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Problems Plague European Intelligence Sharing


We are hearing more and more reports that the police in Belgium and intelligence agencies might have received clues before last week's bombings or they missed clues that something was about to happen.

It's way too early to analyze what went wrong, but Jeremy Shapiro says we already know there are weaknesses in the way the European Union tries to prevent terrorist attacks.

Shapiro is research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. He says the first weak point is a legal one. In some countries, you can't arrest people just because you suspect that they might be traveling to Syria or Libya to get terrorist training.

JEREMY SHAPIRO: In France, for example, where they've been very aware of this problem for a couple of years, they've significantly tightened the laws, and they're now capable of arresting somebody because they demonstrate an intent to join a terrorist group in Syria.

But in many other European countries, they don't have that capability. And there's nothing illegal about getting on a plane, even with the intent of going to the theater of operations in Syria and ultimately joining a terrorist group.

ZWERDLING: And I guess that raises all kinds of potential privacy concerns where the government accusing people of thinking about planning to do something.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, hundreds of thousands of Europeans go to Turkey every year, mostly for vacation. And to sort of look at a few of them and say well, we expect that you're intending to join a terrorist group because you once visited this website could be problematic not just from a privacy standpoint, but from a civil rights standpoint.

ZWERDLING: OK, so let's leap way ahead now and let's imagine this potential terrorist has gone to Syria or Libya or wherever, has been trained, is now coming back to Europe to try to plot a terrorist attack. Let's talk about the airplanes. How good is the system to spot people of interest when they buy a ticket?

SHAPIRO: It's not very good at the moment. Europe doesn't have a passenger name record system like the United States does. And so even if they know who someone is, they won't always know that he's coming back.

ZWERDLING: OK, now supposing the person doesn't take a plane but takes a train - in the old days, we would stop at borders and, you know, even if it were 2 in the morning, an immigration person would knock on the door of the little cabin and make us show our passports. That doesn't happen, right?

SHAPIRO: No, that doesn't happen anymore. It's one of the great advantages of the European Union. It may be a fading advantage. A lot of those border checks have actually been reestablished in the last several months, mostly because of the immigration crisis, but also because of the Paris terrorist attacks. But still, by and large, there aren't border checks within Europe.

ZWERDLING: And of course roads are the same thing, right? In most places where roads cross the border, you don't have somebody stop you, you know, say halt. Would that be a good idea? Should you put, you know, border crossings back at every place a road goes into another country?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think that to a degree, that would be an admission of defeat. You wouldn't like to do that. What you'd prefer to be able to do is establish an effective external border and then allow people to move at will internally.

But because the coordination between the European security services isn't so great at the moment, a lot of countries do feel like they need to reintroduce those border controls.

ZWERDLING: So how optimistic are you - or how worried - that things will...

SHAPIRO: I can be optimistic that Western European authorities can get their acts together enough to reduce the problem of terrorism to a level which is manageable, even if it still is tragic from time to time.

You know, we have accepted all sorts of problems like that - like crime, like traffic deaths - which are tragic. But we work to reduce them. And we make great strides, but we accept that we never eliminate them.

Terrorism is that kind of problem. It's been with us for hundreds of years and it will probably be with us for hundreds years - of years more. I guess what I'm less optimistic about is that we will find a way to get the societies to respond in a way which is reasonable.

And instead, we will constantly be introducing new surveillance, new security measures, new restrictions on civil liberties intended to reduce this problem to zero when that's really just not possible.

ZWERDLING: Jeremy Shapiro is research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. That's a think tank based in London. Well, thanks very much for chatting with us.

SHAPIRO: OK. Thanks Danny. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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