Kristof Clerix (°1978) is an investigative journalist for the Belgian magazine MO*.
Ilkka Salmi, the EU’s spymaster
Information on the latest developments in Ukraine is of utmost importance for European policy makers. A crucial player in this field is the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (INTCEN), the EU’s own intelligence hub in Brussels. Director Ilkka Salmi: ‘Our reporting helps the European External Action Service and other European institutions to formulate policies towards crisis hotspots in the world today.’
Exactly three years ago Ilkka Salmi took leave from his job as director of the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo) and joined the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (INTCEN). There is one crucial difference between the two services Salmi wants to underline: ‘INTCEN is not an operational agency. We do not have a collection capability. We do not deal with personal data. We do not carry out clandestine operations. The operational level of intelligence is the member states’ responsibility. We only deal with strategic analysis.’
Which were in 2013 the main issues of INTCEN’s interest?
Ilkka Salmi: We try to support the EEAS in its policy making by providing the intelligence component into the process. Think about places like the Middle East. The Syrian crisis is certainly something which is high on everybody’s agenda these days. And issues like the foreign fighters are of concern to all the security authorities, not only in Europe but also more widely.
What about Iran and Ukraine?
Ilkka Salmi: I can’t go into details, but when there’s an EEAS activity taking place, we try to provide whatever we can to assist our top leadership. We try to give an input into high level policy decision making. It’s not operational intelligence in the sense that we are in a position to tell someone that there might be an IED (improvised explosive device) on the roadside near Kandahar. That’s not our domain. We do not have any intelligence officers anywhere around the world. No operations. We try to have an outlook into the development in some of the crisis areas, or the dynamics between different fractions in country X – and what that might mean in the near future of three to six months.
What is the added value of putting together this rather general intelligence into a puzzle?
Ilkka Salmi: It certainly helps the top decision makers to understand what type of dynamics there is. Who are the actors? What types of infractions are involved? What types of ambitions do they have? If the EU wants to be involved and tries to assist in this crisis, they need to understand who is who. Not on an individual basis but on a group basis. Who are the actors? What are their aims? And how could the EU support them?
‘Intelligence reports are very much like newspapers: Yesterday’s news is yesterday’s news. Timeliness and accuracy are important.’
Have you ever managed to prevent terror plots or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction?
Ilkka Salmi: As I said: That’s the responsibility of the member states. Someone going out and catching the bad guys, that’s not our responsibility. We try to talk about the trends we have seen. What types of issues are coming up? Which are the modus operandi in the terrorist activities against Europe or European interests? That’s what we do. It’s up to the national agencies to figure out how to tackle those issues. I’m sure they use our overall assessments, also in allocating their resources and manpower and in prioritizing their activities.
No European CIA
In September 2013, EU commissioner Viviane Reding (re)launched the idea of setting up a real European CIA. How realistic is that?
Ilkka Salmi: Being a lawyer, if I take a legal stance on this issue, my understanding is that that would need a clear change in the agreements. The Lisbon Treaty clearly states that national security is the competence of the member states. And that’s of course interpreted in many member states as to include intelligence – in my understanding as well. Only from the legal point of view, it would mean that we would need a treaty change. Then it becomes hugely political: do we want to do that? What would be the added value, keeping in mind that there’s a very intensive cooperation in European intelligence and security services anyway?
INTCEN is financed from the general administrative budget lines of the EEAS. How much is your annual budget?
Ilkka Salmi: It’s complicated to calculate and I don’t even know the figure. The human resources are one factor – we have 70 employees. Probably if I would do some maths, I could figure out our precise human resources budget. But it’s not relevant because all my colleagues are recruited in exactly the same way as anyone else in the EEAS. As far as for instance the cost of our offices is concerned, we can’t do a breakdown into the INTCEN costs, as it’s part of the overall EEAS budget.
Don’t you think such an answer might create the perception ‘they are trying to hide their real budget’?
Ilkka Salmi: I sincerely hope not. I want to be very open about the number of colleagues we have on board. The salaries are the biggest cost. Then we have some minor budget lines for travelling etcetera. You have to understand here that INTCEN – even if we are kind of an independent centre – is still a directorate within the EEAS. I don’t think there’s a breakdown of costs in any other directorate either.
‘We are mostly looking at places where the situation is already bad.’
How many of your 70 employees are seconded national experts?
Ilkka Salmi: 30. They are sent by the intelligence and security services of EU member states. The other ones are officials. Many of them have been serving with SITCEN (the predecessor of INTCEN, kc) or INTCEN for years, so I would also call them intelligence analysts, as they have been there for a while. And next to that we have new colleagues who have a diplomatic background. This is based on the mobility policy within the EEAS.
500 classified reports per year
The tasks of INTCEN are to contribute to early warning work, undertake situation monitoring and assessment, provide facilities for crisis task forces and provide support for Council field activities. Can you make that more concrete?
Ilkka Salmi: To start with the situation monitoring and assessments: What about the killings of the civilian population? How will that affect the refugee and migration situation? Could there be an overspill of the crisis to the region? Etcetera. We try to stick to a 3 to 6 months timeframe. So that means we are mostly looking at places where the situation is already bad. Also, we are trying to identify terrorism patterns, different types of modus operandi that we have seen in a Europe wide context, and share that with the member states. Lone wolf terrorism issues among others. And we try to assess what might be the future for that. And another task is to support EU civilian missions.
INTCEN writes reports. Who are the recipients?
Ilkka Salmi: Catherine Ashton, the High Representative, is the VVIP customer as well as the senior management of the EEAS. On the Commission side, we provide our assessments to several Directorates-General who might be dealing with these types of issues. We have cooperation with DG Home among others, as they are responsible for counter terrorism related matters. And then we also share our reports with the ministries of Foreign Affairs and intelligence services of the EU member states, all of them. We don’t make a difference between the member states who have contributed and those who haven’t.
How many reports do you produce annually?
Ilkka Salmi: The total figure today is 500 plus, counting for all our products. This includes intelligence assessments – a product we produce on some of the hotspots every six months. Next to that, there is the intelligence report, in which we try to react very rapidly when something happens. This is produced on a weekly basis, depending on what is going on. And then there’s the morning highlight, a daily briefing for the senior management of the EEAS.
Would it be possible to declassify an example from a couple of years ago, to show the readers how these reports look like?
Ilkka Salmi: For the more recent ones, produced after the beginning of the EEAS, I don’t see that would be possible, keeping in mind that member states’ services have different secrecy periods. Honestly speaking, I would be more comfortable if we would have a certain kind of period for the secrecy. It would be much easier for us.
‘We do not carry out clandestine operations.’
What we do today, is going through all of our reports on a yearly basis and see whether there is something that we could declassify. The problem here is: All our reports are at least partially based on contributions from the member states’ intelligence and security services. In order to declassify the information, we would have to go back to those services. And they stick to their own national legislation, saying that the piece of intel or information they have provided us with, can’t be declassified before a certain period of time. And of course we have to respect that.
Fact finding missions
According to an article in EU Observer from 2012, the INTCEN sent people to Libya (Tripoli and Benghazi), accompanying a fact finding mission. How often does the INTCEN send its staff abroad?
Ilkka Salmi: If you consider abroad to be ‘outside Belgium’, it happens quite frequently. The most common destination today is one of the capitals of EU member states. We have found out that it pays off to send out our staff to discuss with the colleagues in the capitals to understand the situation. That’s money very well spent, keeping in mind that from Brussels you can travel to most of the capitals in two hours, and it doesn’t cost much. And then you have a chance to discuss with your peers around the table.
Every now and then our staff also travels outside of the EU as well. Also to the regions that we are trying to assess. We always do that openly: We tell who we are and where we come from. It’s never any type of intelligence operation. It’s just a fact finding mission. I would even call it more a field trip where you meet people. That was the case in Libya, where a technical person – not an analyst – was helping out with our satellite phone. We do that as well. But: Always making very clear who we are – carrying the EEAS INTCEN flag – and discussing with the authorities and agencies. We always come with their consent.
Have those outside of EU visits happened a lot in 2013?
Ilkka Salmi: I don’t have the exact figures. I would say: Yes, certainly more than once, that’s very clear. But outside of the EU could also mean Norway. But as far as the “theatres” are concerned, yes, there have been visits.
Who is controlling INTCEN?
Ilkka Salmi: We are part of the EEAS. Everything which is applicable to the EEAS is also applicable to INTCEN. The oversight mechanism through the High Representative – whether it’s legal or political – is more or less in line with the other directorates.
How would you describe the control by the European Parliament?
Ilkka Salmi: That’s a very heated discussion today, after the Snowden revelations.
The Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament has written a draft report on the US NSA surveillance program. It urges the European Commission ‘to present, by September 2014, a proposal for a legal basis for the activities of INTCEN as well as a proper oversight mechanism adapted to its activities, including regular reporting to the European Parliament’.
Ilkka Salmi: As the director of INTCEN I’m probably not in a position to take any position on that. If there’s a need for such an oversight mechanism on INTCEN, then it’s for other people to decide, keeping in mind again the difference between us and the member states’ secret services. I can’t underline that enough. Whenever I talk to parliamentarians, there seems to be some misunderstanding.
To which information can MEP already have access today in order to control INTCEN?
Ilkka Salmi: There’s an agreement between the Council and the Parliament that states how classified information can be shared with the European Parliament. In practice it goes through a special committee composed of five members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. They are vetted parliamentarians, they have a security clearance.
Which are the levels of classification INTCEN is using?
Ilkka Salmi: “LIMITED” is the lowest, it’s not even classified information. It is followed by “EU RESTRICTED”, “EU CONFIDENTIAL”, “EU SECRET” and “EU TOP SECRET”.
Has “top secret” ever been used?
Ilkka Salmi: Not a single time, at least not during my term as a director. TOP SECRET usually refers to raw intelligence that other services have received. We don’t get that. Half of the 500+ reports we produce are “RESTRICTED”, the other half are “CONFIDENTIAL” or “SECRET”.
‘Lack of democratic accountability’
‘Every now and then our staff also travels outside of the EU as well.’
According to Statewatch, INTCEN’s reports ‘have a direct bearing on political decision-making despite an alarming lack of operational transparency and democratic accountability’. True?
Ilkka Salmi: Having been in this business for a while, that is a very common criticism towards our activities. If we would be very transparent and would be telling what we are planning to do, that would be the end of the story. As long as the bad guys are not telling us what they are planning to do, it doesn’t make much sense that we start being too transparent. One difficulty is that we rely on contributions of member states’ services. We only have a limited amount of own information – the intellectual capital of our staff. We have to be very cautious not to reveal contributions from member states’ services to third parties without their prior consent.
Also according to Statewatch, INTCEN would lack a clear legal basis: ‘INTCEN enjoys no formal legal legitimacy as the Council did not formally adopt a legal act for its establishment as an EU agency. Nor is there a publicly available document with a clearly stated mandate or a similar constituting document.’
Ilkka Salmi: In an answer to a parliamentary question by MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, Catherine Ashton lists the relevant documents setting up INTCEN. But indeed, there’s not that type of document which clearly establishes INTCEN like the one establishing e.g. a foreign service in the member states, saying: “this is the name, the role, the scope of activities, this is what they can do.” That type of document doesn’t exist.
Would it make sense to have such a document?
Ilkka Salmi: We have discussed this issue legally. My understanding is that there is a sufficient basis for INTCEN’s activities as such. The EEAS has been established by a legal document that mentions INTCEN. INTCEN is a directorate, not an agency like for instance Europol or Frontex are. Our legal status is completely different.
Contributions from European secret services
Since its establishment in 2001 INTCEN (previously SITCEN) relies on voluntary contributions of EU member states intelligence and security services. What kind of information do they share? Which member states are most actively contributing?
Ilkka Salmi: The basic situation is still the same: It’s voluntary for the member states’ services to share anything with us. National security is the competence of the member states. Having said that, I am very positive about the fact that we do receive lots of intelligence contributions on a yearly basis on various topics. It could be on hot spots, counter-terrorism related, counter- proliferation related issues… There has been a slight increase over the years, if I compare with 2008-2009 for example, both quantity and quality-wise.
I am not willing to do a breakdown by contributing country. But I can say that there’s a clear difference between the different member states. The scale is really wide. And it’s not always the case that the big services would be providing more than the small ones. I want the services to provide something where they have the expertise.
The Single Intelligence Analysis Capacity (SIAC) arrangement integrates the analytical capacities of INTCEN with those of the EU Military Staff Intelligence department. What is SIAC exactly?
Ilkka Salmi: It’s a virtual entity. There is no secretariat, there are no human beings involved in SIAC as such.
It’s a computer system? A database?
Ilkka Salmi: Not even that. It’s just a virtual arrangement in which we have agreed to work together. It’s a kind of comprehensive approach. That’s all it is. When we produce our products, most of them are joint production anyway – probably 90 percent.
How often do you sit together with the head of the Military Staff’s intelligence division?
Ilkka Salmi: At least once a week. We are in the same building, physically very close to each other. It’s not even cooperation, it is working together.
The 007 premisis
Where is INTCEN located?
Ilkka Salmi: In the Kortenberglaan (close to Schuman and the EEAS building, kc).
Can I take pictures there?
Ilkka Salmi: No. And anyway, taking pictures of intel premises would not be sexy at all. It looks just like a normal office block.
Can you explain the relation between INTCEN and the situation room (SITROOM)? Who does what?
Ilkka Salmi: The situation room is a kind of European 911 number or 112 number. They are the centre of monitoring mainly the media, public sources and social media. Take the example of the Boston marathon bombing. SITROOM probably was the first EU body to be aware of this once it was on the news. It sent text messages and e-mails to a relatively wide distribution list, just to make people aware that this type of incident had taken place. Then our role is to analyse what has taken place. Of course, if it is a natural disaster, then we don’t play a role – that is not an intelligence issue. But if it’s an intelligence topic, then we try to come up with an explanation. What has happened? Why? What types of actors might have been involved?
Does INTCEN work together or share information with non-EU bodies? Is there any form of collaboration with American intelligence? The Russians, bearing in mind Sochi?
Ilkka Salmi: Good question. We have major constraints to talk to non-EU partners. Exactly for the reasons I have already mentioned: We always get our intel from the services of the EU member states. If we want to share that with a third party, we always have to go back to the service who contributed. They may have their own bilateral relations with whomever, whether it’s the Americans or Russians or others. They carry out their relations the way they want. We have very little contact with any non-EU actors.
Only with the Americans?
Ilkka Salmi: Also with the Norwegians and the Swiss, who are part of the so called Counter Terrorism Group (CTG). As in any business, it needs to be a two-way street. And the complication is that there is not much we can trade.
According to an article in Der Spiegel published on July 1 2013, the NSA placed bugs in the EU Delegation in Washington and infiltrated its computer network. Cyber-attacks were also perpetrated against Brussels, New York and Washington. How did INTCEN react to this?
Ilkka Salmi: The physical security and cyber security of our information systems is the responsibility of the EEAS security directorate. We don’t go around sweeping or anything, that’s not our responsibility at all. As a general remark: The fact that espionage activities might have taken place – these are claims from the media – is not a surprise. Having been in this business for quite a long time, the fact that someone is doing intelligence operations is not exactly a surprise. If I want to see something slightly positive in the Snowden and NSA issue, then it’s that it has brought to the public’s attention that these things do happen. And it takes place. And also occasionally for some of our political masters, it has been a kind of revelation. For us, in this business, I don’t think that in the end it was very big news.
At the Finnish Supo, you worked in counter espionage between 2002 and 2005. Does that experience come in handy today, as director of INTCEN? Which are the main security threats against the INTCEN?
Ilkka Salmi: Not only INTCEN’s activities, but the whole EEAS, the foreign and security policy dimension of the EU, is very interesting for actors outside the EU. That’s very clear. I would imagine that there’s a high interest among those services. I’m not going to point a finger in any direction.
How often do you notice espionage attempts against INTCEN?
Ilkka Salmi: That’s probably difficult. If we look into the hacking side of secure communications, I would imagine that there are constant issues. But to which extent, by whom and for what purpose? I don’t know. We don’t do that type of technical work; that’s the responsibility of other teams. As far as more traditional operations – for example cultivating sources – are concerned, those we don’t know of. We try to raise the awareness of all of our staff constantly. Keeping in mind that almost half of our people come from the business, they have an understanding of this. Also the colleagues with a background as EEAS officials have had training on how to be prepared for any type of an attempt to address us.
Have there been attempts over the past years, when you noticed that beautiful girls turned up while you were staying in a hotel in country X?
Ilkka Salmi: Unfortunately very seldom (laughs). I don’t think that we have any of that type of incidents reported.
The typical covers for espionage are journalism, lobby work, diplomacy. Do you notice that these kind of covers are being used to target INTCEN as well? Ilkka Salmi: No, but of course we do try to find out who do we talk to in advance. When we talk to diplomats – especially non-EU diplomats – we have very clear procedures in place, regarding how to proceed and how to report the discussions.
Timeliness and accuracy
What are your goals or plans for the near future?
Ilkka Salmi: The EEAS is still a relatively new organisation. We’ve come a long way since 2011. The main goal for INTCEN is to be very well plugged into the EEAS system, being in a position to provide our colleagues our support. We are a service provider for their activities. Intelligence reports are very much like newspapers: Yesterday’s news is yesterday’s news. Timeliness and accuracy is important.
Thank you for the interview.
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