Brussels’ 007 dimension

Several espionage affairs make the headlines in Belgium. The partly state-owned telecom company Belgacom became victim of a cyber attack and also the Belgian ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office have been hacked. Actually that doesn’t really come as a big surprise, as Brussels already since the Cold War is one of the world’s hot spots for espionage. The intelligence archives of Berlin, Budapest, Bucharest, Prague, Sofia and Warsaw reveal the 007 dimension of Europe’s capital city.

  • ADIV During the eighties, the Russian military secret service GRU operated several dead letter boxes in the region around Brussels. This map indicates their precise location. ADIV

In 1967, NATO moved its operational and political headquarters from France to Belgium. The Belgian government was very much aware of the espionage threat triggered by the relocation. ‘As Brussels has become an important center of the western world, we have to prevent it from also becoming an important center of espionage’, state the minutes of the Belgian cabinet meeting of 21 April 1967. All in vain. The Belgian capital became the target of the KGB, the East German Stasi, the Romanian Securitate and Hungarian, Bulgarian, Polish and Czechoslovak intelligence officers.

Impossible to tell exactly how many spies were active in Brussels during the Cold War. Documents in the archives of the intelligence services of six former Warsaw Pact countries do give an idea of the magnitude however. In the eighties, the Stasi residence in Brussels (codename “Residence 211”) sent information originating from 59 different sources to the spy headquarters in Berlin. In the same period of time, 75 different Stasi operatives stayed over in Belgian hotels. Together that makes at least 134 East German intelligence officers and agents.

Next comes the Soviet Union. The Belgian State Security estimates the number of Soviet intelligence officers in Belgium during the first half of the eighties between 40 and 45. Of course not all eastern bloc countries used to send so much spies to Brussel. At the end of the eighties, the Czechoslovak embassy in Brussels e.g. employed seven spies under diplomatic cover. But what is for sure, is that hundreds of spies walked the streets of Brussels during the Cold War.

Covers

To hide their espionage activities, foreign spies operated under a cover. They pretended to be journalist, businessman or lobbyist. The most popular cover was the diplomatic one. Not surprisingly, as diplomats as a rule set up networks in different circles in their host country –nothing odd about that. That diplomats hold legal immunity, came in handy as well.

Some examples. In 1976, Kurt Berliner started working as the first secretary at the GDR embassy in Brussels. But he also was the resident, the chief of the local espionage department. Berliner often visited the Belgian ministry of Foreign Affairs, went for dinner with its officials, and later reported back to Berlin in secret notes. To set up his network, Berliner frequented the prestigious Club International Château Saint-Anne in Brussels, still existing today.

Another spy operating under diplomatic cover was the Hungarian Marton Szecsödi, taking up his position in Brussels in 1967. In fact, the State Security had given a negative advise before his arrival –Szecsödi was known to be an intelligence officer. Nevertheless he received an accreditation from the Belgian ministry of Foreign Affairs. Szecsödi was tasked with collecting information that could enforce Budapest’s negotiation position, as Hungary was exporting agricultural products to the then European Economic Community. One of his targets in Brussels was the Hungarian economist Alexandre Lamfalussy, the later founding president of the European Monetary Institute in Frankfurt, forerunner to the European Central Bank. Lamfalussy, who also became famous as one of the fathers of the euro, never fell for the recruitment attempts of the Hungarian secret service though.

The Polish secret service sent an intelligence officer codenamed Rycki to the famous College of Europe in Bruges, in order to recruit its headmaster Jerzy Łukaszewski –which failed. Polish spies were interested in the network of alumni as many former students of the College of Europe take up senior positions in the European administration. Also the Soviet KGB and the Hungarian secret service showed interest for the institute in Bruges.

Economic espionage

Already at the end of the sixties, the European Economic Community had become a point of interest for foreign spies, but the first and foremost espionage target in Brussels not surprisingly was NATO. Especially the Stasi managed to penetrate its political headquarters during many years. Stasi agent Rainer Rupp e.g. worked there from 1977 until 1993, sending over thousand classified NATO documents to East Berlin.

Next to military and political intelligence also economic espionage grew more and more important during the Cold War. According to a document of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, dated June 1989 and released after a FOIA request, ‘theft and illegal diversion of Cocom-restricted equipment and technology [had] become the highest overall priority of Soviet and most other Warsaw Pact intelligence services. The entire range of overt, covert and clandestine methods was employed in this effort, most evidently through human intelligence.’

In 1992 the Belgian State Security managed to uncover a network of agents that had been secretly passing on technological information to the KGB. The counter espionage operation, codenamed Glasnost, ended the secret double lives of, among others, journalist Guido Kindt and engineer Francis Collard. Suspected of espionage, both were detained for a couple of weeks but eventually they have never been prosecuted.

Counter espionage

During the eighties, the B4 brigade of Belgium’s State Security was in charge of counter espionage. It had a workforce of about 100 intelligence officers. Within the Belgian military secret service, department SDRA III (some 80 employees), headed the spy hunt. 180 spy catchers, not too much bearing in mind Brussels’ international role. For that reason cooperation with allies –exchanging intelligence via encrypted cables– was a necessity. Belgium’s spies main partners were the French, British, West Germans and Americans. And of course neighbors Luxemburg and the Netherlands. The heads of service also exchanged intelligence within the framework of the Club de Berne –set up in 1971 by the Netherlands, France, Italy and Belgium.

A glimpse of the everyday life of the Belgian counter espionage: scrutinizing hotel registration cards of foreigners, boarding passes of airplane passengers and migration files, especially of West Germans. Much attention obviously was paid to the embassies of Warsaw Pact countries (at one point a secret observation post opposite the Russian embassy was hindered by a growing tree that blocked the sight. After cutting its branches and poring gasoline into the tree proved unsuccessful, the military secret service finally aborted the surveillance operation).

Foreign diplomats leaving the capital city were tailed by shadowing teams. For years, the military secret service tried to figure out why the idyllic village Suxy, in the south of Belgium, was so popular with Soviet diplomats. Why were they going there almost every weekend? Merely for picking mushrooms and enjoying nature? Or was the KGB secretly operating dead letter boxes there, or hiding communications equipment? Tail teams of Belgium’s counter espionage would once a month cover the route between Brussels and Suxy. All in vain. The Russian’s mission in Suxy remained a mystery, although Stasi spy Kurt Berliner claims the goal was to verify whether Belgium was building new rocket launch sites. 

Another unsuccessful counter espionage operation: at the end of the seventies, both the State Security and the military secret service started systematically surveilling female NATO secretaries that were single. On the day of their birthday, the young ladies were followed as from the moment they left their offices in order to check whether they would fall prey to handsome East German Romeo’s. No one got caught.

Remarkably enough, during the Cold War counter espionage was virtually non existing within the European institutions. At the end of the eighties the European Commission hired Pieter De Haan, former head of the Dutch civil intelligence service BVD, to professionalise its Bureau de Sécurité (Security Office). New employees from European member states were attracted, among whom several experts counter espionage.

The European Council waited even longer to set up a real counter espionage policy. In 2000,  the then-Deputy Secretary General Pierre de Boissieu hired Alexandro  Legein, a former Belgian State Security officer who in the last 15 years had been security  director  for a number of multinational companies, to reorganise the Security Office of the Council. Legein quickly realized that in order to meet the espionage challenge posed by the emerging EU Common Security and Defense policy, he needed to include an effective counter espionage component in his reorganisation blueprint.

Persona non grata

During the Cold War, the Belgian secret services succeeded in unveiling a certain number of espionage cases. In the 25 years after the relocation of NATO to Belgium, some ninety Warsaw Pact spies were forced to leave the country, the majority of them Soviets. They were declared persona non grata or left on their own initiative after their clandestine activities had been exposed. The measure of expelling foreign spies –a sensitive matter in bilateral relations– was only taken when they had seriously crossed the line. Often it made more sense to let unmasked spies do their thing –and at least know what they were doing– then to kick them out.

A certain number of successes were the result of their own counter espionage achievements –such as double agent operations. In other cases the Belgians were simply lucky that an enemy had decided to switch sides. But in many cases the smoking gun game from an ally –not seldom the Americans. The CIA e.g. informed Belgium about the clandestine contacts between the Belgian army colonel Guy Binet and some Russian runners, and also Stasi mole Rainer Rupp only could be unmasked through intelligence from the US.

History repeating

The Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the end of the Cold War. Two years later, the Soviet Union imploded. Countries from the former Warsaw Pact joined the EU and NATO. These geopolitical developments also had consequences for the world of intelligence. The State Security and the military secret service scaled down their counter espionage capacity. But meanwhile Brussels remained an important espionage capital. As from 2000 one espionage affair after the other was unveiled.

In 2003 five black boxes with espionage equipment were discovered in the concrete walls of the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels, headquarters of the European Council. Not much later a dozen of high technological spin offs of Liège University became victim of a well directed burglary wave. Around the same period the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre stated that a Chinese student organization was the cover for an international espionage network.

In 2006, American newspapers revealed that the US had gained access to the database of SWIFT in Brussels. One year later, an eavesdropping device was found in the Brussels apartment of Gorka Elejabarrieta Diaz, lobbyist for Batasuna.

In 2008, the Estonian police arrested Herman Simm for treason. Simm, head of Estonia’s National Security Authority, had passed on secret information to Russia for many years. In Brussels he took part in several meetings of the Commission Security Policy Advisory Group and the Council Security Committee, two EU advisary councils on information security.

Also in 2008, the State Security asked the Moroccan secret service DGED to withdraw three of its intelligence officers from Belgium after problems of interference. Two years later, it was exposed that the Colombian secret service DAS had set up an intelligence operation in Brussels, codename “Europe”.

In 2011, hackers intercepted the e-mails of Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, and of Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s anti terrorism coordinator. China was pointed with the finger, but Beijing denied any involvement. And at the eve of the 2011 Spring Summit, the European Commission stated it had become victim of a ‘serious and focused’ cyber attack.

Diplomatic capital

Anno 2013, Brussels is the diplomatic capital of the world. With 288 diplomatic representations it even outweighs Washington (188) and Geneva (172).

75 international organisations have a “seat agreement” with Belgium. On top of that, the EU has expanded over the years and has become active in military matters and foreign policy.

Add the hundreds of international ngo’s, lobby organisations, lawyers offices, media and private umbrella organisations with a seat in Brussels, and one understands that nowhere in the world the information density is as high as in the European capital. No wonder that intelligence services from all continents today –more than ever before– are interested in Brussels.

The classical espionage covers –diplomacy, journalism, lobby work– are abound, and the freedom of movement within the Schengen zone makes operating easier for spies compared to the Cold War period.

Brussels is a true spy capital. After a drop in counter espionage efforts after 1989, the Belgian secret services have gained additional personnel and resources in the last years. Both intelligence services now have about 650 employees each. Hunting for foreign spies is only one of their many tasks though.

In 2010, the new Belgian law on Special Intelligence Methods (SIM) was adopted, allowing the State Security and the military secret service to apply special intelligence methods: eavesdrop on telephone conversations, intercept e-mails, open letters, etc. According to the services, the new law makes their counter intelligence efforts more efficient. In 2011, in almost 250 cases the SIM law was used to trace foreign spies in Belgium.

According to Alain Winants, head of the State Security, nowadays about 150 Russian diplomats work in Brussels and ‘no less than thirty percent of them’ in fact would be intelligence officers. That is more than during the Cold War.

This research was made possible with the support of the Fonds Pascal Decroos voor Bijzondere Journalistiek, the Fonds Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten and the Fonds Pour le journalisme.

Spionage. Doelwit: Brussel by Kristof Clerix is published on September 26 by Manteau. ISBN 978 90 223 2771 5

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