Thursday

19th Apr 2018

Secret documents group was like 'bad Le Carre novel,' MEP says

  • Neyts-Uyttebroeck: 'Sometimes it bordered on the ridiculous, like a bad Le Carre novel' (Photo: ChodHound)

The European Parliament's Special Committee, which is to have access to classified documents on EU foreign relations, is getting ready to start work. But its previous incarnation, under ex-EU-foreign-affairs chief Javier Solana, fell short of expectations.

The outfit, an offshoot of the larger foreign affairs committee (Afet), will have five members: Italian centre-right Afet chairman Gabriele Albertini; German centre-right deputy Elmar Brok; Spanish centre-right member Jose Salafranca; Romanian centre-left MEP Adrian Severin; and Italian centre-left member Roberto Gualtieri. Belgian liberal MEP Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck is to be a substitute.

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On the basis of a recent agreement with European External Action Service (EEAS) chief Catherine Ashton, the EU parliament president and other Afet deputies drafting reports on specific topics will also be given access on a temporary basis.

Every MEP to benefit from privileges first has to gain security clearance from their country of origin, a process which involves filling out a long questionnaire and then waiting for six to 12 months.

Mr Salafranca and Ms Neyts-Uyttebroeck still have valid clearance from their time in a similar body under Mr Solana. Mr Gualtieri obtained his in recent weeks. Mr Albertini and Mr Brok expect to get theirs in time for the committee to start work in early 2011, just as the EEAS itself gets up and running. The situation on Mr Severin is unclear.

The cell's official purpose is to improve Afet decision-making by giving it access to top information. In practice, the MEPs are to have regular briefings on sensitive subjects by EEAS staff and then request secret papers that they read in a "Class I" secure room in the Council of Ministers building in Brussels after leaving recording devices, such as mobile phones, and paper and pens at the door.

The committee can appear like a form of democratic oversight on the EEAS and the Joint Situation Centre (SitCen), the member states' intelligence-sharing bureau in the external service. "It's important that people know what we are not doing, that we are not opening their post, reading their emails," a contact familiar with the work of SitCen said.

But it will not be an oversight body in the strict sense of oversight committees in national parliaments because SitCen does not have a mandate to do real intelligence-gathering operations.

On paper, the MEPs are to have access to all levels of EU classification: Tres Secret UE; Secret UE; Confidentiel UE; and Restreint UE.

Tres Secret UE documents tend to deal with "life and death" subjects, such as military targets or assets in war zones. Secret UE documents are defined as being liable to "seriously harm the essential interests of the European Union or of one or more of its member states" if disclosed. Leakage of the lower-graded papers is deemed to do less harm.

In practice, very few Tres Secret UE documents exist in the EU institutions in the first place. The SitCen contact also noted that there is a difference between people who have clearance and people who "actually get stuff." "What I can say is that for really top-level - Tres Secret UE - we are talking about a handful in the commission and a handful in the Council," the source explained.

On top of this, MEPs' access will be limited on the basis of the "originator principle" under which EU capitals which share intelligence with SitCen can stipulate who can and who cannot see it.

Italian deputy Mr Gualtieri noted that the time it takes to gain national security clearance could be "a real problem" for Afet and Inta rapporteurs who may find their report is due before they get the green light.

Meanwhile, Belgian MEP Ms Neyts-Uyttebroeck, a former foreign minister, said the quality of information under Mr Solana was variable.

"Sometimes when a document is stamped 'super secret' it's not as sexy as you'd imagine. Sometimes it bordered on the ridiculous, like a bad Le Carre novel. We'd have to leave our mobiles and so on before entering the reading chamber. Then you saw a document that was, for example, the mission statement of Eulex, which was the same as we already had in the newspapers," she said, referring to British spy novelist John Le Carre and the EU police mission in Kosovo.

"At other times it was really interesting, like the rules of engagement for UN troops in Lebanon. When you are operating in a war zone, there's no need to tell the enemy what your rules of engagement are."

She added that the set-up has questionable value for Afet because Special Committee members cannot tell their colleagues what they know and cannot claim a superior status in decision-making.

"We can express our opinion on this or that. But we have to resist the temptation to try to substitute ourselves for the rest of Afet. That would not be a good thing," she said.

Investigation

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EU countries have a protocol for sharing official "secrets." But motives for classifying files are not always pure and the number of really hush hush papers in Brussels is tiny.

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On Thursday, the European Parliament will vote on a political deal on organic farming, following 19 months of behind-closed-doors negotiations. EUobserver here details a five-month odyssey to get access to the secret documents that led to the deal.

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