European Commissioner Squares Up to Eric Holder Over “Completely Illegal” Surveillance

Viviane Reding

Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

The Obama administration is trying to quell public concern about the extent of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. But the public relations effort is having zero impact in Europe—where a serious backlash against the spying continues to unfold in the European Parliament.

During a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, Viviane Reding, the vice president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, addressed concerns about the NSA’s ability to secretly sweep up European citizens’ private communications. Of particular focus was the surveillance system PRISM, revealed by the Guardian and the Washington Post earlier this month, which is reportedly used by the NSA to obtain emails, photos, videos, chats, and other data under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Reding described PRISM as a “wake-up call” and said that she had sent U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder two letters since the revelations, demanding details about the volume of data collected and the scope of the surveillance. She also said that she had the opportunity to face up to Holder in person during a meeting last week in Ireland. She told him that governments should acquire users’ data through existing so-called “mutual legal assistance” protocols and not through covert programs like PRISM, “which would be completely illegal in the European Union.” Perhaps most notably, Reding, who also serves as justice commissioner for the EU, added that Holder had agreed to set up a “trans-Atlantic group of experts” to discuss the surveillance issues and to ensure EU citizens’ data are protected.

European members of parliament also had the chance to weigh in during the meeting, which was hosted by the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs. German MEP Birgit Sippel took the opportunity to accuse the United States of going “behind our backs to fish out data about our citizens,” backing up the position taken by her country’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has separately challenged President Obama over the surveillance. French MEP Véronique Mathieu said that the U.S. government had “done something wrong and we have got to remind them of that and draw their attention to that firmly.” And Spain’s Romero López fumed about what she called “a mass invasion of privacy with terrorism as the excuse.”

But anger was also directed inward during the meeting, with Reding facing a barrage of questions and criticism for failing to act earlier against U.S. surveillance efforts. Politicians from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany all said that Europe had to take some of the blame for failing to implement strong data protection rules to prevent PRISM-style spying on European citizens. British MEP Sarah Ludford pointed out that a clause in recently proposed data protection reforms was apparently removed at the behest of U.S. government pressure prior to the leaks about the NSA spying. The measure was described by MEPs as the “anti-FISA clause” because it specifically would have prevented the type of secret surveillance conducted with the NSA’s PRISM system under a controversial 2008 amendment to the FISA law. The clause was removed reportedly after a high-level U.S. lobbying effort, which included Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, personally pressuring officials in Brussels.

Reding said that the first trans-Atlantic meeting with Holder is expected to take place in July. She plans to seek a guarantee from the United States that Europeans’ data will receive the same protections afforded to Americans. “On this subject the whole world is watching,” she said. “If we manage to get these data protection rules agreed upon we will have set a gold standard for data protection not only in Europe but at a world level.”