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Secret US program broke law, Belgium says

PARIS -- A secret US program to monitor millions of international financial transactions for terrorist links violated Belgian and European law and will have to be changed, the Belgian government said yesterday.

The decision, announced by Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, came as the country's Data Privacy Commission released a 20-page report finding that the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, had improperly turned over data from millions of global financial transactions to US antiterror investigators.

``It has to be seen as a gross miscalculation by SWIFT that it has, for years, secretly and systematically transferred massive amounts of personal data for surveillance without effective and clear legal basis and independent controls in line with Belgian and European law," the report says.

Leonard Schrank, SWIFT's chief executive, said in a telephone interview that the cooperative believes it complied with the law.

``But the trouble is data privacy laws in Europe are quite difficult to follow," he said. ``They're not drafted for national security issues."

SWIFT said in a statement that it had relinquished data only after it had been ``subject to valid and compulsory subpoenas" from US authorities.

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