By Hans-Jürgen Schlamp in Brussels
Washington's army of diplomats in Europe has been taking on one country at a time. Germany stood at the top of the list and, initially, surrendered without even a whimper to the American demands. In 2008, the federal government in Berlin signed an agreement pushed by Washington allowing American officials wide-ranging access to the databases of German security agencies. It was only after leaders in Hamburg raised their objections to the deal that it was, temporarily, stalled in the Bundesrat, Germany's upper legislative chamber, which represents the interests of the states. The city-state has since withdrawn its objections after securing minor concessions on data protection provisions in the document, and the treaty is now set to be approved.
Step by step, and largely unnoticed by the public, the US has been pushing through similar arrangements in a number of European capitals. Washington reported its latest success in Vienna last week: The Austrian government said it was ready to grant US security agencies with free access to its police computers, complete with DNA and finger print data and a criminal registry.
The proceedings were not entirely peaceful. One Austrian government official reported "massive pressure." American Ambassador William C. Eacho, III. was apparently "very charming and friendly," when he appeared in the Austrian Chancellery and offered his "help." President Barack Obama's emissary said the administration in Washington was considering discontinuing the visa-waiver program for Austrians traveling to the United States because Austria wasn't sufficiently cooperating in the fight against terrorism.
In order to hinder the plans of the "boys in Washington," they would have to "work something out together." Apparently they were also able to achieve that with the guidance of the friendly ambassador. "Participation in the United States' 'Visa Waiver' program," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann wrote in a letter to the Viennese parliament, has been "linked to additional requirements for the exchange of information," including "an agreement to exchange data relating to the detection of terrorists." In other words, no data, no visa waiver. The small Alpine republic buckled.
In Washington's Sights: Facebook, Blackberry, Money Transers and Trips
But that's not the only front on which Washington's anti-terror combatants are active. A few days ago the US government announced further legislation designed to facilitate monitoring of new communication tools such as Twitter and Facebook as well as modern technologies such as Blackberrys and Skype. At almost exactly the same time, the US Treasury presented draft legislation that will allow security agencies free access to the details of all money transfers conducted through banks or credit cards.
And Washington doesn't just want to tap into and store this data on its own citizens, but on people worldwide, including Europeans.
European interior ministers have, so far at least, shown a good deal of understanding for these demands because they profit from the work of the US authorities, who sometimes share intelligence that European investigators could never hope to otherwise obtain. That's why matters will most probably be kept on a friendly and cooperative level with European interior ministers meeting on Thursday in Luxembourg with representatives of the US Department of Homeland Security and other agencies to discuss the terrorist threat and counter-terrorism measures.
Last weekend, the US issued a travel warning for Europe on the basis of possible imminent terrorist attacks. Germany Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, however, has warned against scaremongering. There is apparently no concrete evidence of imminent attacks in Germany. But perhaps, speculates one European Union security expert, it was just a little "background music" for the real questions to be discussed in the trans-Atlantic talks: How deeply can American terrorism investigators peer into European computers, how extensively can they monitor European bank accounts, tap into Blackberrys or listen in on Skype calls?
And however much understanding EU security circles may have for Washington's requests, they are now having to take on opponents in their own camp, who are further complicating the issue: the members of the European Parliament (MEPs).
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