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EU Gov'ts, U.S. in Bank Data Transfer Deal

EU governments agreed on Monday to allow the United States to access European banking data in anti-terror probes - but only for nine months while they seek a longer-term deal that could allow them see U.S. information.

Such a deal would formalize a secret program launched in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that skirted Europe's strict privacy rules. It did that by transferring millions of pieces of personal information from the U.S. offices of the bank transfer company SWIFT to American authorities.

Since news of the U.S. anti-terror program broke in 2006 - angering European legislators - American authorities have promised that the information it collects from the databases is properly protected and used only in anti-terror probes. They said "data mining" - or open-ended searching - is strictly forbidden.

The Americans have said the data have helped provide new leads, corroborate identities and uncover relationships between suspects in an al Qaeda-directed plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airplane flights in 2006. They also said it helped to identify financial transactions made by an al Qaeda terrorist suspect involved in planning a possible aircraft attack earlier this year.

Overall, the program has generated some 1,450 tip-offs to European governments and 800 to other states - 100 of them from January to September this year, officials said.

The interim agreement reached Monday is due to come into force on Feb. 1 and to last for up to nine months.

EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Jacques Barrot said the deal was essential to allow the data-sharing to continue while the bloc tries to negotiate a longer-term agreement that would ask U.S. authorities to share banking data with the EU.

SWIFT - the global electronic payments consortium used by banks worldwide - is planning to shift its data stores from the United States to Switzerland by the end of this year - which means the U.S. needs an international agreement to keep the data flow going.

The European Parliament has been fiercely critical of how U.S. Treasury officials accessed the European operations centers of SWIFT without EU governments' knowledge or permission.

The assembly had asked EU nations to delay approving the deal until after Dec. 1, when the EU's Lisbon Treaty enters into force, granting the parliament more power to examine negotiations with the United States.

German Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere said the parliament would get the chance to vote on the deal and that it would not enter into force if lawmakers opposed it.
By AP Business Writer Aoife White; AP writer Barbara Schaeder contributed to this story