The Belgian National Bank and the country’s Finance Minister Didier Reynders knew of an agreement under which SWIFT, the company operating cross-border payments in the EU and elsewhere, forwarded data to the CIA.
Under the scheme, SWIFT granted the US intelligence agency access to data concerning millions of financial transactions involving six billion euro daily, in reaction to a request from US authorities. The programme, which was run by the CIA, allegedly led to the arrest of high-rank terrorists.
The New York Times, which revealed the practice, quotes Treasury Department Under Secretary Stuart Levey as saying that it “has provided us with a unique and powerful window into the operations of terrorist networks and is, without doubt, a legal and proper use of our authorities”.
In a first reaction, a Commission spokesman said that there was not a breach of EU law since “the data protection directive does not apply to data transfers for security purposes” and furthermore not transfers from a private entity to a state, only between states.
SWIFT’s activities are overseen by the Belgian National Bank, which in its turn is overseen by the Belgian Ministry of Finance. In a press release, the National Bank acknowledged that it knew of the transfers, but claims it could do nothing about them, its primary task being to oversee the soundness of financial transactions, not of data transfer. According to press reports, Belgian Finance Minister Didier Reynders was informed about the practice “informally” in April 2006, when it had been going on for about four and a half years.
SWIFT – an abbreviation for ‘Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication’ is a co-operative owned by the banking sector and based in Brussels. Bringing together 7,800 banks in 200 countries, it has become the standard operator handling international money transfers. Its eleven-character Bank Identifier Codes (BIC) have been approved as ISO 9362 by the International Organisation for Standardization. The BIC standard has been enhanced for payments between EU countries as part of the 2001 regulation on cross-border payments in euro.