Europe's Parliament Takes a Stand

Long a backwater, the institution has begun to flex its muscles on issues central to the transatlantic relationship. America should listen up.

Most Americans, if they think about the European Parliament at all, probably imagine a bunch of left-wing backbenchers goofing off in Brussels or Strasbourg with little of value to say on international security. But Americans may have to update their opinion -- and their approach to transatlantic cooperation -- now that the European Parliament has made a most unparliamentary gesture: blocking a deal on sharing bank data with the United States. U.S. policymakers saw this deal as a cornerstone of international counterterrorism efforts, but now, those efforts are on hold. The EU Parliament's move is a sign that it wants to be a player in transatlantic security decisions -- and the United States will just have to accept it.

The current conflict concerns data sharing between a European banking consortium called SWIFT and U.S. security agencies. After the September 11 attacks, the U.S. Treasury Department and the CIA began secretly requiring that SWIFT provide the U.S. government with information on all international banking transfers.

In 2006, the New York Times ran an exposé uncovering the program. As SWIFT is based in Belgium and European privacy laws prevent such data transfers, this sparked an international controversy that led to negotiations between the European Union and the United States. The Treasury Department argued that the program was invaluable for counterterrorism operations, as it allows U.S. intelligence agencies to pinpoint suspicious financial flows and has in fact prevented terrorist incidents. In the end, an agreement was reached between the United States and Europe that allowed for the sharing of some bank data. In particular, it specified the conditions under which information could be accessed and set up several mechanisms to prevent the wonton abuse of data by U.S. authorities.

But the European Union didn't quite reckon with the European Parliament, which has grown increasingly powerful over the last two decades as an important proving ground for up-and-coming politicians. More importantly, the European Union's Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in December, gave the European Parliament new powers over homeland security -- including oversight over ad hoc deals such as this one.

EU member states tried to play it clever by finalizing the bank-data deal the day before the Parliament's new powers on homeland security went into effect. But they were too clever by half. To give the agreement the patina of legitimacy, the European Union put it before the Parliament as an up-or-down vote. The attempt to weasel the deal past the Parliament only succeeded in enraging parliamentarians who were already unhappy about the compromise worked out with the United States. In a stunning rebuke to the EU presidency that negotiated the deal and flexing their new powers under the Lisbon Treaty, the Parliament voted to kill the deal by a significant majority (378 to 196).

The Parliament's stand has broad repercussions for transatlantic politics, signaling that the days of quiet backroom handshakes between European and U.S. officials are over. If the United States wants to avoid a series of confrontations and public controversies with Europe, it needs to pay attention to its legislature and understand the two key concerns that drive it.

First, the Parliament wants to become a real player in foreign policy -- not just a rubber stamp. As the Parliament has sought new powers within Europe, it has again and again proved itself willing to block policy deals if it is not consulted. However, after it has won a place at the table, it has shown itself willing to play a constructive role.

Second, the Parliament has real privacy concerns. It has consistently sought to include strong privacy protections in international information-sharing agreements. It is a body of elected politicians, and European voters genuinely care about civil liberties. They are particularly worried about how the U.S. government uses personally sensitive information on European citizens. George W. Bush's administration engaged in questionable human rights practices and forced European companies to provide information on European citizens. The United States has no comprehensive structure to oversee privacy protection for its own citizens, let alone Europeans. This has created a legacy of mistrust.

To build support for counterterrorism cooperation, the United States must explicitly accept that the European Parliament will play a key role in future negotiations. It has already begun to move in this direction by reassuring the Parliament that its concerns will be taken seriously. But a last-minute call by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is not the same as real involvement. The U.S. administration must treat the Parliament as a true negotiating partner, along with the EU member states, on information sharing and domestic security.

The U.S. administration can also address the Parliament's substantive worries by creating its own privacy oversight structures and extending its protection to European citizens. A good first step would be to appoint new members to the administration's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Created as one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report, the board was to advise the president and executive agencies on privacy and civil liberties issues relating to the war on terrorism. Never given true autonomy, the board has been inactive since the beginning of 2008. This board, reconstituted as an independent executive agency, would help persuade Europeans that the United States takes privacy seriously and would help rebalance transatlantic policy discussions.

U.S. policymakers, when faced by the complexities of Europe's internal politics, are often tempted to simply walk away. This would be a serious mistake. If the United States wants to rebuild the transatlantic relationship and promote its own security interests, it must stop treating the European Parliament as an irrelevant afterthought.



How Genocide Became a National Security Threat

And what Barack Obama should do about it.

Deep into his Feb. 2 congressional testimony on the U.S. government's annual threat assessment, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair raised the specter of an unfamiliar threat -- far from the terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and cyberattacks that the rest of his discussion focused on. "Looking ahead over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing," Blair told Congress. "Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan."

Blair's testimony was an underappreciated breakthrough. Genocides and mass atrocities have traditionally been seen by the U.S. government as tragedies, but little more. President Bill Clinton never seriously contemplated intervening in Rwanda. George W. Bush's administration insisted that the violence in Darfur was genocide, but made little mention of any threat to U.S. interests arising there. Now, Blair has tacitly acknowledged what human rights groups and humanitarians have long insisted -- that mass killings are not only moral issues, but are threats to the national security of the United States. And in the world of politics, that subtle shift could make a big difference.

Genocide's negative consequences for the United States are increasingly plain. Mass violence destabilizes countries and entire regions, threatening to spread trafficking in drugs, arms, and persons, as well as infectious disease pandemics and youth radicalization. When prevention fails, the United States invariably foots much of the bill for post-atrocity relief and peacekeeping operations -- to the tune of billions of dollars. And even as Washington is paying, America's soft power is depleted when the world's only superpower stands idle while innocents are systematically slaughtered.

This reality has become increasingly stark in recent years, and it is finally catching Washington's attention. In fact, Blair's statement was just one of several signs that Barack Obama's administration is rethinking Washington's response to genocide. This month's Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a touchstone planning document for the military, states that the Defense Department should be prepared to offer the president with options for "preventing human suffering due to mass atrocities or large-scale natural disasters abroad." Although the previous QDR in 2006 also referred to humanitarian missions, it did not contemplate responses to mass atrocities. So now for the first time, the military should begin a much-needed process of strategic thinking about preventing genocide.

Even more promising, the White House has moved quietly in the last several weeks to create a high-level interagency committee at the National Security Council aimed at anticipating and preventing mass atrocities. This committee should force policymakers to grapple with the risk of mass atrocities early on, before crises get out of control. It should take control of a process now fragmented between agencies, helping combat the bureaucratic lethargy and ad hoc decision-making that has characterized past U.S. responses to genocide.

Of course, it is reasonable to ask whether these modest steps are truly meaningful when contrasted with the complex roots and incalculable impacts of genocidal violence. Although it's true that attention and organization do not guarantee foreign-policy success, their absence makes it nearly impossible. A year ago, the Genocide Prevention Task Force, chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, produced a blueprint of practical steps that the U.S. government could take to prevent genocide and mass atrocities. And it urged just the kinds of actions the administration has taken in recent weeks.

More is needed, of course, after the administrative structures are in place. As the Albright-Cohen task force found, leadership is the "indispensable ingredient" in preventing mass atrocities. Following Blair's statements this month, Obama and his most senior advisors should send even clearer signals to their subordinates and to the international community that preventing mass atrocities advances U.S. national security interests. One immediate move in this direction would be for the National Security Strategy now being prepared by the White House to declare the prevention of genocide an important U.S. objective. The president should then give a major public speech to explain to the American people why such a new approach is necessary.

The test case for all of this could come sooner than we think, as the Obama administration navigates the grave risks posed to civilians in Sudan. With violence down in Darfur and a peace treaty in the works between the main rebel group there and the government in Khartoum, Sudan no longer makes front-page headlines. But the situation for civilians across Africa's largest country is no less dangerous in the coming years, not least because 2.7 million Darfuris continue to live in displaced-persons camps. Moreover, north-south tensions, still boiling after decades of civil war, will come to a head over the next year. National elections in April and a referendum next January on southern independence could rekindle the mass, often ethnic violence that has plagued the country since independence in 1956.

Obama spoke of his commitment to do "everything we can to prevent and end atrocities like those that took place in Rwanda, those taking place in Darfur" at the Holocaust Days of Remembrance ceremony last April. Fulfilling his commitment will mean, among other things, personally engaging his special envoy for Sudan, the State Department, and the Pentagon to forge a strategy to prevent a foreseeable catastrophe.

The top intelligence officer of the United States is now on record warning of possible genocide. Is the rest of the administration up to the task?