower taxes, free markets and individual liberty. They came out swinging against the SWIFT agreement. It wasn’t quite Asterix clobbering the Romans, but Alexander Alvaro, a member of the Free Democrats, Germany’s liberal party, said the parliament’s decision was “a victory for European data protection and for European democracy.”

Washington — needless to say — saw things differently.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow for journalism in Germany, and The Economist named his surf travelogue, "Sweetness and Blood," a book of the year in 2010. His first novel, "Too Much of Nothing," was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003, and he’s written about politics and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and Spiegel Online in Berlin, where he serves as editor-at-large.

More From Michael Scott Moore

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.