Image: Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed
Luca Bruno  /  AP
Egypt's Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, center, and fellow countryman Yahia Ragheh, left, are accompanied by police officers as they enter the Milan court, Italy, Tuesday, on Jan. 31 at the start of a trial for international terrorism.
updated 4/8/2006 4:16:01 PM ET 2006-04-08T20:16:01

In Europe, Big Brother is listening — and being allowed to hear more and more.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks and the terrorist bombings that followed in Madrid and London, authorities across the continent are getting more powers to electronically eavesdrop, and meeting less apparent opposition than President Bush did over his post-9/11 wiretapping program.

As part of a package of European Union anti-terrorism measures, the European Parliament in December approved legislation requiring telecommunications companies to retain phone date and Internet logs for a minimum of six months in case they are needed for criminal investigations.

In Italy, which experts agree is the most wiretapped Western democracy, a report to parliament in January by Justice Minister Roberto Castelli said the number of authorized wiretaps more than tripled from 32,000 in 2001 to 106,000 last year.

Italy passed a terrorism law after the July 7 subway bombings in London that opened the way for intelligence agencies to eavesdrop if an attack is feared imminent. Only approval from a prosecutor — not a judge — is required, but the material gleaned cannot be used as evidence in court.

Similar laws have been approved in France and the Netherlands or proposed elsewhere in Europe, leading to fears by some that the terrorist threat is giving authorities a pretext to abuse powers.

‘A legitimate role’
“There is clearly a legitimate role for surveillance, it’s a question of what the safeguards are,” said Ben Ward, associate director of the European and Asian division of Human Rights Watch.

“The use of wiretaps for intelligence gathering purposes when not linked to a criminal investigation and without the authorization of a judge does raise human rights concerns,” Ward said.

The use of hidden microphones in criminal investigations is routine in Italy, but a Swedish government proposal to permit such taps has drawn sharp opposition from civil liberties advocates.

Still, the complaints are relatively muted compared to the criticism that has arisen in the U.S. Congress and among civil liberties groups over the Bush administration’s surveillance operations. After the Sept. 11 attacks Bush granted intelligence officers the power to monitor, without court approval, international calls and e-mails between people in the United States and suspected terrorists overseas.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union filed lawsuits saying court approval was required by law.

Italy’s long tradition of electronic snooping goes back to its fight against the Mafia — and its prosecutors vigorously defend it.

Wiretapping in a criminal investigation needs a judge’s authorization which must be renewed after 15 days for ordinary crimes and 40 days for terrorism and organized crime.

Wiretapping has yielded two recent intelligence coups for Italian authorities.

After one of the men wanted in the London bombings slipped out of Britain, Italian authorities tracked his cell phone, recorded his conversations and traced him to an apartment in Rome.

When they arrested an Egyptian sought in the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004, and accused of recruiting suicide bombers for Iraq, they moved after weeks of listening to his phone calls from a Milan apartment.

But Italian law enforcement officials have criticized the U.S. wiretapping powers for bypassing the special court set up to deal with intelligence matters.

“The system of telephone intercepts without controls is unacceptable,” Milan anti-terrorist prosecutor Armando Spataro told a recent convention on balancing surveillance and privacy.

“These wiretaps “I would not hesitate to call illegal under our judicial traditions,” said Spataro, who has led the investigation into the alleged kidnapping of radical Egyptian cleric by purported CIA agents — all traced by their cell phones.

Italian prosecutors say the cleric was spirited away from a Milan street in 2003 and taken to Egypt, reputedly as part of the CIA’s so-called Extraordinary Rendition Program in which terrorist suspects were allegedly flown to another country at the risk of being tortured. The prosecutors said it was a breach of Italian sovereignty.

More wiretaps in Europe
In a 2003 report, the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Germany put Italy at the top of the European wiretapping list followed by the Netherlands, using figures published by governments or information from parliamentary debates.

Hans-Jorg Albrecht, one of the authors of the report, said wiretaps are much more common on the European continent than in Britain or the United States, where he said there is a more “institutionalized mistrust in the relationship between civil society and a state-organized judiciary.”

He said research showed that wiretaps are often used to support weak cases and seldom help to achieve a guilty verdict.

“The more wiretaps are used, the lower the conviction rates,” he said.

Nevertheless, the Dutch secret service, known by its acronym AIVD, has gained vast powers since 9/11. In September 2004, the government passed sweeping measures that lowered the threshold for bugging and surveillance. A turning point in Dutch public attitudes came with the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist who claimed a film he made insulted Islam.

‘Worth the sacrifice of personal privacy’
Siebrand Buma, the ruling Christian Democratic Party’s spokesman on anti-terrorism and civil rights issues, said that while the Dutch are liberal on drugs and euthanasia policies, “people see the need to combat serious crime as worth the sacrifice of personal privacy.”

A new anti-crime law introduced in 2004 also made wiretapping easier in France. Prosecutors can now apply for wiretaps when investigations are still in a preliminary phase, rather than wait for an investigating magistrate to take over the case.

When wiretaps cause a major scandal, it is usually because elected politicians and senior officials have been targeted.

Recent scandals over bugging erupted in Italy, Greece and Portugal when it came out that the phones of senior government officials were tapped.

Italian privacy advocate Carlo Rienzi claims the system is subject to abuse and that investigators at times accuse suspects of more serious crimes to justify electronic surveillance.

“They insert charges like Mafia association and, with this excuse, they can do the wiretaps,” he said.

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