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Congress signals disapproval of European effort to limit PNR data

A collection of bipartisan members of Congress introduced resolutions on May 10 to counter the European Union’s attempt to renegotiate sharing air passenger information, saying it has been valuable in capturing terrorists traveling to the U.S.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-CT), House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-NY), Senate Committee Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME), and House Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-MS) said they had introduced the measures to signal “strong disapproval of European Union (EU) efforts to reopen negotiations on an agreement signed by the EU and the U.S. in 2007 to share passenger name record (PNR) data.” The 2007 agreement was intended to remain in effect until 2014, they said.

The U.S. and EU are currently negotiating the terms of extending the PNR arrangement.

PNR data is used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to pre-screen international flights 72 hours before they are scheduled to depart. Data collected from the airlines’ PNR systems are compared to terrorist watch lists and criminal and immigration databases to make sure known terrorists do not board airplanes bound for the U.S.

The EU has been recalcitrant in past talks. The European Parliament (EP) still has not formally approved the last agreement, struck in 2007. That agreement paired the U.S. request for 34 shared PNR data points to 19. The EP acts in conjunction with the European Commission (EC) and Council.

Last September, the EC said its PNR agreements in the future would include restrictions on the means and frequency of data sharing, limitations on how long data could be stored, and requirements that EU citizens be given administrative and judicial redress by other countries, according to the joint congressional statement.

The U.S. lawmakers said the use of PNR data has been proven to be instrumental in arrests in many investigations. They said the investigations of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and one of the planners of the attack Mumbai, India had employed the data.

“The thwarted Christmas Day attack in 2009 and attempts to place bombs in airplane cargo holds last year demonstrate that terrorists are still intent on using airplanes as weapons against us,” said Lieberman in a joint May 10 statement with Collins, King and Thompson. “Sharing passenger information is an effective way to keep known terrorists off airplanes and has contributed to the arrests of at least two terrorists since the current agreement with the EU was signed. We should accept no changes to the agreement that could limit our ability to identify and arrest terrorists or potential terrorists in the future,” he said.

King called the matter “a national security priority” and warned weakening the agreement could have “grave consequences” for the U.S. and Europe alike.  “The need to collect passenger travel data has for nearly a decade received bipartisan support from Congress and has served as a cornerstone in both the Bush and Obama Administrations for interdicting terrorists.”

Sen. Collins said PNR data is “crucial” to the layered approach to homeland security.

“I urge the Department of Homeland Security and the European Union to continue to use the PNR data agreement in place, as previously negotiated and in effect until July 2014, to identify and thwart those seeking to do our country harm,” she said.

“Certainly, the sharing of passenger name record data between the U.S. and E.U., as well as the stringent privacy and oversight protection in the 2007 agreement, has made the nation more secure,” said Thompson. “Those who question the value of the 2007 agreement need only to look at the interdictions and thwarted potential attacks that have resulted.  The resolution is intended to underscore the need to rededicate ourselves to information sharing and redoubling efforts to thwart terrorist travel,” he said.


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