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19th Sep 2020

EU intelligence chief: No way of knowing if information came from torture

Ilkka Salmi, the head of the EU’s intelligence-sharing bureau, IntCen, has said he has no way of checking if its information was obtained using torture.

Speaking on Wednesday (10 December) in light of the US Senate revelations, he noted that IntCen “doesn’t have [its own] intelligence-gathering operations anywhere in the world” and relies on information forwarded by EU countries.

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  • European Parliament map of EU complicity in US abductions, or "renditions", of terrorist suspects (Photo: Council of Europe)

“We cannot, indeed, assess how the intelligence is collected when the member states’ services share it with us. We have to live with the expectation it’s collected in accordance with binding laws and regulations [in those countries] and with international treaties and conventions”.

“We have to assume that whatever is shared with us is in accordance with national legislation … [but] there is no mechanism to verify the method of intelligence gathering”.

He added that, in some “extremely few exceptions”, IntCen does get material from “third countries”, such as the US.

But recalling his work in the Finnish security service, the Suojelupoliisin, prior to taking up his EU post in 2010, he said: “As I’ve been, for a relatively long time, in an operational agency in one of the member states the only thing I can say, on behalf of that service, is that we never used the kind of methods that have now been revealed by the Senate report”.

The 500-page Senate paper, out on Tuesday, caused shock by confirming details of torture of terrorist suspects by the US intelligence agency, the CIA, at secret facilities overseas in the wake of 9/11.

The redacted report doesn’t say which European countries took part in the programme.

But former Polish leader Aleksander Kwasniewski told Polish radio on Wednesday that his country hosted a US facility.

Investigations by the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, and NGOs have also implicated Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and the UK.

For its part, the US noted that president Barack Obama halted the practice when he came to power.

“We value our partnerships around the world. We hope and have confidence that foreign governments and foreign publics will understand this is a programme that was ended years ago”, a senior US official told press on Tuesday.

But leading NGOs, such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch, have called for the Department of Justice to prosecute the people responsible.

No brainers

Salmi, who was speaking at an event organised by the Martens Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, also shed light on IntCen’s day-to-day work.

He said its priorities are “no-brainers”, listing: the Russia crisis; the war in Iraq and Syria; “foreign fighters” (EU citizens who joined Islamist groups in the Middle East); north African migration; terrorist threats to EU civil aviation; cyberwarfare; and “information warfare” (foreign propaganda).

He added that since the Arab upheavals in 2010 it is filing more ad hoc reports than long-term strategic analysis.

He noted that apart from member states’ input, he gets information from: the EU’s foreign embassies; its overseas civilian and military crisis missions; the EU satellite centre in Spain; and “open source” information, including social media.

But he said he has no mandate to collect people’s private data.

He also said that - except for terrorist alerts - his work is limited to foreign hotspots and doesn’t monitor instability inside EU countries.

IntCen texts are sent to the cabinets of relevant EU commissioners, Europol (the EU’s joint police body), Easa (its air safety agency), and Frontex (its border control agency).

But it principally serves the EU foreign service, the EU Council’s counter-terrorist co-ordinator, and the Council’s Political and Security Committee (PSC) - a cell which handles foreign crises.

Salmi noted that small EU countries have the most to gain from sharing.

Be realistic

“Let’s be realistic, [PSC] ambassadors from the bigger member states will always have additional information. But at least they all have something - a common intelligence product - which they can count on”.

IntCen has about 70 staff, 30 of whom are seconded from EU states, while the rest come from EU institutions.

It produces 500 or so reports a year, half of which are classified “Restricted” and the rest “Confidential”.

The EU’s former justice commissioner Viviane Reding recently called for IntCen to become a fully operational service.

But Salmi said there is no legal framework or political will to make the leap.

“Who would it be accountable to - the European Parliament or somebody else? Who would give the order to launch operations? Who would carry them out and where? There are many practical issues and the devil is in the detail”, he told the Martens Centre event.

“So, certainly, I don’t believe there will be an EU CIA any time soon”.

Ashton picks Finn to be EU 'spymaster'

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