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25th Aug 2019

EU intelligence bureau sent officers to Libya

  • Rebel camp near Benghazi. SitCen field officers must be 'able to withstand potentially physically and psychologically harsh working environment' (Photo: Al Jazeera)

The EU's intelligence bureau, the Joint Situation Centre, has recently sent people to Libya. But its new director says there is little prospect of turning it into a genuine intelligence-gathering service even in the "long term."

Speaking to EUobserver in the European Parliament in Brussels on Monday (11 April), Joint Situation Centre chief Ilkka Salmi confirmed that one of his staff accompanied a European External Action Service (EEAS) fact-finding mission to Tripoli on 6 March and that another one took part in a visit to Benghazi on 5 April.

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"We want to avoid the impression that these were spooks of any kind. They were technical specialists who went to help with satellite phones and that type of thing. There was certainly no tasking," he explained. "These are the only missions of this kind that we have carried out since I became director two months ago."

'Tasking' is intelligence jargon for being asked to get information on a given subject.

Salmi, a former Finnish secret service chief, earlier told MEPs in the civil liberties committee that the Joint Situation Centre (SitCen) is different from member states' services because it does not hunt for its own information and because it looks at "strategic" threats instead of "operational" intelligence on individual people or terrorist plots.

"SitCen does not run its own sources. We base our work on assessing open sources, on monitoring EU missions and EU delegations, on information which flows from member states' services," he said. "It doesn't collect data on individuals. We do strategic analysis, so we don't have that type of information and it is not needed to complete our tasks."

"In my view it would certainly require a change in the treaties and a huge cultural change if SitCen tried to become such an agency," he added. "National security is still handled at home by member states and in that way I don't see in the near future, nor in the mid-, or even in the long-term, any likelihood of a European intelligence capacity."

For his part, Pierre Vimont, the secretary general of the EEAS, the parent body of SitCen, told MEPs that a new EU intelligence agency would create confusion.

"You've got all the national security agencies, so to put an EU agency on top of that, you would have duplication and overlap of effort and that wouldn't enhance European security," he said.

Salmi and Vimont said there is no need for parliament scrutiny of SitCen because it does not do its own operations and because MEPs already have oversight of the EEAS itself.

"The EEAS is overlooked by the parliament under very strict rules stipulated by the treaty, so political scrutiny exists. You've got [EEAS] political representatives and the high representative [Catherine Ashton] who report to you and you have access to [EEAS] confidential documents," Vimont noted.

Salmi said SitCen currently employs just over 100 people, about 70 percent of whom are seconded from member states' intelligence services and the rest of whom are EU officials.

It has three units: operations, analysis and a section dealing with communications and consular services. It gets information from all 27 member states plus Norway and Switzerland, the intelligence directorate of the EU Military Staff in Brussels, the EU Satellite Centre in Spain, the Frontex border control agency in Warsaw and the Europol joint police body in The Hague.

The operations unit handles "crisis monitoring" and is a "kind of 24/7 permanence" for keeping the EEAS and member states' diplomats in Brussels up to date.

"We do monitoring and assessing 24 hours a day and seven days a week, focusing on sensitive geographic areas, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and global threats," Salmi said. "In recent weeks and recent months our focus has been on events in Africa and the Middle East and their implications for EU decision-making."

In an insight into the kind of people that might have been sent to Libya, SitCen last year advertised for a 'Deployable Security Information Officer.' The notice asked for someone "physically fit and stress-resistant. Able to withstand potentially physically and psychologically harsh working environment."

A contact familiar with the work of SitCen earlier told this website: "These are fairly normal people who have perhaps in their lives had some experience of being out in the field in a place less comfortable than Washington … They are people who can write reports. Who do not mind not staying in five star hotels. Who know how to take precautions when they go out at night."

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