Tuesday

26th May 2020

Investigation

Israel got real-time leaks from EU security talks

When EU ambassadors met in the Political and Security Committee (PSC) to discuss Middle East policy on 15 January some of them didn't know there was in effect a 29th delegation in the room - Israel.

They were finalising a statement to be endorsed by EU foreign ministers a few days later.

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  • The EU has strict protocols for circulating classified papers (Photo: tedeytan)

But Israeli diplomats appeared to be reading EU draft texts and amendments in real time.

Some EU sources said Israeli contacts sent text messages to them with requests to alter wording shortly after each new draft went round.

At the end of the meeting, Greece vetoed a line that the Israelis hated, but which had been approved by the other 27 EU states.

The line said: “The EU will continue to unequivocally and explicitly make the distinction between Israel and all territories occupied by Israel in 1967.”

By the time foreign ministers met three days later, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Poland had joined Greece.

The final text agreed by ministers was softer. It said, among other changes: “All agreements between the state of Israel and the EU must unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel.”

PSC-gate

Israel is not the only country that appears to get inside information. “Turkish and US diplomacy can be equally efficient,” an EU source said.

But the level of intrusion on 15 January prompted a debate on PSC information security.

In a follow-up meeting, some EU diplomats suggested that Israel had bugged the talks.

In a second follow-up meeting, diplomats said more PSC events should be held in a secure room where ambassadors would not be allowed mobile phones.

They also said more PSC documents should be classified.

Draft EU ministers’ statements are normally marked “limited” - the lowest security level.

But the EU has strict protocols for documents marked “restricted” or higher. Fewer people are permitted to read them. Some are encrypted and circulated on secure networks.

Spy theory

It is not the first time EU diplomats have suggested that Israel could be snooping on them.

Security services in 2003 found listening devices in the EU Council building, where member states meet.

Belgian investigators said the suspects who planted the bugs had links to Israeli firm Comverse, which in turn had links to an Israeli spy agency - the Mossad.

Peter de Smet, a Belgian MP involved in the inquiry, told EUobserver at the time: “It could be Israel … but it’ll never blow up who did these things. It’ll remain a game inside the intelligence services.”

An EU source said the PSC talks could also have been hacked. He said the meetings are streamed on the Council’s IT network so that senior officials can watch them from their office.

“The talks are really boring. If you intercepted them, at least you could fast forward to the good bits,” the source said.

No one seriously thought that Israel spied on the 15 January meeting, however.

After the Greek veto some suspected that Greece had leaked the texts. An EU source said the spy theory was mentioned in order to avoid confrontation.

“There was a follow-up discussion at Coreper [another EU committee] where an element of espionage was raised. But this was just to save face and to prevent someone from having to turn to the suspects and say: ‘You fuckers did it’,” the source said.

The source said that if a foreign intelligence service was bugging the council they wouldn’t have acted on the PSC information because it would “reveal their hand”.

Capitals

Another theory was that a friendly PSC ambassador phoned their Israeli contact and placed the phone next to their mike, live-broadcasting the talks.

But EU sources said there are less risky ways to share information.

“The phone idea beggars belief,” one source said.

“It’s much easier to do it [leaking] via the capital itself, whether it’s Athens, Paris, or Berlin.

“Capitals stay in contact with their PSC ambassadors during meetings to give instructions. If someone in the capital leaks information to a third country, then the capital can phone back their ambassador and say: ‘I want this or that out of the text’.

“The leaking isn’t necessarily coming via the perm reps [permanent representations, the EU embassies in Brussels].”

Sardines

However it happened, the PSC incident is unlikely to prompt big change.

An EU diplomat said ambassadors don't like to hand in their phones because it makes life harder in terms of contact with capitals.

They also dislike the secure room. “It’s one of the most uncomfortable rooms in the whole [Council] building … you’re squeezed in like sardines,” an EU source said.

A third source said diplomats find encryption and decryption of texts “cumbersome”.

The EU diplomat added: “Most diplomats are lackadaisical about security, unless they have a military background. There’s a very different culture at Nato.”

Adverse effect

In EU classification, files are marked “restricted” or higher when their contents could “adversely affect” diplomatic relations if they got out.

The PSC draft statement was, in any case, designed to be published after the foreign ministers meeting. But the leaks did harm relations.

Nabeel Shaath, a former Palestinian foreign minister, wrote in an op-ed for EUobserver on 26 January that Greece and Cyprus’ “precious friendships” with Palestine “have begun to change”.

He specifically mentioned “the apparently total change in the position of Greece and Cyprus in terms of voting and lobbying in the EU Council”.

An EU source said the leaks also damaged EU-Israel diplomacy, but in a different way.

“Be careful who’s boasting of the leaking. It could serve the interests of this country to spread information about leaks because it divides and demoralises EU states,” the source said.

“There’s nothing more fun than being able to dangle a leaked paper in front of the EU high representative [for foreign affairs], for instance. It destroys the self-confidence of the EU interlocutor, because it indicates that this country has some kind of secret control over EU policy.”

The Greek EU mission on Monday (8 February) told EUobserver it wasn't responsible for the leaks. "It's a matter of principle," a senior Greek diplomat said.

The Israeli EU mission declined to comment.

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