Thursday

3rd Dec 2020

EU diplomats to benefit from new intelligence hub

  • The new intelligence hub will contain a cell of delegates from EU states' secret services (Photo: Anonymous9000)

The EU is planning to pull together three intelligence-sharing bureaus based in Brussels to form a new department in the bloc's External Action Service (EAS).

The EU's foreign relations chief, Catherine Ashton, is currently drafting a proposal for the future structure of the union's diplomatic corps, with a final paper expected in March.

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But sources in the EU institutions say she aims to merge into one new department the EU Council's Joint Situation Centre, its Watch-Keeping Capability and the European Commission's Crisis Room to help guide EAS decisions on security matters.

The Joint Situation Centre, known as SitCen, today has 110 staff and is located on Avenue de Cortenbergh, in the heart of the EU quarter.

It contains a cell of secret service agents seconded from EU capitals. The cell, headed up by a French agent, pools classified information sent in by member states and drafts occasional four-to-10-page-long reports on topics ranging from terrorism to, for example, Iran's diplomatic contacts with neighbouring countries.

SitCen also runs a round-the-clock alert desk which uses open sources, such as BBC Monitoring or photos taken by commercial satellites, and sends emails and SMSes to selected EU diplomats two or three times a day.

The Watch-Keeping Capability is in the same building. Its team, made up of 12 people from EU states' police and armed forces, pulls in news from the EU's 23 police and military missions, such as the EUMM in Georgia.

The Crisis Room, around the corner in the commission's Charlemagne building, is run by six officials. It operates a secure website with breaking news about the world's 118 active conflicts from open sources and from the commission's foreign embassies. It uses scientific tools, such as statistical analysis, and high-tech software: One program scans TV broadcasts round the world and automatically picks out quotes on search terms, such as people's names.

The details of the EAS' new intelligence branch are still up in the air.

It is unclear where it will be situated and who will be in charge. But the current head of SitCen, former British diplomat William Shapcott, is the top candidate due to his friendly ties with member states' secret services.

The mandate for the new department also remains to be written. Some EU diplomats would like it to make policy recommendations as well as analytical reports. Others are posing questions about its ethos: "Will it be used to aggressively pursue member states' national interests or for common goals, such as peace-building and crisis relief?" one EU official asked.

SitCen already sends staff to visit the EU's foreign police and military missions to gather information and has a mystique due to the secretive nature of its work. But the new EAS branch will not have undercover operatives in the field on the model of member states' intelligence agencies. "Belgium and Austria proposed this [creating an EU secret service] after Madrid. But we are still light years away from it," the EU official said, referring to the terrorist bombing in Spain in 2004.

Circles within the circle

The questions of equal access to information and geographic balance are likely to feature in Ms Ashton's thinking on appointments.

SitCen's official reports are equally available to all 27 EU countries via their envoys to the Political and Security Committee (PSC), a group of member states diplomats which meets regularly in the EU Council to discuss security issues.

But the quality of the reports is in dispute: "When I read magazines like Time or Newsweek the quality of analysis is sometimes the same. I sometimes get faster alerts from my national newswire," one EU diplomat said. "The added value is that the information has been checked. You have to be damned sure it's good because decisions can be based on it," another diplomatic source said.

Meanwhile, the best classified information is often shared through informal channels between smaller groups of EU countries with a history of intelligence co-operation. "There are circles within the circle. It's an informal reality that takes into account the sensitive nature of intel," a contact acquainted with SitCen's work told EUobserver.

Ms Ashton will also take charge of the PSC itself by appointing a permanent president for its meetings, with a mandate up to five years long.

The names floating about for the new post include the current PSC ambassadors of Sweden (Olof Skoog), Belgium (Walter Stevens) and Spain (Carlos Fernandez Arias Minuesa). But an early favourite is France's former PSC ambassador, Christine Roger, who now works in the EU Council secretariat. "The French are worried that the EAS will be dominated by British people," one EU official said.

Starting small

SitCen and the Crisis Room have come a long way since their beginnings some 10 years ago.

SitCen started out as "a piece of A4 paper, a telephone and a pool table," according to one anecdote. When 9/11 struck in 2001, the commission's phone lines and internet crashed due to heavy traffic, leaving it cut off and triggering the creation of the Crisis Room. "There was one TV set in the building. We were crouched round a telephone listening to the TV at the other end of the line," another EU official said.

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