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1st Feb 2023

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EU constructing €8m 'spy-proof' bunker for secret talks

  • Current EU summit facilities deemed unsafe to discuss state secrets (Photo: The European Union)
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The EU is building an €8m secure bunker in Brussels so that leaders can discuss secrets without Russian or other eavesdroppers, according to an EU memo describing the project, seen by EUobserver.

The chamber could host around 100 people — up to 34 leaders and their 34 note-takers, as well as protocol, technical, and catering staff.

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The EU has 27 members, but could expand in future, and the secure room will also be used for lower-level meetings by ambassadors and senior EU officials.

The room will be offline but equipped with internal big-screen conferencing technology and microphones hardwired to equally secure booths for 30 interpreters.

And both the meeting room and booths will be enclosed in a Nato-certified insulation cage to "mitigate the risk of exploitation of compromising emanations" — electro-magnetic and radio waves generated by IT screens and wires, which can be remotely intercepted.

Anyone who goes in, even if they're a cleaner, must have "SECRET EU" security clearance and a "need-to-know" reason for being there.

SECRET EU is the bloc's second-highest level of classification.

It covers information that could "seriously harm" EU interests if it got out. Leaks could "raise international tensions" or "threaten life" or "public order" in Europe, according to EU security guidelines.

And EU leaders and staff will have to leave their phones, laptops, smart watches, electronic key fobs and even hearing aids in soundproof lockers outside the chamber.

The facility is to be built by 2024 in the EU Council complex in Brussels, which already hosts summits. The exact location has not been decided yet, but officials are looking for somewhere near the normal EU summit room so that leaders can go back and forth more easily.

It comes after Russia brought back war to Europe by invading Ukraine and amid EU plans to create a joint armed forces alongside Nato.

Two Russian spies recently expelled by Belgium were signals interception specialists.

But China and Israel have also been implicated in EU-bugging scandals in Brussels in past years.

And every care will be taken to make sure no one smuggles in listening devices, the EU memo elaborated.

The bunker will be swept "before and after the meetings to detect, locate and neutralise any eavesdropping device," it said.

It will provide a "suitable level of comfort for VIPs (furniture, chairs, etc.) and appropriate fixed decorum (e.g. flags, but no flowers or other frequently replaceable items)", it added.

"Any new furniture, technical equipment or accessory (flowers, decorations, beverages utilities etc.) shall undergo a TSCM [technical security counter-measures] inspection," it said.

But for all the EU's attention to detail, the sophistication of modern spyware makes it all too easy to conceal, according to an anecdote by a Belgian security source, who asked not to be named.

"There are some empty houses beside Shape [a Nato base in Belgium] where member states' intelligence services hold exercises on listening devices," he said.

"One team has 24 hours to place as many bugs as it can and the other team has 24 hours to sweep for them. The Estonians are the best [at detection], but no one ever finds all the devices," he added.

The two Russian signals specialists were expelled in April among 39 other spies posing as diplomats in its Belgian embassy and consulates, giving an idea of the threat-level in the EU capital.

A few years before the war, the Belgian military was put on alert over potential Russian or Chinese listening devices in VIP jets leased to fly EU and Nato leaders.

Belgium also investigated tip-offs some 10 years ago that China had bugged Malta's EU embassy, situated across the street from the EU Council and European Commission HQ.

And Belgian authorities, back in 2010, indicated Israel might have installed bugs in the EU Council's Justus Lipsius building, where summits used to be held.

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