Top US diplomat assesses impact of Madrid bombings on transatlantic relations

James Foster, Deputy chief of the US mission to the EU assesses the European reaction to the Madrid terrorist attacks and Spain’s new policy on transatlantic relations.

James Fosteris
deputy head of the US mission to the EU. If you wish to read the
interview news, click

How have the initial EU reactions to the Madrid bombings
been perceived by the US?

There was a lot of shock, sympathy, shared
solidarity and a new resolve to deal with the threat of terrorism.
All of us had realised that the threat was real, we knew that
Europe, just like the United States, was facing this kind of
threat, notably with the attack on the British Council in Istanbul.
The size of the Madrid bombings and the clear desire on the part of
the terrorists to kill people, targetting commuter trains at rush
hour, it sobered us all. Outside of the attacks in Bali where seven
hundred people were killed, there hasn’t been terrorism on that
level in some time, so it was really sobering for all of us.

The threat is there, it’s real, it’s not going
to go away and it presents a real danger to the fabric of society.
We stated very clearly, as Europeans have done too, that we need
renewed focus and attention and increased co-operation to deal with
that problem. We have been very heartened by the swift response of
European leaders. The fact that the Justice and Home Affairs
Council got together on Friday, foreign ministers met on Monday and
EU leaders will be getting together on Thursday and Friday to come
out, not necessarily with a new approach, but to examine how the EU
has responded to this and to try to figure out ways in which the EU
can strenghten its response – that’s good.

Following the attacks in Madrid, do you think the Europeans
are taking the right initiatives from a policy

The EU first of all is focussing on
bench-marking what they have achieved. Since September 11, a whole
series of initiatives were put together: the European Arrest
Warrant, measures against terrorist financing, strengthening
Europol, particularly its ability to deal with terrorism. There has
been an assessment on which reforms and new initiatives have
actually been carried out. There are also some interesting
discussions going on now about better co-ordination, whether the EU
is going to establish a terrorism co-ordinator in the Council.
Parallel to that there are discussions in the context of the
Commission on ways in which the different directorates that are
dealing with these issues can work together.

One of the things that the Americans did not pay
a lot of attention to is the emphasis upon trying to use
co-operation against terrorism as a bench-mark for third countries’
relations. Last year, non-proliferation [of weapons of mass
destruction, i.e the country that wants to sign an agreement with
the EU will have to agree to the principle of non-proliferation]
clauses were introduced in trade and association agreements. Now,
there is consideration that co-operation against terrorism is going
to be introduced as another consideration in trade and association
agreements – that is a very significant development. The Irish
Presidency is giving appropriate attention to ways in which the
role of multilateral organisations, particularly the UN, can be
strengthened in the terrorism context. We are taking a look at the
subscription and application of the different UN conventions and
other ways in which terrorism co-operation can be strengthened. A
lot is occurring, it’s very much a continuum since 9/11. obviously,
there is an important transatlantic dimension to it. The US works
on the efforts that Europeans are taking. They are trying to see
ways in which we can either reinforce them or work in parallel.

What advice could the US provide to its transatlantic
partners in the fight against terrorism? What can the EU learn from
the US strategy in fighting the Al Qaeda network?

We have to recognise that the face of terrorism
has changed since 9/11. We have all experienced terrorism in one
form or another. In the 70s, there was the Palestinian-inspired
terrorism, the Red Brigades, continuing problems with the IRA and
the ETA. But the threat posed by Al Qaeda, in the wake of 9/11, Al
Qaeda not only is an international network but the fact that it
builds on failed States, such as Afghanistan, has confronted us
with the need to recognise that diplomatic and police efforts had
to be backed up in some cases by the use of force. I think we need
to recognise that we have to deal with the root causes of
terrorism, the social, economic and political conditions. We also
have to obviously strengthen co-operation diplomatically, and in
that context law-enforcement co-operation is very important. But we
also have to be ready to use force against organisations or
individuals that are totally without principle and are acting in
ways that indicate they are outside the international community.
The Madrid bombings certainly fall under that category. In this
context, we have to be alert to the international dimension to it.
We need to organise ourselves as countries to respond to that.

In the US, there seems to be a perception that the EU is a
bit soft on terrorism whereas the US has taken a tougher approach.
Do you think this is changing?

We have to recognise that force is required to
back up the policies, to respond to an unprecedented level of
threat. These terrorists are not going to go away. If these
terrorists are able to get nuclear weapons – which seems to be
their target – and to be stabilised in the Middle East, on which
Europe principally, but also the United States depends for its
energy, that presents a fundamental threat to our economies and
societies and we need to respond. Of course, force is not the only
answer. There is a full range of diplomatic and other sources of
tools that we want to apply. That’s why we are very much talking
about the Greater Middle East Initiative in the context of
addressing the social, political and economic issues that perhaps
had not got the attention that they should have over the years. But
the fact is that the people that were driving the planes on 9/11,
Osama Bin Laden himself, and the profiles of many of the other
terrorists that we have arrested over the period has shown, that
they were not the poorest and most impoverished people of the
earth. They are people coming essentially from upper and
middle-class backgrounds, they are educated but they are motivated
by a great hatred of our institutions and freedoms. We have to
confront those and understand the nature of the threat. I am
confident that we can respond to it successfully. But the first
step in responding effectively is understanding the character of
the threat. The statements from France and Germany in particular
indicate that the dimensions of the threat have been brought home
more clearly since Madrid.

What would happen if there were another case where the US
felt that force was needed, as in Iraq, but EU countries did not
share that view?

We would need to discuss it carefully. But the
President has made it clear that when we feel that we need to act,
the United States has the resolve and the capability to act in
defense of our own interests. We tend to believe that the struggle
against terrorism is everybody’s struggle. Therefore, I hope that
we can find some ways in which we can act together. A lesson from
the Iraq conflict is that we can act better together than we can
separately. It’s a lesson that we are going to learn again and
again and it’s one that we should bear in mind as we move

If we look at the European security strategy
that was elaborated last year, there is a discussion about the use
of force. There is some language that says that force should not be
ruled out as the last resort and I think that it is basically the
United States position. There comes a t ime when you can no longer
talk, when economic and diplomatic and other sorts of means no
longer apply. Frankly, I think there is a general consensus in
Europe that force was necessary to remove the Talibans from
Afghanistan, considerably less consensus with respect to Iraq.
Force is something that needs to be carefully considered. You don’t
simply use force because there are consequences that go with it.
But force should not be ruled out as a response to terrorism. It
has to be an intricate part of our considerations but only one
part. The issue we face from the threat from Al Qaeda has probably
roots in the malaise, social, economic and political, in the Middle
East region. But without the fanaticism of men like Osama Bin
Laden, I doubt we would be facing the kind of threat that we have
today. Osama Bin Laden, certainly, was born in a privileged family
in Saudi Arabia, he may think that he reflects the aspirations of
the region but I think he is just cynically reflecting its own
agenda. That is something that we, as part of the civilised world,
need to respond forcefully to.

To what extent do the US and the EU share

We have important intelligence-sharing
relationships with many bilateral partners. UK immediately comes to
mind, France certainly is a country where security services talk
with each other. In the NATO context, we share information more
broadly: increasingly as the EU has taken out a more important
foreign policy role. There will be opportunities, not so much for
intelligence-sharing per se – the EU does not have an intelligence
service – but opportunities for sharing different policy
perspectives. For example, we have policy planning talks with the
EU. Through the troïka process, we have 23 discussions with the EU
on a semestrial basis that deal with issues of human rights, China.
These are opportunities for exchange of information and

What is being done to increase trust and mutual confidence
between law enforcement and intelligence officers on both side of
the Atlantic?

In the intelligence area, it’s still very much
on a bilateral basis as the EU does not have an intelligence
service. It has a nascent area of law-enforcement co-operation,
which is Europol. We have signed two intelligence-sharing
agreements with Europol that deal with data privacy issues in a
law-enforcement context. It provided a vehicle for the exchange of
information on terrorism. But the utility of Europol critically
depends, and the Ministers were talking about this – on the extent
to which European police forces and others are ready to see Europol
as a real vehicle for providing that opportunity for information
exchange. Similarly, we are working with Eurojust for the exchange
of information on criminal proceedings. We celebrated last June the
negotiation on the mutual legal assistance treaty and an
extradition agreement with the community as a whole.

Interior ministers dicussed the idea of having a ‘European
CIA’, an idea which was pretty much set aside. Is there too great a
reluctance and too little trust among EU national intelligence
services to share information?

This is a huge issue. Intelligence information
by its nature has to be preserved and has to be properly analysed
as we have learned. Obviously, we can certainly co-operate in the
NATO context. We have a NATO/EU security agreement which means that
there is a sharing of intelligence information in an operational
military context. When the EU launched the Concordia operation [in
the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on 31 March 2003], there
was a provision of real and tactical information to the local
commanders of the EU operation from NATO. That’s a good model that
needs to be built on slowly. The fact that the Europeans are
talking about intelligence-sharing indicates a kind of sea change.
If you think of how quickly, on the political and security front,
discussions on co-operation have moved from a very je alously
guarded Member States’ turf to more of a willingness to understand
that there is real requirement to co-operation and that security is
going to be better served through co-operation and co-ordination
rather than by compartmentalisation and a lack of sharing. It’s
been a sea change and Madrid probably will accelerate that process,
the process has already been well under way. I found it interesting
that Belgium was taking a lot of the initiatives in this area.

Civil liberties watchdogs claim that the setting up of
biometric databases and anti-terrorism measures allowing access to
communications data (i.e retaining information on mobile phones and
internet) are leading to a ‘big brother’ type of surveillance
system. What is your position on these points?

It’s difficult to respond to generalities and
hypothetical situations like that. But one of the issues that
people and the Parliament is very concerned about is the passenger
name record. What we are doing is asking for a set of data first
collected by airlines, as people make reservations through their
travel agency or the internet, to be made available for a screening
procedure by immigration and law enforcement officials. We are
talking about names, addresses, credit numbers, information that is
requested on the internet. Indeed, a lot of data privacy
restrictions and regulations have been introduced for targeting
commercial transactions. Data privacy issues are more involved with
internet transactions, to ensure that the information that you send
to one company is not slipped into a database and then used to
target for commercial purposes. They were not designed to constrain
law enforcement or legitimate government requirements. It’s also a
fact that when you visit a foreign country it’s always considered
perfectly acceptable for that country to require you to put down
that information: take the example of visa applications. The
Passenger name record information is just simply a variant of that.
Rather than collecting the information at the port of entry, which
provides inconvenience to travellers, we have tried to get this
information as it is collected by the airlines, so transatlantic
aviation can be safeguarded, and that the United States and its
citizens can be protected against terrorists and others entering
the country. It does not strike me as ‘big brother’. If you look at
the agreement we have negotiated with the European Commission it’s
very respectful of European data privacy considerations. For
example, there are limits on the scope, we wanted to use this
information for a wide range of law enforcement activities. But
right now it’s very strictly limited to terrorism and organised
crime. There is a limit on the duration for which the information
can be kept – three and a half years. There is also a limit on who
the information can be shared with and for what purposes. These
were negotiated with an eye to data privacy concerns. Frankly we
did not see this as a data privacy issue. This information will be
used legitimately to protect the US as well as to protect
transatlantic aviation. We believe this is a proper use for this
information. Given the way in which information is now available
electronically we have found it very efficient to collect it this
way rather than the older way of requiring people to apply in
advance for a visa or provide that information at the port of
entry. There has been a misperception of what we have been trying
to accomplish here.

What I would like to see and what we hope is
that the EP Justice and Home Affairs committee had debated these
broader issues rather than defining it in terms of ‘big brother’
and societies in which individual freedoms have been dismissed or
ignored. There are provisions in the PNR agreement that provide for
safeguards and specific redresses. We have established a privacy
office within the department of homeland security where this kind
of issue can be raised. Individuals can also raise these issues
through the data privacy a uthorities. At the end of the day, if
the United States does not meet its commitments and does not
adequately deal with the concerns, the information is coming from
the European side, they can stop it at any time. We will still find
a way to collect that data as people enter the United States, this
is perfectly legitimate. This is an arrangement that works for both
sides. It’s an effective and appropriate way to collect that
information. We have been very pleased with the conduct of the
Commission. There have been difficult negotiations, as we both
tried to better understand why these data were required and what we
plan to use it for. We have come to a conclusion that should be
supported by the Parliament and I hope this will be so.

Do the measures taken to cut off terrorist funding differ
in the EU and the US? What kind of co-operation has been
established in that area and what kind is envisaged?

The co-operation on terrorist funding goes
through the United Nations. We have to look at it across the board.
The Japanese and others are very much involved in this process.
What we have encouraged the Europeans to do is not only deal with
organisations that have been identified as terrorist organisations
but also on groups affiliated with them and have been used to
funnel money that is contributed in good faith by people in Europe
and elsewhere but ultimately ends up in the hands of terrorists. We
have also tried to streamline the process because when we identify
a terrorist organisation the funds immediately leave the United
States for some other destinations. When we target an organisation
together, we do not tip our hands so early that the bank account
and other targets are suddenly emptied. These organisations are
like chameleons, they change very very rapidly, they change their
names, their ways of operation. The funding for these organisations
is still significant and its aim is killing people. We need to take
a very strong stance against it. One of the things that the
ministers were looking at on Friday was ways in which to streamline
the organisations and ways in which Europe can encourage other
countries to take a tougher stance against money-laundering that
supports terrorist enterprises.

Is M. Zapatero’s change of policy regarding Iraq leading to
a rethink of the US strategy on Iraq to keep the coalition in

The coalition in Iraq is quite broad, we have
got thirty plus countries involved in one way or another in the
activities there. We are approaching an important point of change.
On 30 June, sovereignty is going to revert to the Iraqi government.
We expect that the coalition will remain but the legal status will
be different. The role of the UN will become very important. If you
listen carefully to Mr Zapareto, he says that the Spanish forces
will remain but there are certain conditions that have been
attached. I don’t think we want to get involved with negotiating
what the conditions are going to be. But we hope that when the new
Spanish Prime Minister comes into power next month has a chance to
look at the situation and recognise the important contributions
that Spanish forces are making to stability in Iraq and recognise
the importance of achieving our goals of democratic and economic
reforms in Iraq and in the context of what we want to achieve
overall in the Middle East. It is important that Spain stays there
and continues to co-operate with the US and with other allies. It
is understandable in the wake of the Madrid bombing that there is
going to be a considerable amount of emotion and concerns and
sometimes there is an easy linkage to the situation in Iraq. But
9/11 occurred well before Iraq and the threat of Al Qaeda is going
to remain for some time beyond Iraq. If we can be successful in
Iraq in this process of change this could be a very very powerful
force for change in a region that desperately needs change. The
report that came out of the UN one or two years ago talked about
the critical areas of politica l, economic and social development
where the Arab world is lagging behind. It’s a kind of a wake up
call for all of us. We looked at the Middle East as a source of
energy supply where there was not a problem. We now realise that
the social and economic issues confronting the people in the Middle
East are our problem. If we are going to deal with the challenges
that we face, we need to confront those as well.

What could a vision for greater transatlantic co-operation

If you are going to have a transatlantic market,
you also have to have in place a transatlantic legal structure or
framework. It does not mean we have the same laws, but we have a
framework in which our law-enforcement authorities and prosecutors
can work together and at least exchange information. If not, the
transatlantic market begins to break down as people take advantage
of moving from one place to another, just as in the European Union
you move from Spain to France to avoid prosecutions or different
kind of regulations. We certainly experienced that in the past in
the US – even today to some extent you can do something in New York
that you cannot do in Hawaï – we live in our own country with the
process of harmonisation and better co-ordination between our
law-enforcement officials. In the US, we are very far from a
unified society – control of the police, control of education is
very much local. There is not a ministry of interior or education,
as you find in European countries. We are trying in a conscious
sort of way to link together law-enforcement officials across the
Atlantic and it’s going to be a long process but you need to create
this transatlantic legal space. We are going to have a real
integration of the transatlantic economies, you cannot have
different environmental laws on the other side of the Atlantic.
Does it mean that everybody on both sides of the Atlantic has to do
things exactly in the same way? That has not been our experience in
The United States. California has a very different approach to the
environment than Florida. There is a certain uniformity across the
United States, but there is also a tremendous opportunity for
regional variation. Similarly, you can see that in the
transatlantic market. But there is also as we have discovered in
the US – and that Europe is discovering – tremendous benefits to
come from integration in terms of employment and growth. We have to
find the right formula for that integration. What we want to do is
to focus on the regulatory area. We should get our regulators to
talk more to each other and be sure that our policies are in sync
whether it’s in the financial services area or with regard to ways
in which we set environmental policies, chemical regulations,
nanotechnology… We need to have an intensified dialogue. We
benefited from a dialogue in the financial services area, trying to
deal with some of the issues that have resulted from Enron,
Parmalat. We should strengthen the market and provide a framework
that allows growth and opportunity.


Subscribe to our newsletters