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13th Apr 2024

Luxembourg denies blind spot on Nato security vetting

  • Luxembourg's new prime minister, Luc Frieden, at an EU summit in Brussels in February (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)
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Luxembourg has given some 4,000 people the all-clear to read Nato and EU secret documents in the past eight years, amid concern it's not doing proper risk assessments first.

Vetting of officials who read classified files is done by Nato and EU states' national security agencies (NSAs) to weed out individuals who pose an "unacceptable risk" of leaking information, according to Nato treaties.

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But Luxembourg's NSA lost full access to police databases in a legal reform in 2016 — in what its own intelligence agency, the Service de Renseignement de l'État (SRE), has long said created a blind spot, which endangered Nato trust.

The Grand Duchy also alarmed Western allies when its former ambassador to Moscow, Jean-Claude Knebeler, and its ex-defence and economy minister, Etienne Schneider, who were cleared to read "SECRET" files, suddenly took jobs with Kremlin-run firms in 2020, amid already sky-high Nato-Russia tensions.

Knebeler and Schneider were never accused of leaking anything, however.

And Luxembourg met "all applicable national and international (i.e. Nato and EU) requirements" on security vetting, the office of Luxembourg prime minister Luc Frieden told EUobserver last week.

"The NSA granted 3,203 security clearances [for people with access to files marked "CONFIDENTIAL" and above] between January 2016 and December 2022 and 792 security clearances between January 2023 and February 2024," it also said.

More than 520 of these were issued to board members of private Luxembourg-based corporations, whose firms had sensitive defence contracts.

Frieden was also continuing to sign new clearances based on the controversial system, he personally told MPs in a parliamentary debate on 30 January.

But despite his reassurances, for those critical of how Luxembourg's NSA did things, those numbers told a frightening story.

"In case, you were wondering how many other potential Knebelers there might be out there, here's your answer — 3,995," a Western security source told EUobserver.

"It's like having 4,000 potential exploits in your software", the contact added, comparing Luxembourg's human problem to a computer bug in Nato and EU intelligence-sharing systems.

The alleged bug refers to the NSA's inability to read the content of candidates' police reports and interviews, prior to making its judgment.

Instead, the NSA can now only see if the individual has a police record or not, in what is called a "hit/no-hit" search.

Frieden, who became prime minister last October, inherited the problem from his predecessor, Xavier Bettel, who is now Luxembourg's foreign minister and who is vying for an EU top job.

The NSA already lost access to police files in 2015 in de facto terms, prior to the 2016 legal reform.

And the matter was serious enough for the SRE's former director, Patrick Heck, to warn Bettel, who was then PM, in writing in 2015 that the duchy was now granting "rubbish security clearances", according to revelations in Luxembourg news website Land.lu in February.

Heck resigned shortly afterward.

Nato also investigated Luxembourg in 2018, saying its system did "not support the spirit" of its rules. It did a second audit in 2019.

Meanwhile, Bettel did nothing, because in 2022, the SRE was still warning Nato about the bug, and in June 2023 Luxembourg MPs were still tabling what they called "indispensable" legal amendments to bring NSA-access up to scratch.

But when asked by EUobserver if Frieden was taking their concerns seriously, his office also showed little sign of urgency.

"The prime minister has announced an internal analysis of ... [relevant legislation] with the aim of defining a way forward, together with the competent parliamentary committee, in the coming months," it said.

Frieden gave Luxembourg MPs similar answers in the January parliamentary debate.

On one hand, he said his own staff had assured him Luxembourg's vetting system was acceptable, but on the other hand he confirmed the NSA still didn't have the kind of access to information that the SRE was saying it needed.

Frieden's office also told EUobserver: "A direct access to these files by the NSA has never existed in Luxembourg law, as it is not required by the applicable Nato or EU regulations that explicitly grant flexibility to their member states' legal frameworks [on security vetting]".

But whatever flexibility Nato was prepared to show on security, the new government's defence was less than bullet-proof.

Up until the Bettel-era reforms, article 3 of Luxembourg's 2004 law on the SRE, which operates the NSA, did give the NSA access to police reports and interviews.

Frieden's office declined to comment when asked to clarify its "never existed" claim.

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