Tuesday

19th Nov 2019

Investigation

State insecurity: Can Belgium protect EU and Nato?

  • EU and Nato do counter-intelligence only on their own sites and rely on Belgian services for everything else (Photo: Council of the European Union)

A Belgian counter-espionage chief, whose service helps to protect EU and Nato HQs, has been accused of being worryingly soft on Russia in an internal file seen by EUobserver.

The affair, in Belgium's domestic intelligence service, the VSSE, comes after two Russia incidents in its military intelligence service, the ADIV, in the past few years.

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  • Terrorist attacks saw Belgian resources shifted from counter-intelligence (Photo: Reuters)

It also comes in a dangerous climate, with Russian spies said to be as active in Europe as in Cold War times.

And it shines a spotlight on Belgium's counter-espionage capabilities - called "shockingly negligent" in view of its EU and Nato responsibilities by one British expert.

Frank Jaumin, the VSSE counter-espionage chief, "strictly limited the work of the Russia section to subjects tied to the [Russian] embassy, clearing a path for Russian [spy] services" who worked in Brussels under non-diplomatic cover, according to Nicolas Ullens, a former VSSE counter-intelligence inspector.

Jaumin also "burned" an informant on "Russophone influence" in the cabinet of Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders, according to Ullens' internal VSSE complaint - a "restricted" file lodged in 2017 and seen by EUobserver.

Jaumin "did everything in his power" to stop the VSSE's work on three former Soviet oligarchs who were trying to buy friends in the Belgian government, the complaint added.

And the Comite R, Belgium's intelligence oversight body, had once investigated the VSSE's spy-catcher-in-chief on suspicion he was guilty of "espionage for the profit of a foreign power", the complaint said.

The VSSE declined to say if Jaumin did any of those things when asked by EUobserver.

"We regret that the statements of a former employee of the VSSE ... are harming our service as well as the people concerned by the file," it said in a statement.

The Comite R also declined to tell EUobserver if it had investigated Jaumin.

Spy services are meant to work in secret.

But the affair, which includes even more spectacular allegations against Reynders, saw Belgian media publish details of classified files and names of VSSE and Comite R staff.

Ullens himself gave colourful details to EUobserver.

The 54-year old Belgian, who comes from a noble military family, had served in the VSSE for 11 years.

But he resigned on 2 February 2018 saying in his "exit briefing" that "the evolution of the service constitutes a danger" to Belgium's democratic order.

"I put a bottle of Russian vodka on Jaumin's desk the day I walked out of my office," he said.

EU bearing

What happens in the VSSE has a direct bearing on EU and Nato security.

The EU and Nato HQs and other buildings, including Nato's military command, Shape, stand on Belgian territory.

Some 43,000 EU officials and 4,000 Nato personnel and their families also live there.

But EU and Nato staff do counter-intelligence only on their own sites and rely on Belgian services for everything else, under bilateral protocols with Belgium.

"We have jurisdiction within our premises and the Belgian government has jurisdiction outside. We therefore cooperate closely on all aspects of security," a spokesman for the EU Council in Brussels, where European leaders meet, told EUobserver.

"Belgian authorities are responsible for upholding the law on Belgian territory," a European Commission spokesperson said.

The "safety and protection" of Nato facilities was "ultimately assured" by Belgian services, a Nato spokesman noted.

The former VSSE head, Alain Winants, told EUobserver how it worked in an interview in 2012.

"If a hostile intelligence officer is trying to recruit or approach someone from Nato or the EU it is very probable he won't do this by going to meet the person in question in the official building. There is a possibility of contact in an official building, but once contact is established and goes further on, it's likely to take place outside the premises ... at that moment we are, of course, fully competent," Winants explained.

If the VSSE's counter-espionage chief was a traitor it would be a Kim Philby moment for Belgium, by analogy with a Cold War-era British spy who worked for the Soviet Union.

It would also be the biggest EU and Nato security failure since Herman Simm, an Estonian defence official, was caught giving secrets to Russia 10 years ago.

It remains to be seen what comes of Ullens' accusations.

One Belgian prosecutor has said he had no evidence.

The Belgian government has portrayed him as a conspiracy theorist with a personal axe to grind.

And the bad publicity has not harmed trust in Belgian services, the EU and Nato said.

"The general secretariat of the Council have always had and still have a very good working relationship with all Belgian authorities," the EU Council spokesman told EUobserver after the VSSE feud broke out.

"The European Commission has a good cooperation with the Belgian authorities on a variety of issues, including security," its spokesperson said.

"I refer you to the Belgian authorities for any comment" on "this matter," the Nato official said.

Russia alerts

But the VSSE fiasco came shortly after Belgian media revealed two other Russia incidents, this time in Belgium's military intelligence service.

The ADIV fired a reservist officer, who had access to secret files, over business links with former Soviet states in 2015, Belgian magazine Knack reported in June this year.

It accused one of its majors of giving secrets to a Russian agent in 2016, Belgian daily De Morgen reported in February.

It also suspended its counter-espionage chief, Clement Vandenborre, in January for mishandling secret files, amid a climate of "paranoia" in its ranks, De Morgen said.

Those incidents "were treated in a highly professional way internally and according to normal judicial procedure [in the case of the major]" the ADIV told EUobserver in a statement.

Its current focus was on "internal reorganisation," it added, speaking eight months after the Vandenborre case.

The Russia alerts come in troubling times.

The ex-VSSE chief, Winants, said the number of foreign spies in Brussels, including Russian, Chinese, and Iranian ones, was already "in the hundreds" in 2012.

And the threat level went up after Russia invaded Ukraine two years later.

The Kremlin launched a campaign of anti-Western subversion and propaganda at the same time.

Its intelligence services also showed new heights of aggression last year, when they tried to kill Sergei Skripal, a former spy, with a chemical weapon in the UK.

"The numbers of Russian intelligence personnel in Western Europe are back to Cold War times," Eerik Kross, a former intelligence director in Estonia, on Nato's front line with Russia, told this website.

"A basic rule of thumb, which counts for Russia nowadays, is to take the number of diplomats working in Russian embassies and consulates [in a given country] and about half of them are spies," Kross said.

"Then consider another number - its network of covert agents working under non-diplomatic cover, such as businessmen, journalists, or lobbyists - and it's about the same again," he said.

Russia has some 220 diplomats in its embassies and consulates in Belgium.

Capabilities

By Kross' rule, that would mean more than 200 spies.

Russian espionage used to focus on "classical stealing of secrets", an EU security source, who asked not to be named, told EUobserver.

"But now we're increasingly talking about influence operations [recruitment of agents in target institutions], which are harder to detect and to prove," the source said.

Russian services have never been linked to violence in Belgium.

But Ullens, for one, felt "intimidated" in his work.

The "connection between organised crime and foreign services reputed for their violence" which he was investigating, "is well known to our institution", he said in his internal VSSE complaint in 2017.

He faced death threats to try keep him quiet, he said.

"I slept with a loaded pistol beside my bed for three months," Ullens told EUobserver.

For some experts, the threat level posed questions on whether Belgium was fit to protect the EU and Nato even if its recent problems did not amount to a new Philby.

The VSSE and ADIV had about 650 personnel each, according to Kristof Clerix, a Belgian journalist from Knack magazine, who wrote two books about the spy services.

But the vast majority of the 1,300 officers worked on other things, such as counter-terrorism, especially in the wake of the 2015 bomb attacks in Brussels, instead of counter-espionage, a Belgian security source said.

And that left just 15 or so full-time Russia counter-intelligence inspectors in the VSSE and "about the same" number in the ADIV, the Belgian source said.

The VSSE and ADIV declined to comment on the figures.

But the EU security source corroborated the estimate. "Belgium is overwhelmed with responsibility for all the international bodies they are hosting," the contact said.

Weak link?

And open sources told a similar story.

Belgium spends just 0.01 percent of its GDP on intelligence services - the lowest figure of any Nato country, according to research by Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security services at University College London in the UK.

By contrast, Britain, which spends 0.15 percent of GDP, has about 4,000 personnel in its domestic intelligence agency, MI5, alone, Galeotti noted.

"The counter-intelligence capabilities of the Belgians are shockingly negligent," he told EUobserver.

"Talking to officials in Europe, I've often encountered concern about Brussels as a weak link for the EU and Nato. It's got that reputation," Galeotti said.

"Belgium doesn't see itself as a front line state, even though it has a global role to play because that's where the EU is," he added.

Estonia, which is less wealthy than Belgium but which does see itself as a front line state, spends 0.1 percent of GDP, and its services had, according to Kross, a number of Russia counter-intelligence officers that was "in the three digits".

"The vulnerability of the EU and, to an extent, Nato is an old problem," Kross told EUobserver.

Member states' embassies in strategic spots, such as Brussels, usually had at least one counter-espionage officer each, and some of them cooperated in informal clubs, he said.

But the West also put itself at a disadvantage because it did not have a single counter-intelligence capability, Kross added.

"The Russian threat mostly comes from one or two sources [Russian intelligence services, such as the FSB and GRU], but counter-intelligence comes from all 29 Nato or 28 EU states and their various institutions, so it's not a fair game. The Russians have an advantage," he said.

Thinking back to the Simm case in 2009, Kross said: "It was difficult to catch [him] ... It's hard, psychologically and personally, to go after your own, because these are people who've worked with you, whom you've trusted. It took years".

One lesson for Estonia, Kross said, was that "it's always better to have a case that you can defend in court and have those guys sentenced".

But another one was that sometimes you needed to "come clean" with a failure in order to create trust with allies, he added.

"Clearing shop, which we had to do with Russia in Estonia, is very important," he said.

"It's embarrassing in the beginning, but in the long run it creates trust ... You are shamed in a sense, but once you do that, it actually helps in cooperation," Kross said.

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