5th Jun 2023

Competition heating up for EU intelligence chief job

  • The new SitCen director will have to keep the trust of member states' security services while being loyal to Brussels (Photo: EU Commission)

Eight candidates have declared an interest in becoming the permanent head of the EU's most sensitive security organ, the Joint Situation Centre (SitCen).

French diplomat Patrice Bergamini, who was recently appointed as SitCen caretaker manager by EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton, is in a strong position to lobby for the €15,000-a-month permanent post, advertised by Ms Ashton earlier this month.

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His caretaker role is limited to giving political direction to the intelligence-sharing bureau and to liaising with Ms Ashton and EU ambassadors, however. SitCen's day-to-day operations are being run by a French intelligence officer from inside the bureau, who is to step down in February.

The director of Austria's Federal Agency for State Protection and Counter Terrorism, Peter Gridling, is also in the running, EUobserver has learned. British, German and Italian candidates from diplomatic and security backgrounds have come forward as well.

The new SitCen chief will have to keep the trust of EU member states' security services, which supply classified information to the bureau, while remaining loyal to Brussels rather than to his national capital, a contact familiar with the recruitment process said.

"If the EU's head of delegation in Beijing hears that SitCen has written a report about China and he says: 'I need it now. Send it by fax.' You would have to say: 'No. It's coming by pony and it will take three weeks.' A security breach would be an automatic death sentence for SitCen [in terms of co-operation with national services]," the contact said.

"He will need to do some things which need to remain between SitCen and Ms Ashton and which don't get transmitted straight back to one of the [EU] capitals. For example, if there is a pre-conflict situation where the EU might be able to play a role, she might need advice on how to go about this, all of which would have to take place before she takes a proposal to member states."

The new SitCen chief will have a grave responsibility.

"You can imagine the impact it might have had on EU support for the Iraq war [in 2003] if SitCen had reported there were Weapons of Mass Destruction. Or, if it now says something on Iran," the contact added.

The new appointment comes at a dynamic time for the 10-year-old bureau.

SitCen will from 1 December become part of the European External Action Service (EEAS) under Ms Ashton's command. The heart of the bureau's work - the classified-information-sharing cell, which is composed of intelligence officers seconded from 12 'old' EU member states and five countries which joined the EU after 2004 - is unlikely to change.

Its team of open source analysts is to be enlarged, however. An organigram circulating in the EU institutions indicates that SitCen's existing unit of 15 analysts is to be joined by six staff from the European Commission's Crisis Room. The move is designed to combine SitCen's human resources - its open source analysts between them speak Arabic, Chinese, Farsi and Russian - and the Crisis Room's IT expertise.

SitCen's information security branch is to be merged with its European Commission counterpart and split off to become a separate EEAS department. SitCen currently operates the so-called Coreu system used by member states to circulate non-public EU documents, while the commission's New Communications Network handles its links with EU delegations abroad.

Ms Asthon's intelligence hub will also use more images from EU government-owned satellites, namely France's Helios and Pleiades systems, Germany's SAR-Lupe and Italy's Cosmo-SkyMed, on top of existing data from US-owned commercial satellites. The EU member states' "spy" satellites can be moved more quickly to look at, say, a Syrian nuclear reactor or a North Korean rocket launch site. They also charge less for images at a time of penny-pinching on the EU budget.

Who does what?

The EU's recent handling of the Pakistan floods indicates that Ms Ashton and SitCen will concentrate on human-made conflicts and the political dimension of natural disasters. Aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva is meanwhile staking out her turf on the humanitarian relief side of natural catastrophes.

Ms Georgieva is considering changing the name of her Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC), the commission office responsible for co-ordinating EU member states' aid efforts, into the "Commission Centre for Crisis Response." The CCCR would stand alongside Ms Ashton's new-model SitCen, which she has dubbed the EU's "single crisis response centre" in talks with member states.

Ms Georgieva is also drafting proposals, due in late September or October, to create an EU rapid-reaction force for natural disasters. The project has the support of French commissioner Michel Barnier and centre-right French MEPs, such as Arnaud Danjean.

"The discussion is still very fluid," an EU official said, referring to the Ashton/Georgieva division of labour.

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