Thursday, May 29, 2008

Europe View column no 83: Spymania

Can the EU defend itself?
May 29th 2008

A bit of paranoia is a healthy thing

AS WESTERN countries scramble to deal with Russia's increasingly energetic espionage efforts, their security services are hurriedly rehiring some of the seasoned spycatchers they let go in the past years.

But at the European Union attitudes are still worryingly dozy. Russian spying in Brussels and Strasbourg, say those who try to keep an eye it, is far better financed, better aimed and better co-ordinated than ever before. The efforts of the elite foreign-intelligence service, the SVR, and the GRU (military intelligence), are now supplemented by the FSB, a much more thuggish outfit that used to deal solely with internal issues.

Some of the intelligence officers are under traditional diplomatic cover; others are journalists, lobbyists, consultants and even students. It would be an unusually stony-hearted eurocrat who did not try to help a charming young enthusiast who wants material for a doctoral thesis.

A combination of vanity and naivety makes it remarkably easy for Russians (and those working on their behalf) to snoop, nudge and make mischief. It is sad but true that many people working in European institutions (the parliament is a particular culprit) are immensely self-important but largely insignificant to the outside world. That makes them vulnerable to deft flattery on the lines of: “It is only people like you, Mr Mepnik, who really understand the importance of this issue. I greatly appreciate your insights, and I wonder if you could help me with one rather specific question…”

Darker arts may be at play too. Lobbying in the European system is still scandalously murky and underregulated. If the reward for a full and frank discussion, or for a copy of an interesting document, is a bottle of €300 wine, or a discreet evening spent in particularly pleasant company, it passes almost without notice.

Though the Russian efforts are increasingly brazen, keeping track of them is proving tricky. Belgium's counter-intelligence service is notoriously understaffed and toothless. The European Commission has hugely improved its internal security in the past five years, but it is only as strong as its weakest links. Its in-house encrypted e-mail system is secure—until some lazy official forgets to use it and sends an extra copy in plain text. MEPs and their staff have the right to see sensitive materials, but are slack about taking care of them.

Member states' attitudes to Russia differ (to put it mildly). An approach that would set alarm bells ringing in officials from, say, Finland or Britain may seem nothing to worry about (or positively welcome) from countries with little or different historical experiences of Russia.

The problem is most urgent in the EU's external relations. What is the point of negotiating if the bottom line is leaked to the other side in advance? How will the proposed new diplomatic service handle classified information?

It is hard to imagine any part of the EU administering a security-clearance regime of the kind common in countries serious about their security, complete with exhaustive background checks and intrusive questions about the subject’s personal life. Yet without a high common standard for handling information, the new EU foreign service will be at best useless, and at worst a danger to all member states' own security.

To see how strikingly asymmetrical the position is, try imagining it the other way round: a world where bright-eyed interns from EU countries wander the corridors of the Kremlin at will, snaffling documents and bamboozling bureaucrats. The EU's ideals of openness and trust are admirable. But as long as the rest of the world does things differently, a healthy dose of paranoid secrecy is long overdue.

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