Guest post by Tara Lighten
Brussels is a true spy capital. That’s according to the Belgian investigative journalist Kristof Clerix who writes for MO*, a Belgian magazine on international affairs, and has written two books on the 007 dimension of the European Union’s unofficial capital city.
Tara Lighten: Why is Brussels a hotbed for espionage?
Kristof Clerix: For obvious reasons, Brussels is the diplomatic capital of the world, it hosts the NATO headquarters, the EU’s Commission, Council and Parliament, 288 diplomatic representations, numerous international institutions, NGOs, lobby organisations, think-tanks and multinational companies. Because of that, a lot of sensitive information is concentrated in one city with just over a million inhabitants. On top of that, also many high profile people, with their staff, pass by in Brussels. To cite one example, at the end of March and beginning of April 2014, not only 27 European prime ministers and presidents visited Brussels, but also American president Obama, his Chinese colleague Xi Jinping, heads of government of over 40 African countries, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and several NATO ministers of foreign affairs.
TL: So how does that translate in espionage affairs?
KC: There’s plenty of evidence that this unique situation has caught the attention of foreign spies since the 1960s. In the 25 years after the relocation of NATO to Belgium (1967), some ninety Warsaw Pact spies were forced to leave the country. To give another idea of the magnitude, in the eighties, the Stasi residence in Brussels (codename “Residence 211”) sent information originating from 59 different sources to the spy headquarters in Berlin. In the same period, 75 different Stasi operatives stayed over in Belgian hotels. Together that makes at least 134 East German intelligence officers and agents.
During the Cold War, the NATO headquarters were espionage target number one in Brussels, but interestingly also the European Union – that was much smaller and less powerful than today – attracted foreign spies since the 1960’s – e.g. from the Hungarian and Polish secret service. Also after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the EU remained a target.
One notorious spy case dates back to 2003. In the Justus Lipsius building, the headquarters of the European Council, five black boxes with espionage devices were found hidden in the concrete walls of the building. The devices, which could be activated from outside, were connected to the telephone lines of the delegation rooms of France, Germany, Italy, the UK, Spain and Austria. They had probably been there for eight years. The Belgian prosecutor’s office launched an inquiry into the case, but no one ever ended up in court.
TL: Is intelligence gathering more focused on how states will vote on specific programmes or on targeting individual MEPs? Which EU agencies are targeted the most today?
KC: All of them. A recently published brochure by the Council’s security service literally states: ‘Everyone working at the European Council, no matter in which position, is a potential target for organisations who are trying to collect sensitive information.’
There’s a broad range of topics being discussed in the EU Council, Commission and Parliament – but also in other entities such as the European Defence Agency – that are interesting for secret services. In trade negotiations, it’s always valuable to know the position of your counterparty beforehand. That’s why – according to the Council’s security office – e.g. during negotiations with big fishery nations such as Morocco, secret services are active in Brussels.
On top of that, since about a decade the EU is operating outside of its borders, through diplomacy and military and civilian operations – e.g. in the FYROM, Congo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Darfur, Chad and Somalia. The European Common Security and Defence Policy is a relatively new development. It makes Brussels geopolitically even more important than before. The Serbian secret service will be interested in Europe’s position on Kosovo, the Russians in the position on Ukraine, the Chinese will be after information on European activities in Africa.
Or take the European External Action Service, set up after the Lisbon Treaty of 2009. It’s the focal point of 140 EU representations worldwide. The EEAS is a spy target, no doubt. In early March, a confidential telephone conversation between EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and the Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Paet, on the developments in Ukraine, was leaked on YouTube. I’m wondering whether this was the result of an espionage operation.
TL: Can you cite more concrete examples?
KC: In 2011, EU Council Chief Herman Van Rompuy and EU Counter-Terrorism Head Gilles de Kerchove had their mails hacked. This was supposedly done by Chinese hackers, but Beijing denied any involvement.
In 2010, the Belgian State Security Service launched an inquiry into the Colombian intelligence service, the DAS, after an investigation in Colombia had revealed that it had been running an intelligence operation focused on the European Parliament and members of NGOs.
In 2008, there was the case of Herman Simm, an Estonian who was arrested for treason. He was head of the National Security Authority in Estonia and was coming regularly to Brussels to attend security meetings at the EU. He had security clearance for EU classified documents.
Next to that, the Belgian State Security has written in its recent annual reports that it had been investigating links between the Kashmir Centre EU and the Pakistani intelligence; Russian and Chinese spy activities in Brussels, e.g. directed against the EU’s economical and political policy; Serbian lobby groups possibly linked to Serbian secret services etc. And the Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s office is about to conclude a judicial inquiry into an old school eavesdropping case: a couple of years ago, microphones had been found hidden in the Brussels apartment of a member of Batasuna, the political wing of the Basque ETA which had its presence close to the EU institutions.
TL: How does the EU protect its sensitive information from spies?
KC: In Brussels, about 570 people are in charge of protecting the buildings, employees and classified documents of the European Commission, Council, Parliament and External Action Service. One task of this security apparatus is to create awareness among EU officials that security threats – one of them being espionage – do exist in the real world.
Remarkably enough, these EU security directorates have only been set up of late. Although the Commission is already an espionage target since the 1970s, its security directorate was only professionalised at the end of the 1980s. The Council followed even later: only in 2000 a counter-espionage team was founded within the security office. And the Parliament – that hosts up to 20,000 visitors per day – only has a ‘real’ security directorate, with a Risk Analysis Unit of 15 specialists, since 2014. Why so late? Only more recently it’s been that the European MEPs play a role during negotiations on treaties for which they need to have access to classified information.
TL: Does the EU also spy? Does the EU have its own CIA?
KC: In September 2013, EU Commissioner Viviane Reding relaunched the idea of setting up a European CIA, but that would need a clear change in the agreements. The Lisbon Treaty states that national security is the competence of the member states. In other words, EU member states are not really willing to give up on intelligence. They prefer to keep their own spy agencies instead of setting up one single European intelligence service.
That being said, since a few years the EU does a have small intel component in Brussels: the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (INTCEN), the Intelligence Directorate of the EU Military Staff, and the so called Situation Room. Together they employ about 140 intelligence experts. These are analysis sharing platforms rather than operational spy agencies.
Earlier this year I did an interview with Ilkka Salmi, the EU’s spymaster, the head of the INTCEN, who stressed: “We do not have a collection capability. We do not deal with personal data. We do not carry out clandestine operations. The operational level of intelligence is the member states’ responsibility. We only deal with strategic analysis.” Salmi explained that INTCEN supports the European External Action Service in its policy making by providing the intelligence component into the process: “Think about places like the Middle East. The Syrian crisis is certainly something which is high on everybody’s agenda these days. And issues like the foreign fighters are of concern to all the security authorities, not only in Europe but also more widely.” INTCEN produces over 500 reports per year, including intelligence assessments on hotspots worldwide, a weekly intelligence report and a daily briefing for the senior management of the EEAS.
TL: Does Europe spy on countries that are negotiating accession to the EU?
KC: Countries such as Turkey, Bosnia, Serbia or Albania might join the EU one day and are in permanent dialogue with Brussels. There are enough open mechanisms in place to verify and audit candidate member states’ pre-accession developments. In other words: no need to spy on that. Crisis situations in those regions are an exception. It would be surprising if INTCEN would not be interested in the recent developments in Ukraine.
As for the secret services of individual EU member states, one can indeed imagine that – in defence of their national interests – they are active within the borders of possible future EU member states. Think about the fight against proliferation, terrorism and organised crime (drugs trafficking, human trafficking, counterfeiting etc).
TL: In your interview with Mint Press News, you pointed out that Belgium’s security services are too small to cope with the amount of espionage that goes on in Brussels. Do you think Belgium doesn’t increase the size of its security services because increased ability to detect inter-EU espionage would adversely affect relations within the European community?
KC: No, I don’t think that’s the reason. That is really too far-fetched – although I’m looking forward to the results of the judicial enquiry into the Batasuna spy case I referred to earlier (was a EU member state behind this?).
The two Belgian services in charge of counter-espionage (the State Security and the Military Intelligence) have around 1,300 employees – that is 650 people each. Taking into account their comprehensive list of other tasks (from collecting information on all kinds of extremist organisations to combating proliferation), and bearing in mind Brussels’ international position, these are relatively small secret services. No conspiracy thinking needed to explain that. It’s simply a matter of budget, Belgium being a small country with only 11 million inhabitants. And maybe, probably, a lack of interest from Belgium’s political world also plays a role. But on the other hand, I should probably add that the budget of the State Security almost doubled in the seven years from 2003 to 2010.
TL: We’ve all seen out-there recruitment tactics in films, but what sort of qualities do intelligence agencies look for in real life, and how do they assess candidates’ abilities?
KC: Forget most of the things you know from James Bond movies; rather think in terms of Das Leben der Anderen [The Lives of Others]. Secret services want employees with good social skills (needed to recruit future sources and informants). They look for people with language skills; speaking Russian, Chinese or Farsi is an asset. And nowadays they crave for highly skilled IT experts because the cyber dimension is getting more and more important in the world of espionage – just remember all of Edward Snowden’s revelations.
TL: In your first book you described witnessing a foreign spy meeting a Belgian politician. How did you know s/he is a spy and what was the politician risking by betraying their country, or was the politician unaware they were talking to a spy?
KC: Journalists have their way of knowing about meetings taking place. I deliberately don’t want to be too detailed about this. I just knew the two were going to meet. So there I was, in that same café, hiding behind a coffee and a newspaper, listening in on a conversation between a foreign spy and a politician. The latter only started suspecting after a while that there may be another dimension to his meetings with his ‘befriended diplomat from an Eastern country’, who gave a bottle of vodka for birthdays and asked how the kids were doing. This was a classical long-term human intelligence operation, a process of recruitment, and the politician was in the phase of slowly starting to see the whole picture, without having crossed any red line at that point.
TL: And the million euro question: As it’s all secret, how did you track down intelligence officers to interview for your books?
KC: They don’t go around bragging they work for secret services of course. So what you do as a journalist is hang out in places where spies will go to as well, think about conferences on combating terrorism or on cyber security of course. Some of the diplomats you meet there work for intel agencies. An even smaller number of them are willing to talk, for whatever reason. One should always be aware that people probably have double agendas when sharing secrets with journalists.
And then there are the intelligence archives in Eastern Europe. I went to Warsaw, Budapest, Sofia, Bucharest, Berlin and Prague, where I studied thousands of declassified pages about Cold War spying in Brussels. That’s how I found out about the real identities of foreign spies who had been active in Brussels during the 1970s and 1980s. Through Google, it’s relatively easy to find their present whereabouts.
Tara Lighten is a copywriter and freelance journalist who studied the European Union during her law degree.