Brussels will ‘not comment’ on reports Britain is spying on EU Brexit committee

Sabine WeyandRelations between the European Union and the United Kingdom hit a new low on Thursday, as the European Council refused to comment on claims that British spy agencies have spied on Brexit negotiators in Brussels. Consultations between the two sides have progressed at an alarmingly slow pace ever since June 23, 2016, when voters in the island nation elected to leave the EU during a nationwide referendum. In March of 2017, London officially invoked Article 50 of the EU Treaty, which requires that Britain’s withdrawal from the multinational body be completed within two calendar years. But there are many who think that a mutual agreement will not be reached between the two sides.

On Wednesday, British newspaper The Daily Telegraph alleged that a number of EU Brexit negotiators believe that their closed-door meetings are being spied upon by the British Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6. According to The Telegraph, fears of espionage were raised by Sabine Weyand, a German EU official who is currently serving as Deputy Chief of the European Council’s Article 50 Working Party. On July 13, during a meeting of the European Council, Weyand reportedly said “it could not be excluded” that British intelligence agencies had found ways to listen in to the closed-door meetings of EU Brexit negotiators. According to The Telegraph, Weyand and other EU officials became suspicious after London appeared to be privy to information discussed on July 5 at a closed-door meeting of the Article 50 Working Party. Weyand told the European Council that the information had reached London “within hours” of it having been presented in Brussels. Just hours following the secret presentation, senior British government officials were reportedly lobbying in public against the information contained in it.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the European Commission, which operates as the EU’s cabinet, did not deny that concerns about espionage were raised by EU Brexit negotiators. When asked by reporters in Brussels about The Telegraph’s allegations, the spokesperson responded: “The Commission’s position today is that we cannot comment on these press reports”. As the press conference was taking place, British negotiators were arriving in Brussels in order to resume the latest round of Brexit talks with the EU’s Article 50 Working Party.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 August 2018 | Permalink

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Belgium to probe alleged Spanish espionage against separatist Catalan leader

Carles PuigdemontBelgium will investigate whether Spanish intelligence spied on Carles Puigdemont, the separatist Catalan leader who escaped to Brussels after launching an unsuccessful independence bid last year. Puigdemont, 56, served as president of the Spanish region of Catalonia from January 2016 until October 2017. He was forcibly removed from office by the Spanish government, after he led the government of Catalonia in a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain. As soon as the Catalan Parliament declared that the region was independent, Madrid dissolved it, imposed direct rule on the country’s easternmost province, and declared fresh elections.

Amidst the chaos that ensued, Puigdemont, along with several other leading Catalan separatists, fled to Belgium where he requested political asylum. When it emerged that Puigdemont had fled abroad, Spanish authorities issued a European Arrest Warrant against him, on charges of sedition, rebellion against the state and misusing public funds. Fearing that the Belgian authorities might extradite him to Madrid, Puigdemont soon left for Germany, where he was detained by local police on March 25, 2018. He currently remains in Germany, while German authorities are deciding whether to grant Madrid’s request for his extradition.

Now authorities in Belgium are preparing to launch an investigation into whether Spain’s intelligence services carried out espionage against Puigdemont while he remained on Belgian soil. The investigation will most likely be carried out by the country’s Standing Intelligence Agencies Review Committee. Known broadly as Comité permanent R, the committee is an independent body that oversees the activities of Belgium’s security and intelligence apparatus. The investigation is to be launched as a result of an official parliamentary request submitted by the New Flemish Alliance, Belgium’s largest separatist party, which represents the country’s Dutch-speaking minority. The party has come out in support of Catalan independence and of Puigdemont in particular, and has urged Brussels to grant political asylum to the Catalan separatist leader.

Peter Buysrogge, a leading member of the New Flemish Alliance, said that his party wanted to know whether Spanish intelligence operated in Belgium with or without the knowledge of the Belgian government and intelligence services. He added that his party was especially interested in investigating allegations made in Catalan media that Spanish intelligence operatives followed Puigdemont and even installed a Global Positioning System (GPS) device under his car.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 June 2018 | Permalink

EU recalls envoy to Moscow over Skripal poisoning, more expulsions may follow

Theresa MayThe European Union has recalled its ambassador to Moscow in an apparent response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent, who was attacked with a nerve agent in England earlier this month. Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, remain in critical condition in hospital, nearly three weeks after being poisoned with a nerve agent that British scientists say belongs to Russia’s Cold-War-era chemical stockpiles. Moscow has angrily rejected claims that Skripal, who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, was on a Kremlin-approved hit-list of defectors. But British Prime Minister Theresa May traveled to Brussels on Thursday to brief European Union heads of state about the attack on Skripal.

The summit concluded in the early hours of Friday with the publication of a joint statement, signed by every participating head of state, backing the British claims and expressing outrage at Moscow’s alleged use of a military-grade nerve agent on British soil. The statement said that EU leaders “agree with the United Kingdom government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible” for the attack on the Skripals. “There is no plausible alternative explanation”, said the statement, and described the attack on the two Russians as a “grave challenge to our shared security”. The statement will be seen as a foreign-policy triumph by London, as Britain has been contacting EU governments seeking from them a direct condemnation of Russia and possible diplomatic actions in response to the alleged attack.

The jointly authored statement also said that the EU would recall its ambassador to Moscow, effective immediately. Markus Ederer, a German diplomat who represents the EU in the Russian capital, will be leaving Russia “for a month of consultations”, in what appears to be a symbolic act of protest by the Europeans. However, some EU members threatened further action and said that they would “coordinate on the consequences to be drawn in the light of” future Russian actions on the matter of the Skripals. In statements made to reporters early on Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that there may be “further punitive measures” against Russia, adding that they would be coordinated among EU states.

Some media reported that at least five EU member states were considering expelling undeclared Russian intelligence officers from their soil in response to the alleged Russian attack in England. They are said to include France, Lithuania and Poland. The London-based newspaper Daily Telegraph reported that Russia was in danger of having its Western European spy network dismantled in response to the attack on the Skripals. Some EU countries, however, including Italy and Greece, appeared less interested in taking action against Russia. The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, said on Thursday that his government expressed its “solidarity with the United Kingdom”, but that the EU had to investigate what happened in England on March 4.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 March 2018 | Permalink

Luxembourg to further-probe Jean-Claude Juncker’s role in spy scandal

Jean-Claude JunckerA judge in Luxembourg has launched a criminal investigation into whether officials working for the country’s former Prime Minister and current European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, tried to conceal his role in a spy scandal. Until he stepped down from his post in 2013, Juncker, a member of Luxembourg’s Christian Social People’s Party, was Europe’s longest-serving elected leader, having served as Prime Minister since 1995. His resignation from his post came after a parliamentary inquiry found that the country’s State Intelligence Service (SREL) had engaged in serious criminal activity.

The investigation was launched in 2012, after a local newspaper alleged that SREL’s Director, Marco Mille, employed a surreptitious recording device disguised as a watch to record a private conversation with Juncker. This led to revelations that the SREL had carried out countless illegal wiretaps around the country and that it maintained extensive secret files on over 13,000 citizens and residents of Luxembourg. The report also alleged that SREL set up a front company in order to facilitate the transfer of $10 million from a corrupt Russian businessman to a Spanish intelligence operative, as a personal favor to the Russian. The probe also examined, but did not confirm, allegations that the Grand Duke of Luxembourg had been a trusted informant of MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. The release of the report prompted calls for Juncker to resign, because, according to Luxembourg law, the Prime Minister is directly responsible for the conduct of the country’s intelligence services, including SREL.

Now Judge Eric Schammo has launched a new criminal investigation into whether government officials working for Mr. Juncker deliberately falsified crucial evidence during the 2012 parliamentary investigation and the subsequent judicial investigation. Government prosecutors believe that a small group of officials falsified evidence in order to protect Mr. Juncker and shield him from any political fallout caused by the scandal. According to reports, former SREL Director Mille, who is currently on trial over his role in the spy affair, has in its possession a recording of a private conversation with Juncker. It is said that the recorded conversation shows that Juncker was aware of and approved the wiretap operation. This evidence was allegedly shared with members of the parliamentary inquiry in 2012. However, according to reports, pro-Juncker officials deleted it from the committee’s files. Juncker denies having had any knowledge of, or having authorized, SREL’s illegal activities.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 December 2017 | Permalink

German spy officials dismiss calls to create European intelligence agency

European UnionGermany’s two most senior intelligence officials have dismissed suggestions by European officials and leaders, including the president of France, to create a Europe-wide intelligence agency. The numerous deadly attacks carried out by Islamic State supporters across Europe in recent years have given rise to calls from various quarters for the establishment of a new intelligence service that would combine resources from every member-state of the European Union. Last month, the European Union’s Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said that the time had come for Europe to be “ambitious and bold, to overcome the security taboos of the past and finally work in order to build a European intelligence system”. He went on to say that, had there been sufficient “cooperation, information sharing and exchanging” between the various European intelligence services, “maybe some of these tragic events could have been predicted and prevented”. Avramopoulos’ remarks were echoed last week by France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron. Speaking at Sorbonne University in Paris, France’s head of state said that the creation of a European Intelligence Agency would “strengthen links between our countries” and prevent emerging security threats.

But these calls were rebuffed this week in Berlin, where Germany’s two most senior intelligence officials rejected any and all calls for the creation of a European intelligence service. The officials are Bruno Kahl, director of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, and Hans-Georg Maaßen, who heads the country’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, known as the BfV. The two men spoke before a special session of the Intelligence Oversight Committee of the German Federal Parliament, known as the Bundestag. The BND’s Kahl said Europe already had an intelligence-based early-warning center, known as the European Union Intelligence and Situation Center (EU INTCEN). He argued that there was “no need for a European intelligence agency or any other supplemental Europe-wide intelligence organization” and added that “intelligence is better organized on the national level”. He was backed by BfV’s Maaßen, who warned that the creation of a European intelligence service would “create additional bureaucratic structures, both on the European and domestic levels”, which would “profoundly lower our efficiency”.

The two German intelligence officials said that cooperation between European Union member-states had improved substantially in the past few years, and that the current model of bilateral exchange was “the most efficient […] and quickest way to share information”. The current system of inter-agency coordination would be weakened if a European intelligence service was created, according to the two men.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 October | Permalink

Leaked EU intelligence report says Islamists were not behind Turkey coup

Turkey coupA leaked report by a European Union intelligence body states that Islamist forces were not behind last July’s failed coup in Turkey, and that the ruling party used the coup to neutralize its few remaining political rivals. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating the coup, which included an armed attack on the country’s parliament and the murder of over 200 people across Turkey. The Gülen movement consists of supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who runs a global network of schools, charities and businesses from his home in the United States. The government of Turkey has designated Gülen’s group a terrorist organization and claims that its members have stealthily infiltrated state institutions since the 1980s.

But a report compiled by the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre, known as IntCen, states that Gülenists had nothing to do with the coup, and that the current crackdown against them by the government was planned years in advance. Founded in 2012, IntCen is the intelligence-sharing body of the EU. Its reports are the results of collaborative efforts of intelligence officers from all EU states. They are distributed on a confidential basis to senior EU officials and to the ambassadors of EU states in Brussels, Belgium. The report on the coup in Turkey is entitled “Turkey: The Impact of the Gülenist Movement”. It was issued on August 24 and is marked “confidential”. But it was accessed by British newspaper The Times, which published extracts on Tuesday.

According to the leaked document, it is “unlikely” that the Gülen movement had the “capabilities and capacities” to launch a coup against Erdoğan. It is even more unlikely, it suggests, “that Gülen himself played a role” in the operation. A far more plausible explanation is that the coup was launched by a relatively small group of Kemalists (secular Turks who oppose President Erdoğan’s religiously-based politics), some Gülenists, and various opportunists within the ranks of the military. Once the coup began to unfold, a few low-level military officers with Gülenist sympathies may have “felt under pressure” to participate in order to ensure its success. That was mostly because they knew that, if the coup failed, the Erdoğan government would go after them and accuse them of staging it, states the report.

Indeed, once the coup failed, the Erdoğan administration launched a coordinated campaign designed to dismantle the Gülen movement, which was its “one and only real rival” in Turkey. Since the end of the failed coup, the Turkish state has initiated a nationwide political crackdown against alleged supporters of the coup. An estimated 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs, while hundreds of thousands have been demoted, censured or warned. Another 35,000 are believed to be in prison, charged with supporting the failed coup or with being members of the Gülen network. But the IntCen report suggests that the crackdown against Erdoğan’s opponents had been conceived and designed years in advance. Last July’s coup acted as a catalyst and was “exploited” by the government to neutralize all its political opponents, says IntCen. The lists used to arrest individuals across the country had been complied by the Turkish intelligence services many years ahead of the failed coup, according to the IntCen report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 January 2017 | Permalink

Italian spy chief paid secret visit to Syria: news reports

Alberto ManentiThe head of Italian intelligence paid a secret visit to Syria earlier this month, a week after his Syrian counterpart visited Rome, according to reports from the Middle East. The Dubai-based newspaper Gulf News, which first reported the alleged behind-the-scenes exchange, said the visits focused on counter-terrorism cooperation between Syria and the European Union. The paper said that the initial contact was made in late June by Major General Deeb Zeitoun, head of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, who paid a secret visit to Rome. General Zeitoun’s visit was allegedly in response to an official invitation issued by the Italian government. The general is believed to have stayed in a secluded private villa, which was provided by the Italian External Intelligence and Security Agency, known as AISE. He subsequently met with several Italian intelligence officials, including AISE Director, General Alberto Manenti.

A week later, Manenti secretly traveled to Syrian capital Damascus, where he stayed for several days. According to Gulf News, General Manenti met with his Syrian counterpart and other senior intelligence officials, as well as with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The main purpose of the secret meetings was to explore the potential for enhanced collaboration between Syria and the European Union on counter-terrorism issues. It appears that the Syrian government is willing to share intelligence on citizens of the EU who have traveled to Syria and have joined the ranks of the Islamic State, as well as other al-Qaeda-inspired groups in the country. Damascus is even willing to give EU intelligence personnel access to captured Islamist fighters that are being held in Syrian government facilities.

In return, however, the Syrians are asking that the EU enters negotiations on possibly normalizing diplomatic relations with Damascus. Contacts between the EU and Syria were severely disrupted at the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War and remain officially non-existent to this day. According to Gulf News, the Syrians told General Manenti that full intelligence cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism will ensue as soon as the EU normalizes diplomatic relations with the government in Damascus. The Italian intelligence official is believed to have told the Syrians that Rome will press the EU to move toward re-establishing relations with Damascus, in return for concrete steps taken in Syria toward “political transition” in the war-torn country.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2016 | Permalink