WASHINGTON — US homeland security officials on Wednesday defended a draft airline passenger information sharing agreement which European MPs could veto over privacy concerns, saying such data had foiled terror plots.
The European Parliament blocked a previous agreement between the United States and the 27-state EU, forcing the two sides to enter into negotiations that culminated with a draft agreement that was leaked online.
Some European lawmakers have said the 15 years that passenger data could be held by the United States is too long and definitions for what constitutes a terror threat or a serious transnational crime are very vague.
But Mary Ellen Callahan, chief privacy officer for the US Department of Homeland Security, said three audits had shown information had not been abused and refuted allegations that its powers could be "disproportionate."
Suggestions from Europe that the United States should "only collect information from the people you need to collect information from, for example the bad guys -- the criminals," were flawed, she told a congressional sub-committee.
"We don't know who all the bad guys are. We have unknown terrorists out there," Callahan said in testimony at a hearing on intelligence sharing and terrorist travel.
Thomas Bush, a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official, said passenger name records (PNRs) helped snare Najibullah Azazi, a lawful US resident who plotted to attack the New York subway system, as well as identify his co-travelers who had trained in the same terror training camps in Pakistan.
PNR data also identified David Headley, a Chicago-based Pakistani-American who pleaded guilty for his role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
"Starting with a very common name David, a partial travel itinerary and a very vague travel timeframe, CBP was able to check it against other databases and within 24 hours provided the FBI with name, address and passport number," Bush told the committee.
David Heyman, Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Homeland Security, said legal advice to European members of parliament citing data protection concerns could persuade them against revamping an agreement ratified by 24 of 27 EU member states since 2007.
But Democratic congresswoman Janice Hahn of California said Euro MPs had provided no substantive reason against approving the draft agreement.
"The real problem is parliament. They're the ones that look like they could very well veto this or block it, and there doesn't seem to be any instances of abuse that they can point to after we've collected this information," Hahn said.
"But it's just a basic overall belief that data collection has sort of gotten to an extreme. Privacy for them seems to have been violated."
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