U.S., Europe seek to cooperate on transportation security

Senior officials from the United States and Europe on Monday launched an initiative to increase cooperation on security and law enforcement matters in an effort to better stop terrorist threats.

Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security, met on Monday in Brussels, Belgium, with Jonathan Faull, European Commission director-general for justice and home affairs.

The two officials discussed security issues of mutual importance, such as document security, biometric identification, the Bush administration's push for a two-year delay to a congressional mandate to lift visa waivers in October, and a program for tracking visitors to the United States known as US VISIT. They also agreed to exchange information on lost and stolen passports.

The object of the meeting was to begin the process of finding a way to "identify the icebergs before we hit them," an EU official said.

Hutchinson acknowledged the need for flexibility on the U.S. requirement that air marshals fly on commercial flights, as some European nations do not have laws allowing for that, according to a U.S. official. Some European governments were caught by surprise with the news that some flights had been canceled over recent holidays and that air marshals were boarding flights, something that a system for cooperation could have addressed. The commission will look to replicate protocols already established with the British and French for dealing with threats involving specific flights.

Hutchinson also commented on the need for sharing of best practices for new technologies for rail security, the official said.

On biometrics, the two sides agreed on the need for these technologies, and that the International Civil Aviation Organization's standard of using facial scans may not be enough, a U.S. official said. Both sides favor inclusion of fingerprint scans as well, he said.

An 18-month-old dispute between the two sides over U.S. security authorities' access to airline passenger information for European flights destined for the United States is the "textbook example" of why a better system for cooperation is needed, the EU official said.

Since March 2003, airlines have been providing their passenger data to U.S. authorities despite strict rules on sharing of European citizens' personal information with third parties.

Officials from the Homeland Security Department and the European Commission announced an agreement on the issue in December, though negotiations on details have continued since then. Last week, the European Parliament voted 276-260 to reject the deal and refer it to Europe's highest court, but the commission has not said publicly what its next step will be following the parliamentary vote.

The EU official said Monday that the airline passenger data issue might come up at the regular Wednesday meeting of the 20 European commissioners.

Hutchinson on Monday pressed European officials to move forward with the agreement terms, noting the narrow margin of the parliamentary vote as evidence of increasing support for sharing information between the two sides.

Hutchinson will be in France until Friday, speaking at an airport security conference, touring the port at Le Havre, and meeting with government officials in Paris.

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