EU Rights Official Asks Holder to Clarify PRISM Program

European Union Commissioner Viviane Reding asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for more information on the U.S. surveillance program Prism and its consequences for the rights of EU citizens.

“Given the gravity of the situation and the serious concerns expressed in public opinion on this side of the Atlantic, you will understand that I will expect swift and concrete answers to these questions,” Reding said, according to a copy of a June 10 letter to Holder obtained by Bloomberg News.

Reding, the European Commission’s vice president for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, said she has serious concerns about reports that the U.S. is accessing and processing data of EU citizens who are using U.S. online service providers.

A former U.S. national security contractor, Edward Snowden, disclosed the secret program to collect a vast trove of domestic telephone and international Internet data. The June 5 disclosure sparked a criminal investigation by the Justice Department, calls for the surveillance to be reined in, and a lawsuit accusing the government of violating the privacy and free-speech rights of its citizens.

Formal Channels

In her letter, Reding said the U.S. should use existing formal channels for the exchange of information to prevent or investigate criminal activity. Direct access by U.S. law enforcement to data of EU citizens on U.S. servers should be excluded other than in “clearly defined, exceptional and judicially reviewable situations,” she said.

“Trust that the rule of law will be respected is also essential to the stability and growth of the digital economy, including transatlantic business,” Reding said. “It is of paramount importance for individuals and companies alike.”

The once-secret Prism program that Snowden revealed and that is now acknowledged by the U.S. director of national intelligence, collected e-mails and other data from nine companies including Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc., according to National Security Agency slides Snowden provided to the Guardian and Washington Post.

Reding asked Holder to explain at a June 14 meeting whether the Prism program is aimed at EU citizens, whether the data collected is limited to specific and individual cases, what the scope of the program is, and what avenues are available to challenge access to the data, among other questions.

Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s national security division, declined to comment on Reding’s letter.

German Minister

German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberg has also requested Holder for information about the legal foundation of the Prism program.

Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to raise Germany’s concerns about U.S government surveillance with President Barack Obama when he visits Berlin next week. Her government also sent a list of questions to the U.S. government as well as Internet companies following reports of wide-scale American spying, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said yesterday.

General Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, told U.S. senators at a hearing yesterday that the surveillance of telephone records of millions of Americans has disrupted or contributed to disrupting “dozens” of terror plots.

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