Wednesday

8th Jul 2020

Feature

How spies use women to steal EU secrets

  • What motivates a woman to sacrifice her private life for her country? (Photo: Jane M.)

"Thou shalt not sleep around while on delegation" should be the "11th commandment" for EU diplomats travelling abroad, as spies continue to use "honey-traps" in modern times.

The 'commandment' was endorsed by a former counter-intelligence officer from an EU member state, who used to work in Brussels.

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  • Kremlin: Honey-trap stories associated with Cold War novels (Photo: Boris SV)

The term 'honey-trap' was popularised by Cold War-era novelists, writing about Soviet agents who seduced Western men.

But sex was still being used to steal secrets in today's Cold Wars, according to two European former counter-intelligence officers and one active one, who have all worked in the EU capital, interviewed by EUobserver.

And Belgian intelligence reports, seen by this website, corroborated their warnings.

There were "real examples of cultivation cases, methods" using honey-traps to catch EU staff in recent times, and they were most at risk when travelling overseas, one of the counter-intelligence sources said.

"But you have to understand - it's not about sex per se. It's about any vulnerability the hostile service might find and exploit ... whether it's sex, alcohol, gambling, or any other 'abnormality'," he added.

Mores had changed since the 1980s, a second counter-espionage officer, who specialised in Russia, noted.

"Today, if you [a politician, for instance] are bisexual or homosexual, there's not the same prejudice as 40 years ago. It can even be an advantage," he said.

"But the honey-trap is still used quite a lot," he added.

"I also know of some cases, from not long ago, but the details are not as romantic as 'Red Sparrow'," he said, referring to a US film about Soviet spies.

In one case, a civil servant from an EU country, who dealt with passport security, went to a technical congress in a foreign city.

He was seduced by a woman posing as a fellow delegate.

But after they had sex in his hotel room, she ran into the corridor crying out that she had been raped.

Host-state police and intelligence officers were on the scene immediately and the official agreed to betray his country the same day, in return for hushing things up.

Real life was less romantic than movies, the source who recounted the events said, because, in this case, it was not Hollywood bogeymen such as Russia or China setting traps for Westerners, but one Nato country's spies who entrapped a fellow Nato ally's official - because they wanted access to blank passports for their spy games.

Details were also unsavoury, because the female agent, in this instance, declined to use a condom on purpose.

And fake rape-traps were not even the ugliest kind.

Evidence of sex with minors was "the strongest form of kompromat [compromising material]" that a hostile intelligence service could wish for, one of the former spy-catchers said.

But extreme cases aside, womanising EU or Nato men were also at risk of sleeping with the enemy more generally, both on delegation and closer to home.

There were "offensive [spy] services" behind some of the "pretty young women in high heels" boozing with EU officials in the Place du Luxembourg, beside the European Parliament in Brussels, one of the former Western spy-catchers told EUobserver.

"You can sense it in the air," he said, based on more than 10 years' experience of field surveillance.

EU institutions have been warning personnel about the threat for years.

"It [the trap] could be the pretty trainee with the long legs and the blonde hair," a European Commission spokeswoman said back in 2009.

EU officials ought to avoid some restaurants and cafes near the commission HQ due to security risks, the commission also said in a memo last year.

Belgium's homeland security service, the Veiligheid van de Staat (VSSE), which is tasked with protecting EU and Nato employees who live in the country, declined to comment.

But some of its internal files, seen by EUobserver, show that the VSSE's counter-intelligence branch routinely gathered information on potential Chinese and Russian sex-stings.

So-called 'love hotel,' which rents rooms by the hour, next to European Parliament in Brussels (Photo: EUobserver)

'House of pleasure'

"Concerning 'Mr Lee', a budget of €1m to €2m was freed up to acquire a 'house of pleasure' in Wallon Brabant", an informant told a Belgian counter-intelligence officer at a meeting on 28 March 2017, according to one VSSE report.

Lee was a businessman with suspected ties to China's intelligence service, the Ministry of State Security (MSS).

The "house of pleasure" was, on paper, to be owned by a Chinese logistics firm, which, was, at the time, also bidding to build a business centre at an airport in the Belgian city of Liege, near the Belgian region of Wallon Brabant.

The MSS brothel was to be situated in a discreet, rural location less than half an hour by car from Brussels.

It was probably never built, because Lee's firm lost the Liege airport contract to a Chinese competitor.

China and Russia also deny conducting illegal operations in Europe.

But other Belgian files pointed to similar counter-intelligence concerns, in quasi-voyeuristic remarks.

"He reputedly frequents libertine milieus and swingers parties," a VSSE file, from 2015, said, speaking of a Belgian noble, who entertained Western diplomats, as well as suspected Chinese and Russian spies, at his chateau.

"[He] has a very rich love life that his wife, whom he depends on financially, doesn't know about," another VSSE file, dated 2014, also said, speaking of a suspected Russian mole in Belgian intelligence.

"The threat of revealing his amorous adventures to his spouse would constitute a very effective instrument of pressure," it added.

And EU-badge wearing military officers on overseas missions have also put themselves at risk by breaking the '11th commandment'.

"Nothing except money and sex interested him ... [and] he got a young girl pregnant from the family of the commander-in-chief of the Congolese army," another VSSE report, from 2014, noted, speaking of a colonel from an EU member state on an EU peace-keeping mission in Africa.

In some cases, even true love was dangerous.

Georg Sabathil, a former EU ambassador recently accused by Germany of spying for China, for instance, fell in love with a Chinese woman in South Korea, who led him astray, according to B2Pro, a French-based news website.

In another example, a Chinese woman, who was suspected by the VSSE of scientific espionage at a Belgian university, was married to a Belgian businessman as part of her cover.

These were "classical, long-term operations" which "required tremendous, enduring efforts, human, and technical resources," one of the EUobserver sources said.

They were also "much harder to detect," he added.

But, at the same time, love could be exploited to defend the realm, another source said.

"Imagine there's a shipping firm at one of our ports and we think it's sending prohibited technology to Iran. There's maybe three, or five, top executives who know what's going on, and they'd be difficult to recruit as informants," the former counter-intelligence officer said.

"So, the first thing I'd do is go online and build a profile of their secretaries. If I see, on Facebook, that one of them's in love with a nice boy, who's an illegal immigrant, and we could have him deported, then I've got a way in," he said.

Typical Nato meeting in Brussels, filled with men 'of a certain age' (Photo: nato.int)

Beautiful, but ...

Prostitution and "pleasure houses", like the suspected Chinese project, are legal in Belgium, but the sector, in any case, has a dark side, as some women are trafficked by eastern European gangs.

Meanwhile, if the honey-trap stories - about older men and "pretty" young women - sound sexist that is because they are.

On the one hand, they made some alpha-males look stupid.

"He was a businessman of a certain age, who was no Brad Pitt," one of EUobserver's sources, who interrogated the businessman in question, said, referring to a US movie star.

"And it was impossible to convince him that the bimbo, who was leading him round by the nose, had not succumbed to his charms, but worked for an enemy service," the source said.

But on the other hand, the stories showed that men still held most of the powerful jobs in Europe, especially in security circles.

"I don't know why men are weaker," a woman and an EU diplomat who handles classified files, told this website.

"Maybe, statistically, it [the male honey-trap bias] is just because young women actually work at different levels to men," she said.

"It's partly due to the nature of the human male and flaws in that, but partly because gender balance is yet to improve in leadership positions," one of the former spy-catchers also said.

"I haven't heard of scientific evidence saying women are exempt [from temptation]," he joked.

When asked what might motivate a woman to sacrifice her private life for her country, as in the long-term, marriage operations, there was no simple answer, he said.

"Every woman, or man, has their own, private reasons," he said.

But women deemed to be attractive by their (predominantly) male superiors were also hired by intelligence services because it helped to tease information out of men, even if there was no trap.

"Almost all the women in our service are good-looking and have sex-appeal. But it can be a problem if your informant thinks that sex is part of the [remuneration] package, when it isn't," one of the European intelligence sources said.

And while speaking of a female ex-colleague, in passing remarks, the male source sketched a thumbnail picture of one woman who left the job because she felt burnt out by it all, including by some of her own colleagues' attitudes.

"She was very beautiful, but she smoked far too much," the source said.

The woman declined to comment.

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