Are you sure?

US asks Europe to ensure access to air passenger data

To reduce the odds that terrorists will enter the US, the Bush administration has asked the EU to lift its objections to the sharing of airline passenger information with American intelligence agencies, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

On the fringes of a meeting of European interior ministers here Saturday, Chertoff argued that other countries, no matter how friendly, could not decide who entered the US. He plans to repeat the message today before a committee of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. „While we reassure Europe, we have to insist that we can’t tie our hands in keeping dangerous people out of the US,” Chertoff said.

Under an interim accord between Washington and the EU, data that overseas passengers routinely give to airlines — address, credit card, passport, phone and other information — is used for screening on arrival at American airports. But that agreement expires July 31, and some European governments and data protection advocates strenuously object to what they see as an invasion of privacy and the possible misuse of personal information. At the heart of the discussions between Chertoff and the Europeans is how Washington can screen passengers who, as citizens of 15 EU countries, do not need to apply for a visa for stays of up to 90 days.

The nations include Britain, France, Germany and Italy but not the most recent entrants to the union, like Poland, Hungary and Romania. The issue of British citizens of Pakistani origin has been of particular concern to Washington since the London transit attack in July 2005, in which three of the four suicide bombers were of Pakistani descent. British Home Secretary John Reid, who was at the conference, said he was „utterly opposed” to screening based on ethnicity. Chertoff held discussions with Britain in April on immigration matters. He said there was no attempt to single out Britain for separate treatment. But, he said, „the visa process does afford a level of protection.

The visa-waiver countries by definition do not give us that. We need to find some way for a comparable level of protection.” That protection, the Homeland Security Department argues, can best be provided by feeding the passenger information gathered in Europe by the airlines into another data system, the Automated Targeting System, based in Washington. The data system, established after September 11 to create „risk assessments” of incoming passengers, runs the names of travelers and their data against lists of known or suspected terrorists. Some members of Congress and privacy advocates have objected to the system, saying it could be used indiscriminately by Homeland Security.

Those concerned about invasion of privacy have said that along with basic data, airlines share such things as passengers’ food preferences — for example, orders for halal meals — which could be used to single out Muslim passengers. A European delegate to the conference said it seemed likely that a compromise could be worked out before the interim accord expired. (