A EUROPEAN INTELLIGENCE AGENCY?
latest attacks in Paris and Brussels have raised, once again, the
issue of the cooperation between the intelligence agencies of the
different countries member of the European Union. Showing a
limited knowledge of how confidential information is shared, some
have evoked the creation of a European Intelligence Agency. Any
secret service protects the national security of the country it
belongs to. Cooperation among agencies only happens if and when
national interests overlap. When individual country's interests
prevail, there is no collaboration, or just a very limited one.
This is an inescapable rule.
The rules of collaboration
Islamic terrorism and the hunt for ISIS cells in Europe are surely primary targets for all European intelligence agencies. This will mean countries will seek renewed forms of cooperation, but to think of a unified intelligence service is a totally different issue. Firstly, when intelligence agencies cooperate they rarely share the details of how they acquired a specific piece of information. Rightly so, everyone safeguards their sources. During their research activities, every agency works with non-conventional methods, often beyond or at the limits of the rule of law.
Another limit to increased collaboration is the possibility of carrying out joint operations. Even if two agencies happen to share a common informative target, they will still each act on their own. The case of physically joint operations are extremely rare. Every agency has its own modus operandi, its own techniques, different sets of rules and diverse guidelines. Two agents from two different secret services never work together. They may share information, but will operate independently once on the ground. While carrying out an investigation, each of them will make his own choices, take risks and be held accountable for his actions. He can't be responsible for the actions of a colleague without the knowledge of his counterpart's operational guidelines. In this context, it is worthwhile keeping in mind that infiltrating a terrorist group puts the life of the personnel involved at peril.
As far as the sharing of information is concerned, European countries have put in place a cooperation mechanism. On specific topics, data is share in real time via telematic channels, or through the representatives of foreign secret services that station, sometimes in a regime of reciprocity, in any given country. Furthermore, there are also bilateral or multilateral mechanisms that are activated either on a regular basis, or when the circumstances require to do so.
The Berna Club
Europe can count on a series of forums where secret services come together to cooperate or reinforce bilateral relations. The Club of Berna is one of them. All of the 28 countries of the European Union and their respective intelligence agencies, plus Norway and Switzerland, are part of the club. The Club of Berna meets annually and sees the Directors of each agency come together to share opinions, analysis, share ideas and propose joint initiatives.
The organism was founded in 1971 and, following the downfall of the Soviet Union, gradually absorbed also the countries from Eastern Europe. The club does not have a structure and the meetings are held on rotation in the different European capitals. The host country sets the agenda and organizes the event. Following the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, the club has created another organism: the so-called Antiterrorism Group. Its task is to fight the threat of terrorism in Europe. This is probably the most important structure that sees the cooperation and the sharing of intelligence among the countries of the old continent.
Other intelligence forums
There are also other forums that meet on a regular basis for the sharing of intelligence and to promote cooperation. There is the Brenner Club, that gathers intelligence agencies from Western countries, the Megatonne, dedicated to the fight against Islamic terrorism, the Star Group, that focuses on drug trafficking from Asia and features the US DEA, the MedClub, whose members are the secret services of the countries in the Mediterranean with the exception of Libya until Gaddafi was the ruler, the Kilowatt Group, founded by Israel following the 1972 Munich attacks and that sees the participation of 24 countries including the United States and Europe, and many more.
Besides these gatherings of intelligence agencies, there are also cooperation forums for police forces: the Vienna Group, with the Interior Ministers from France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Switzerland, the TREVI (Terrorism, Radicalization, Extremism and Political Violence), founded in 1975 and now replaced by the JHA (Justice and Home Affairs) of the European Union, the Police Working Group on Terrorism, that features all countries in Europe including Norway and Switzerland, and so forth. The most prominent agency for police forces is obviously Europol, that coordinates police activities and is not solely dedicated to the fight against terrorism.
Police vs Intelligence
Despite the proliferation of agencies, meetings, forums, two details emerge: within the European Union there are no organisms specifically dedicated to the fight against terrorism; secondly, police and intelligence services work on parallel tracks. There is no synchronization, no common European security apparatus or activity. There are several attempts to cooperate. These initiatives are often dictated by traumatic events, but there is no such thing as a common European security policy, both in practical and cultural terms.
Furthermore, there is a constant overlapping between the duties and activities of police forces and intelligence agencies. What news is acquired on the intelligence circuit is not transmitted to the police and vice-versa. These two systems do not communicate because they are employed by different organisms. The activities of police forces rely on the authorization of the judiciary, the intelligence doesn't.
Although lacking a specific unified structure, one could object that there are a myriad of European organizations tasked with sharing analysis, informations or initiatives, both on a bilateral and regional level, to tackle the threat deriving from terrorism.
The issue of the originator
To this effect, there is an underlying issue when dealing with news coming from an intelligence agency. A secret service that obtains a piece of information decides who to share it with. The agency that receives it is not allowed to transmit it to another one. This procedure, that is accepted by all parties, has a technical motivation: if an information is passed on from one secret service to the next (and, keep in mind, no agency ever provides the source of its infos), there is a risk of confirming a given data and making it seem as if the same piece of information is coming from more sources when there is only one originator. This is a crucial issue when it comes to the reliability and credibility of a news that, if confirmed by more sources, becomes an actual piece of information.
Such an impasse could be circumvented by creating a unique channel for the transit and transmission of information. But such a channel doesn't exist in Europe. The Turkish secret services claim they informed their Belgian counterparts on a possible attack in Brussels and on the people that could have carried it out. One should verify whether the information was passed on to the French services or if the Belgians kept it to themselves, with the results we've all seen.
Terrorism is such an extended and articulate social phenomena that it requires a joint international effort. Our common interest should prevail over national egotism. As we've mentioned, every secret service acts on behalf of its national security guidelines. It is hard to envisage a shift towards international goals. This will be possible only if interests will converge. There is no such thing as a European intelligence agency, nor will there be one in the near future. It would be sufficient to point out how not even NATO has an intelligence service of its own, but relies on the contributions of the countries part of the Alliance.
What is foreseeable is the creation of a European mechanism dedicated to the fight against terrorism and capable of channeling all of the intelligence and policing informations that the member countries decide to share. One could envisage something similar to a European anti-terrorism prosecutor.
The issue is that, in each country, anti-terrorism activities are managed by different organisms. In Italy, for instance, the proliferation and dispersion of efforts was tackled with the creation of a “Comitato di Analisi Strategica Antiterrorismo” (Committee for Anti-terrorism Strategic Analysis, CASA), where both police force and intelligence services meet. A similar joint-forces structure could be formed in Europe and focus on operational initiatives.
Will this be enough to prevent a repeat of terrorist attacks on European soil? Probably not, but it would be a first step in the fight against terrorism. Europe will also have to curb some of its libertarian ideals in the name of security. Controls will have to be reinstated over the Schengen countries and on the free circulation and transit of citizens. A security mechanism will have to put in place over public transport (airports, train stations, subways, ports) because this is where terrorists will want to strike. Following 911, security measures on airplanes have proven to be successful. We now have to focus on the access points to public transport. Making Europe more secure will curtail the liberty of its citizens in terms of both privacy and controls. This is the price to pay.