Flying and Spying

We’ve reached a pretty pass when that Leviathan-ber-alles, the European Union (EU), shows more respect for airline passengers’ privacy than does the US government.

Last week, the EU’s Court of Justice threw out an agreement between the Union’s 25 nations and the Feds, whose thirst to know everything about everyone is no longer quenched at our shores. The deal dates to December 2003, when Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Tom Ridge and Frits Bolkestein, EU Commissioner, discussed how best to spy on European visitors to the US. "Under intense pressure from the Bush Administration," as the New York Times put it, the EU stipulated that airlines within its jurisdiction would surrender thirty-four bits of information on every passenger to the Feds. After all, “the E.U. cannot refuse its ally in the fight against terrorism,” Frits announced. The US government planned to retain that data for 3 years. Amazingly enough, that’s "far less than the Bush administration had originally sought."

Predictably, names, addresses, and telephone numbers figure in this informational overload, but so do such tidbits as traveling companions, itinerary, method of payment and credit card numbers, even dietary requests. That’s right: if Louis Gascon of 37 Rue Souveraine, Brussels, munches a croissant on Air France, by gum, the Feds wanna know. What sort of voracious, vacuous busybodies are ruling this country, anyway?

Supposedly, learning what Louis eats en route, who’s sitting beside him, and how he paid for his ticket allows Leviathan to fight terrorism. The DHS allegedly matches these details against the infamous Terrorist Watch List while the flight soars above the Atlantic, and then, if there are toddlers or men named David Nelson aboard the plane, dispatches "law enforcement officers" to meet them when they land. Right. These are the same incompetents who couldn’t get trailers to Hurricane Katrina victims six months after the storm: how likely is it they can whisk cops to airports to intercept incoming terrorists?

Tom and Fritz reached their infernal agreement only after “both sides [gave] much ground,” according to Stewart Verdery, then an assistant secretary at the DHS. Good gracious, what did the US want at the start of things? Blood type? Color of socks and how many pairs the passenger packed? Birthdate divided by number of hairs on the passenger’s head? Our man Stew continued: “Many had thought that our security needs could not coexist with the privacy needs of the European Union." Well, Stew, many here worry about the same thing vis–vis our own "privacy needs."

Rest assured that all this information will be used solely to thwart terrorism — and, of course, "other serious crimes, including organized crime, that are transnational in nature…" As always, the War on Terror justifies a police state in which the Feds can monitor everyone, all the time, even folks who aren’t US citizens.

Tom admitted as much when he said the agreement “enhance[d] the Homeland Security mission of fighting terrorism and crime while still ensuring that the privacy of travelers will be protected.” [Emphasis added.] Call me cynical, but I’d say Tom lied when he claimed he’s protecting privacy even as his computers store passengers’ itineraries and the names of their friends for the next 3 years.

That brings us to May 30 of this year and the decision from the European Court of Justice. It ruled that the EU cannot require airlines to violate privacy laws in their own countries while complying with the demands of a foreign government, in this case the insufferable snoops of the US. As the New York Times encouragingly says, this development comes "at a time of heightened concerns about possible infringements of civil liberties by the Bush administration in its campaign against terrorism, and the extent to which European governments have cooperated." Who knew anyone but we wackos were concerned about such things? Indeed, "critics of the deal to share passenger data said rights violations — from Iraqi prisons and Guantánamo Bay, to secret C.I.A. flights of terrorism suspects over Europe — have tainted other antiterrorism efforts."

Graham Watson, representing southwest England in the EU’s Parliament, opined, “People are very much concerned about the direction that the Bush administration has been taking in these matters.” And Americans worry that immigrants will destroy the country! Au contraire: let’s find these "concerned people" and import them by the boatload.

Then there’s Graham’s Dutch colleague, Sophie in ‘t Veld. Sophie speaks so sensibly on this issue that we might mistake her for a normal person instead of politician in the EU’s Parliament: “The one question that has never been answered is, does it actually work?" she said. "How many terrorists did they catch? How many international criminals? How many attacks did they prevent? And how many mistakes were made? We do not know because this information has never been made public. It is outrageous.”

Naturally, the DHS is unfazed. You can almost see spokesman Jarrod Agen’s arrogant shrug as he tells the Times that "privacy was not really the issue, because his department could obtain the same information by questioning the passengers on arrival." Is there anyone anywhere in this Administration who remotely understands the concept of privacy? Meanwhile, until lawyers craft a new agreement, Jarrod assures us that “the planes will continue to fly and the security data will continue to be exchanged.”

And the police state will continue to metastasize.