THE CIA is to be given broad access to the bank records of millions of Britons under a European Union plan to fight terrorism.
The Brussels agreement, which will come into force in two months’ time, requires the 27 EU member states to grant requests for banking information made by the United States under its terrorist finance tracking programme.
In a little noticed information note released last week, the EU said it had agreed that Europeans would be compelled to release the information to the CIA “as a matter of urgency”. The records will be kept in a US database for five years before being deleted.
Critics say the system is “lopsided” because there is no reciprocal arrangement under which the UK authorities can easily access the bank accounts of US citizens in America.
They also say the plan to sift through cross-border and domestic EU bank accounts gives US intelligence more scope to consult our bank accounts than is granted to law enforcement agencies in the UK or the rest of Europe.
In Britain and most of Europe a judge must authorise a specific search after receiving a sworn statement from a police officer.
This weekend civil liberties groups and privacy campaigners said the surveillance programme, introduced as an emergency measure in 2001, was being imposed on Britain without a proper debate.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: “The massive scope for transferring personal information from Europe to the United States is extremely worrying, especially in the absence of public debate or parliamentary scrutiny either at EU or domestic level.
“No one is saying that allies should not co-operate, but where is the privacy protection? Where are the judicial safeguards in such a sweeping scheme?
“This looks like yet another example of lopsided post-9/11 compromise and of the ease with which temporary emergency measures are foisted on us permanently.”
US counter-terrorism officials say the data-mining programme aims to trace the transactions of people suspected of having ties to Al-Qaeda.
They say it helped to thwart a plot by an Islamist terror cell in Britain to blow up seven aircraft flying from London to the United States in 2006.
The terrorist finance tracking programme mines thousands of transactions by sifting through records from the nerve centre of the global banking industry, a Belgian co-operative known as Swift. This routes about £3 billion between banks and other financial institutions each day.
According to the EU information note, the United States can request “general data sets” under the scheme based on broad categories including “relevant message types, geography and perceived terrorism threats”.
The scheme is run out of the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The covert spying operation remained secret until 2006.