US attorney general Eric Holder insists Prism cannot routinely breach privacy of individuals

US-EU justice meeting told leaks concerning surveillance programme damaging for security of Americans and Europeans

 US attorney general Eric Holder in Dublin yesterday:  “All information that is acquired is subject to strict court-imposed restrictions.” Photograph:   Mac Innes Photography/Department of The Taoiseach via Getty Images

US attorney general Eric Holder in Dublin yesterday: “All information that is acquired is subject to strict court-imposed restrictions.” Photograph: Mac Innes Photography/Department of The Taoiseach via Getty Images

Sat, Jun 15, 2013, 01:00

The US Prism surveillance programme is underpinned by court oversight and cannot routinely “listen in on anyone’s phone calls”, the US attorney general has said.

Eric Holder said his government “is prohibited from sifting through telephone metadata”. “All information that is acquired is subject to strict court-imposed restrictions.”

He told a news conference at Dublin Castle: “The court only allows that data to be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion based on specific facts that the basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organisation. Only specially cleared counter-terrorism personnel who are specifically trained may even access those records. All information that is acquired under this order is subject to strict restrictions on handling and overseen by the Department of Justice.”

Mr Holder was speaking after a EU-US ministerial-level meeting chaired by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter in his capacity as president of the Justice and Home Affairs Council of the EU.


Foreign intelligence
Their meeting included a session on data protection following the revelation that the US had access to the servers of major communications technology companies.

Mr Holder said “[Prism] facilitates the targeted acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning foreign parties located outside the US under court oversight. Service providers supply information to the government when they are lawfully required to do so. The government cannot target anyone under the court-approved procedures or this programme unless there is an appropriate and documented foreign intelligence purpose. We cannot target foreign overseas persons without a valid foreign intelligence purpose.”

He said the claim that such a programme was not subject to oversight was “simply not correct”.

There exists “an extensive oversight regime” incorporating the executive, legislative and judicial branches and there are procedures within the executive branch to ensure that everything is being done which is consistent with the law.


European fears
Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, said questions raised over Prism “have been answered very clearly by Eric Holder and his collaborators”.

She said Europeans feared “some kind of big brother intruding into their privacy. But as Eric Holder has just said, there has to be a court order, that it can only be done when there is a serious presumption of crime . . . that is very important to know.”

In response to questions about Prism’s whistleblower Edward Snowden, Mr Holder said US intentions were clear.

“We will hold accountable the person who is responsible for those extremely damaging leaks.”

Mr Shatter said everyone accepted the need to protect citizens against terrorism.“There is a need for greater transparency on the occasions on which this is utilised . . . It is important that information isn’t made available that would inhibit the US and Europe’s capacity to protect its citizens.