In 2006, Clerix wrote a book on the activities of foreign secret services in Belgium. Last September, he published his second book, “Spionage. Doelwit: Brussel”– a narrative account of nine tales of espionage in the heart of Europe during the 1970s and 80s.
BRUSSELS — Since the relocation of the NATO headquarters to Brussels in 1967 and the expansion of the European Union’s institutions, the Belgian capital has become a hot spot for spy activity.
MintPress News spoke with Kristof Clerix, a Belgian journalist who specializes in reporting on security topics such as secret services, espionage and organized crime.
In 2006, Clerix wrote a book on the activities of foreign secret services in Belgium. Last September, he published his second book, “Spionage. Doelwit: Brussel” (“Espionage. Target: Brussels”), a narrative account of nine tales of espionage in the heart of Europe during the 1970s and 80s.
Mint Press News [MPN]: You have been investigating espionage in the heart of Europe for many years. Is Brussels a spy city?
Kristof Clerix [KC]: Well, I have done a lot of research in the last 10 years, through interviews with spies, archive research in seven or eight countries, Freedom of Information Act requests and a lot of open source reading. And on that basis, I can say that, yes, Brussels is definitely a spy capital.
MPN: Is it because of the presence of international institutions like NATO and the EU?
KC: Yes, potential targets abound, so it is not really surprising. There is, indeed, NATO and the EU, but also multinationals, international organizations such as the World Customs Organization, Eurocontrol, SWIFT [Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication], 2,500 international agencies, 2,000 companies, 1,500 law firms… Brussels is, geographically-speaking, a small place, but information abounds. With New York and Geneva, it is among the cities with the highest density of information.
And the classical espionage covers are available, as well: journalists, lobbyists, diplomats. Brussels is the diplomatic capital of the world: 288 diplomatic representations — this is more than Washington or Geneva. There are at least 5,000 accredited diplomats, between 1,500 and 2,000 foreign journalists accredited during the EU summits, and up to 20,000 lobbyists.
MPN: We have the information, we have the covers. This does not necessarily mean there is espionage.
KC: No, but this is where the concrete stories come in. Since 1967, when the NATO headquarters moved from France to Belgium with all the military staff and the diplomats, Brussels has attracted foreign secret services’ spies.
There is another important element: the fact that protection may be lacking. The EU became aware of the spying risks very late. As you know, the EU institutions’ security services are responsible for their premises, but as soon as you leave the EU buildings, it is the Belgian state which is responsible. And the Belgian secret service is rather small.
The two Belgian services in charge of counter-espionage are the State Security and the Military Intelligence. Together, they have around 1,300 employees — that is 650 people each — and many risks to handle. There is a lack of involvement from the Belgian political class, which is not sufficiently aware of the seriousness of the threat. This makes a spy’s life easy.
MPN: Is NATO the main target?
KC: Yes, but EU institutions are also among the top targets for foreign spies. During the last 50 years, the EU institutions have become increasingly important — just think about the military operations in foreign countries — and the EU’s new European External Action Service [which handles the EU’s foreign and defense policy] set up in 2011.
This said, the European institutions were already an espionage target in the 60s, as I discovered in the archives of the Hungarian former intelligence service. Back then, Hungary was already interested in the European integration process, as were others, such as Romania and Poland. In other words, as far back as the 60s, several Eastern European countries had sent spies to Brussels, usually under diplomatic cover, to try and get as much information as possible, particularly on trade issues.
MPN: Does that mean spies are more particularly interested in military or defense information and in trade?
KC: Well, secret services have one aim: provide policymakers with information that helps them defend the interests of their country, i.e. political, military and economic-industrial information. These are the three main areas of interest.
A few concrete examples:
In 2011, EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy and EU Counter-terrorism head Gilles de Kerkhove 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 2009, the Belgian State Security Service pointed to intelligence activities by the Congolese state, which was interested in the Belgian Congolese community, to see whether they had any opposition activities.
In 2008, there was a very big 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. A NATO report called him “the most damaging spy in the history of the Alliance.”
In 2008, the Belgian State Security Service asked the Moroccan intelligence agency, the DGED, to call back three officers because they had “gone too far” in the interference.
And then this one, which sounds like a real James Bond story: in 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.
MPN: A later inquiry raised the question of possible Israeli involvement…
KC: The Belgians found no conclusive evidence about that.
MPN: If countries considered allies are involved in spying on the EU, we can assume European governments would try to minimize the issue?
KC: Yes, this is often what happens. Very seldom in that sort of case do people end up in court. These kinds of affairs are probably dealt with on a diplomatic level. It seems reasonable to think that when there are high interests at stake, such as bilateral relations between allies, things are not dealt with in the open, but behind the scenes.
MPN: Does that mean that everyone spies on everyone?
KC: Well, there is a famous book by Sun Tzu, “The Art of War,” written several centuries before Jesus Christ, which already pointed at the importance of spying. It is not called the second oldest profession in the world for nothing, I suppose. Secret services exist and defend the interests of their state — in the past, today and in the future.
MPN: Who is spying in Brussels?
KC: It could be anyone. If you read the reports from the Belgian State Security Service, you find mention of Congo, China, Russia, Morocco… and thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that even our American friends don’t mind intercepting data from the Europeans.
MPN: You were not surprised by Snowden’s revelations?
KC: No, because my first book, written eight years ago, contains a chapter on Echelon’s activities in Europe. This is a worldwide satellite communication interception network, run by the NSA and four allies. The European Parliament investigated the issue in 2000, and the Belgian parliament a year later. The activities of the NSA were already described in their reports.
The only thing that surprised me is the enormous scale on which this has been happening. There obviously seems to be enough analysis capacity to find the needle in the haystack. This was still a problem 10 years ago: one could intercept a lot of data but it was a real challenge then to find something meaningful in it. Now, it looks like the NSA is able to do it.
Snowden’s revelations have also made the general public more aware of the risk involved in IT being part of our daily lives. People store a lot of personal data on social networks, for example. One of the clearest fall-outs of the Snowden affair is that people like you and me have become more aware of the potential risks of doing that, and will, hopefully, draw the lessons and be more careful with our personal data.
MPN: Does that mean that most of the spying nowadays occurs via electronic means?
KC: In the world of espionage you have HUMINT, human intelligence, which is the more classical source running: recruiting informants through money, playing on their ideology, compromising them or manipulating their ego – the famous MICE acronym.
And then, there is SIGINT, signal Intelligence: interception of data through technology.
If you compare the situation today to the Cold War, then SIGINT definitely has become more important. But it has come on top of HUMINT, not instead of it.
Human intelligence is still important for a very simple reason. Take the Snowden case: he had a lot of data, but this information was full of abbreviations, acronyms and technical terms, and the only way to make sense of it all is by using humans who know about it. In other words, you always need human sources to analyze the data intercepted.
And I’d say no less than during the Cold War. According to data from Belgian counter-intelligence, in the early 80s, there were 45 Russian intelligence officers in Belgium. In 2013, there were 150 Russians diplomats in Brussels, and according to the Belgian State Security’s head Alain Winants, one-third would be intelligence officers, i.e. 50 officers. So, you see, this is at least as much as during the Cold war.
MPN: Are spies still trying to recruit local people?
KC: Yes, no doubt about that. Working on my first book in 2006 in a café in a big Belgian city, I witnessed a Belgian politician meeting a foreign spy. This kind of contact could be happening every day, spies trying to recruit new informants in the old-school way.
MPN: But where is the difference between simply discussing an issue and spying? You could be giving information without even realizing it?
KC: Very often, people talk in the metro, they go for a coffee in a bar, they attend a conference, a seminar, and they are not aware that the guy next to them, in his nice suit and with his friendly smile, is actually a spy. But then, that’s the whole point about this activity: the others do not know who you are.
I’d say there are several elements to consider. If the guy you are talking to is on the payroll of a secret service, or if he writes a report for an espionage agency without you knowing about it, he clearly is a spy. But there is, indeed, a grey zone. Notice the striking parallel between spying and other work such as journalism. Journalists also try to play on emotions. Everyone likes to talk about himself, and both spies and journalists use that to get more information. Diplomats have a lot of contacts in political and economic circles, and they also write reports that they send back to their home country.
So, it’s not surprising that media and journalism are classical fronts for spy work.
But yes, it could very well be that you think you are speaking to a friend and you say something confidential, whereas in reality, you are talking to a spy.
MPN: Do spies work for countries only?
KC: No, and what is really challenging for the Belgian State Security Service is that private intelligence companies are very active in Belgium, too. And we know even less about them than about the public players. Private espionage is, according to the Belgian State Security Service, definitely something to worry about.
MPN: How does a journalist go about investigating this kind of topic?
KC: Well, the first thing is that I work for a monthly magazine, which has this advantage that I do not have to write an article every day. In other words, I have time to dig into stories. I find a lot of information in open sources, like parliamentary questions, annual reports of the secret services, specialized newsletters on espionage.
There is useful information in books as well, and in court sentences. Last year, in the Netherlands, a diplomat was sentenced for spying because he was selling documents to the Russians. I found interesting data in the court’s sentence.
You can use the Freedom of Information Act to get access to declassified files from the CIA or the NSA, for example.
And you have the archives. I went to Warsaw, Budapest, Sofia, Bucharest, Berlin and Prague, where I studied thousands of pages about spying in Brussels. This gave me the opportunity to do an in-depth investigation.
And then, there is the classical journalist work, I’d say, networking yourself into specific circles by going to conferences, receptions and seminars and having drinks with people. This is old-school journalism, which can bring a lot of info, as well.
What is important, though, is that you build up a reputation as a reliable journalist — it took me 10 years to get there. And I am very much aware of the fact that one mistake can ruin my reputation.
MPN: What you are saying is that it is still possible today to find newspapers ready to pay for journalists to dig.
KC: Yes, thank God. I recently had the honor of joining the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. So yes, there are still investigative journalists around the world. I work for a magazine that is aware of the importance of investigative journalism, even as a unique selling proposition.
And I was lucky, because I got several scholarships from various investigative journalism funds for a total of 25,000 euros to write a book. I am very happy these foundations are available to help investigative journalism.
And I realized that if you come up with a good story, the media is happy to publish it. I got a lot of attention for my latest book not only from the Belgian media, but also the Dutch, the Czech, the Hungarian… This means there is still an international audience for good investigative stories. And this is why I am personally optimistic about the future of journalism — I cannot see it disappearing, on the contrary.