Tuesday

15th Oct 2019

EU intelligence services opening up to collaboration

  • Avatars in World of Warcraft: In one Osint project US intelligence agency Iarpa is infiltrating jihadist meetings in virtual hills and forests (Photo: thms.nl)

EU member states' intelligence services are among the most jealously-guarded national assets despite five decades of integration. But two European Commission-sponsored projects on open source intelligence (Osint) are beginning to change the culture of mistrust.

Launched quietly in the Hungarian capital by the commission and the Hungarian foreign ministry in 2007, the Budapest Club has in the past three and a half years held eight meetings of EU countries' intelligence officers and private sector experts in Budapest, Bucharest, Rome and Brussels.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

The first event had just 50-or-so delegates. But the last meeting, in Brussels in mid-2010, attracted over 150 specialists from 14 EU countries from both the 'old' and 'new' halves of the Union.

The Budapest mission statement, seen by EUobserver, says: "The main idea behind the initiative is to enhance sharing of ideas and open source information between EU institutions and member states in order to support crisis prevention and crisis management services."

Osint is information that can be obtained without breaking the law. It sees analysts comb through media, jihadist blogs and chat rooms, pay-per-vew databases, commercial satellite images, grey literature (technical reports by government bodies) and the deep web (internet pages not picked up by popular search engines).

In one wheeze which shows how far it can go, US intelligence agency Iarpa (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) is experimenting with avatars - characters in online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft which can infiltrate jihadist avatar meetings in virtual hills and forests.

The sector has grown to the extent that Western governments rely on open sources for 80 percent to 90 percent of their security information. Unlike espionage, Osint is easier to share because it does not compromise sources in third countries.

A second EU co-funded project, the Eurosint Forum, also aims to: "Promote thinking on the development of the European Union's policies, in particular in the use of Osint in the field of security."

Founded in 2005 by private sector security firms and run out of a small office next to the commission's Berlaymont building in Brussels, the non-profit body holds at least five "workshops" a year attracting up to 40 delegates at a time from EU countries' intelligence services, EU institutions and the private sector.

In two tangible outcomes, the Budapest Club has set up a password-protected website for participants to share security updates and ideas on Osint techniques. The model is the Intelipedia - a Wikipedia-type site set up in the US so that its 16-or-more intelligence bureaux can talk to each other to help prevent another 9/11. Meanwhile, Eurosint is in charge of Virtuoso, a commission-funded scheme to produce new "middleware," or software that will enable the 11 participating EU countries to swap Osint gadgets back and forth.

The more important outcomes are intangible, however.

EU countries share classified information in other structures: they send bits of intelligence to the Joint Situation Centre (SitCen) in Brussels; security experts drop in to the EU capital for meetings of the EU Council's Counter Terrorist Group and 'Clearing House' working group; EU countries' spy chiefs and counterparts from Norway and Switzerland also meet once a year in the so-called Club de Berne.

But the two Osint clubs are different because delegates talk freely in two-day long seminars, stay overnight, mingle over drinks and dinner and make fresh personal contacts, creating a new momentum for sharing in the EU intelligence community.

"It's a truly European endeavour and it's in the direction of the Lisbon Treaty," one Budapest alumnus who did not want to be named told EUobserver, referring to treaty clauses on deeper security co-operation. "We are trying to change the culture of intelligence services in the EU. The Union is surrounded by signs of clear and present danger - are we going to stick with 'need to know' or are we going to move toward 'need to share'?"

"It's the beginning of an intelligence community at the EU level. In a way, the side-effect is more important than the main goal," Eurosint chief Axel Dyevre said.

With EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton recently installing two new security chiefs - SitCen head Ilka Salmi and crisis-management head Agostino Miozzo - it is unclear if the Budapest Club will be expanded or shut down.

One EU diplomatic contact said Ms Ashton should build up her Osint assets and specialise in early warning and prevention of man-made conflicts if the European External Action Service (EEAS) is to have an impact on world events.

"SitCen should be able to send missions to conflict-prone countries, whether it's Ghana or Somalia, Pakistan or Bangladesh, for a month at a time with a full team of interpreters. They would stick to Osint. There would be no covert action, no breaking of the law - which doesn't mean you have to say 'Hello, I'm from the EU, can I ask you some questions?'" the contact said.

For his part, David Nyheim, a private-sector Norwegian security expert and Budapest Club alumnus, noted that the EEAS needs intelligence-gathering missions to close the gaps left by internet and satellite data: "In a crisis situation, you need information from remote areas that are not covered by the internet or general media ... You need intelligence professionals with a network of informants."

Asked if WikiLeaks could be a turn-off for deeper EU collaboration, Chris Pallaris, who also goes to Budapest meetings and who runs the Swiss security consultancy i-Intelligence, said: "No. Governments will have a hard time justifying why they did not share information if a bomb goes off in, say, Sweden and people get hurt ... In terms of threats to climate security, cultural security [the black market in antiques], economic security, water security, food security, health security, like pandemics - if we're not sharing information, we're done for."

French EU nominee loses vote and is out

France's nominee for EU commissioner lost the vote on her candidacy, with 82 MEPs against and 29 in favour, after hard questions in a second hearing.

MEPs block Romanian and Hungarian 'commissioners'

In an unprecedented move, MEPs in the legal affairs committee said there were conflicts of interests for two commissioner-designates. Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen will now have to decide what to do with them.

Column

These are the crunch issues for the 2019-2024 EU commission

These developments will largely determine who will be running the world in the coming decades and perhaps generations. If the Europeans can't find an answer over the five years, they will be toast. And we haven't even mentioned climate change.

Magazine

The changing of the guards in the EU in 2019

The four most powerful EU institutions - Commission, Parliament, Council and Central Bank will all have new leaders in the coming ten months. Here is an overview.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture
  2. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  3. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  4. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  6. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  10. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  12. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank

Latest News

  1. EU countries to halt arms sales to Turkey
  2. Nine Catalan separatist leaders given long jail terms
  3. Poland's right-wing ruler wins four more years
  4. EU powerless in new Syrian mayhem
  5. Hungarian opposition wins Budapest in blow to Orban
  6. New Dutch terror bill must not target aid workers
  7. EU proposes pesticide ban, but key documents still secret
  8. Brexit nail-biter and EU nominations This WEEK

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  2. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  3. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  8. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  9. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  12. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  5. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  6. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  7. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  8. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  10. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  11. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us