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24th Oct 2020

Fresh report into 2003 EU spy scandal points to Israel

  • The Council at work: the Justus Lipsius building is the venue for the EU's most sensitive internal debates, on, among other topics, foreign policy (Photo: consilium.europa.au)

Belgium's Standing Intelligence Agencies Review Committee has in a fresh report out on Tuesday (11 January) revealed details of a 2003 EU bugging scandal and named Israeli secret services as a potential culprit.

The report, completed in late 2010, is available on the committee's website in Flemish and French.

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Committee member Peter de Smet on Tuesday told EUobserver the report says that two people suspected of planting listening devices in the EU member states' headquarters, the Justus Lipsius building, when it was constructed back in the mid-1990s had been trained by the Israeli telecommunications company Comverse, which has known links to the Mossad, the Israeli spy agency.

The report does not name any country other than Israel as the potential guilty party in its findings.

"There is no hard evidence [that the Mossad carried out the operation]," Mr De Smet explained. "But it was really state-of-the-art listening equipment that was placed back in 1993 or 1994 and there were not many countries that had the means at this time. It could be Israel, it could be Russia, it could be England or it could be the US - there you have really the four countries possible, but it will never blow up who did these things. It will remain a game inside the intelligence services."

In a point of caution for the European External Action Service, which is currently installing security facilities in its new headquarters, the Axa building on the Schuman roundabout in the EU quarter in Brussels, Mr De Smet added: "The main lesson of the report is that you should be careful when choosing your subcontractors."

"Also, if you have secrets - please join up all your efforts within your security services to tackle the problem in a multi-angle way."

The spy devices were first discovered by the Justus Lipsius' own technicians in February and March 2003 in parts of the building used by British, French, German and Spanish diplomats.

The EU's internal security branch - themselves former Belgian security officers - contacted the Belgian secret services to try to set up a sting on the spies involved. But the sting operation fell apart when the French daily, Le Figaro, published an article on the affair a few days later in a leak which Mr De Smet cautiously linked to one of the four target countries' own secret services.

"You can imagine that France, Germany, England, Spain, their services were probably also notified [of the sting]," he answered when asked how Le Figaro got the scoop.

The report paints the Belgian security apparatus and the then government of former prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, currently the leader of the Liberal group in the EU parliament, in a negative light.

It says that the officers involved in the failed sting should have immediately contacted Belgian counter-espionage experts; nobody was put in overall charge of the investigation which was carried out by seven separate Belgian security bureaux; documents asked for by investigators were delivered years later; and search warrants for private homes were issued six years after they were first requested. In the end, nobody was caught.

Mr De Smet added that a full sweep of the Justus Lipsius was carried out in 2003 following the discovery of the listening devices and that the report carries no suggestion that the Council of Ministers' headquarters suffered any similar security breaches in the 2003 to 2010 period.

"In a way it [the report] is an old cow," he said.

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