The red telephone line between Brussels and Washington

Like the Soviet Union and the US used to have a “red telephone line” during the Cold War in case of emergency, also the EU has a direct emergency line with Washington. Did the NSA try to spy on Brussels through that connection? Alexandro Legein, head of the Security Service of the European Council, comments.

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The headquarters of the European Council in Brussels have been spied on by the NSA from a Nato side building a few kilometers further on. That’s what the German weekly Der Spiegel revealed on July 1 in an online article on the Snowden leaks. ‘A little over five years ago, security experts discovered that a number of odd, aborted phone calls had been made around a certain extension within the Justus Lipsius building, the headquarters of the European Council, the powerful body representing the leaders of the EU’s 27 member states’, Der Spiegel reported.

‘The calls were all made to numbers close to the one used as the remote servicing line of the Siemens telephone system used in the building.’ According to Der Spiegel, the calls originated from a building in Evere seperate from the NATO headquarters but where NATO telecommunications experts and a ‘whole troop of NSA agents’ would work inside. The building is supposedly known as ‘a sort of European headquarters for the NSA’.

Der Spiegel: ‘A review of calls made to the remote servicing line showed that it was reached several times from exactly this NATO complex – with potentially serious consequences.’

NATO: ‘No comment’

So far for the paragraphs in Der Spiegel, that hadn’t based this part of its story on whistle blower Edward Snowden but on other sources. What a news: from one international organisation on Belgian soil an other international organisation was being eavesdropped.

NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen reacted three days later during a press conference: ‘I don’t have any information about possible NSA facilities within the US representation at NATO.’ Rasmussen added that he had not spoken about the issue with his ‘American friends’. Rasmussen: ‘NATO is not involved in this. And this is not a NATO case.  And as a matter of principle I never comment on leaks or alleged leaks. And this is the reason why I don’t have any comments on this case.’

Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s Office: ‘No investigation’

Around the same time, the Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s Office told MO* magazine: ‘Based on the information available, we have decided not to launch an investigation into the case.’

Was the story from Der Spiegel accurate? ‘We stick to the fact that more than five years ago there had been telephone calls originating from a separate part of the NATO headquarters in Evere, directed at the communication system of the European Council’, Der Spiegel replied.

Five black boxes

In an interview with MO*magazine Alexandro Legein, head of the Security Service of the European Council, comments on the case.

Back in 2003, Legein launched the investigation into the mysterious espionage affair in the very same Justus Lipsius building: five black boxes full of sophisticated espionage equipment had been discovered by chance, hidden in the concrete walls of the building. The boxes were connected with the delegation rooms of several EU member states, that have been eavesdropped on for several years. No one has ever been prosecuted in this espionage affair.

‘During the investigation into that black boxes affair in 2003, we also had the maintenance gates of our Siemens PABX-system (an internal telephone system, kc) checked for irregularities’, Legein comments. ‘None irregularities were found. Advised by the German IT-experts of the Bundesdienst für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik (BSI), we did decide to close the open gates of that PABX –the ones used for remote maintenance– so that no one with sinister intentions would be able to abuse them.’

Kremlin phone

‘Seperate from that Siemens telephone system, there is another dedicated phone line that Javier Solana had installed when he took up the position of Secretary-General of the European Council in 1999. It is a direct line with the US –you could compare it to the notorious red Kremlin telephone from the Cold War. This encrypted telephone line of Belgacom connects the Justus Lipsius to the American State Department in Washington, but first it passes through the American representation at NATO in Evere.’

‘This telephone line is completely apart from any telephone system in the Justus Lipsius building. It’s also not connected to a telephone device –such a device literrally is kept in a closet apart. The idea is that the line only is connected in case of an international crisis situation, so that the High Representative can urgently connect with his or her American colleague, and vica versa.’

Pings

‘Also during the investigation into the black boxes affair in 2003, the Belgian federal police was asked to investigate that red telephone line, after it had been noticed that it seemed as if this line activated itself. This investigation by the police happened early 2004. The specialists came to the conclusion that the reason were automatic surveillance pings of the red line.’

‘These pings happened repeatedly and originated from the US representation at NATO in Evere, ostensibly to make sure that the line was still working properly and to check whether no third parties had clung itself to the line. First we indeed thought that was suspect, because we were not aware of the pings, but at the end it turned out they had nothing to do with espionage but were a matter of maintenance.’

‘Permanent opening’

‘Internally, we refer to that “red telephone line” as the Solana line. Nowadays, it is possessed by the European External Action Service. Officially, the line now belongs to Catherine Ashton, High Representative of Foreign Policy. And no, the line has never been used.’

‘By the way: in november 2011 we have again noticed a permanent opening of that telephone line. Subsequently we have contacted the American responsibles. Obviously there was a problem with their maintenance system.’

The Security Service of the European Council, headed by Legein, has been expanded between 2003 and 2013. At the moment it has a staff of about 170 people. 

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