The world’s spies agree Belgian intelligence is broken

The attack on Europe's political capital on Tuesday has been widely blamed on bad intelligence; not just the dysfunctional separation of powers in Belgium, but on the lack of sharing of information among the many intelligence services of the 28 states of the European Union. The services in the former Communist states to the east were reconfigured after the collapse of the Soviet-backed regimes in 1990, but some still contain habits — and in a few cases personnel — from the days when they saw the West European states' agencies as the enemy. Sharing, even at a low level, is tentative.

I interviewed several former officials of the secret services of the United States, France and the UK for "Journalism in an Age of Terror," a book to be published later this year. In comments that were inevitably off the record, they spoke about how they rated their allied services — and also how they saw their main opponents, the Chinese and Russian services.

The Belgian security services are everywhere regarded as weak. That suspicion seems to have been confirmed, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey claimed on Wednesday that the Turkish authorities warned their Belgian counterparts that one of the suspected bombers, Ibrahim el Bakraoui, was a dangerous terrorist.

The lack of centralization, which is a feature of all of the European agencies apart from the British, fulfills essentially a democratic criterion: that agencies unified present a greater danger to a democratic government than those kept apart, and competitive. The instinct to so construct the intelligence services harks back to the experience of World War Two and the centralization of the services under authoritarian governments: but it hinders rapid decision-making and reform.

The Belgian services are more divided than most and more beset with scandals and charges of inefficiency. The current head of the main State Security Service had a predecessor who was "acting" head for two years. In turn, his predecessor had resigned because the service had lost track of a presumed dangerous Kurdish militant.

The agencies were brought under the supervision of a parliamentary committee in 1991: legislation governing the arrangement was passed only in 1998. They had powers only of intelligence collection and analysis before 2006. Since then, they have been given greater powers, but the changes at the top and the difficulties of coordination in a political landscape split between French and Flemish governments have meant reform is slow. The shock of March 22 must hasten reform and centralization, but at the heart of political Europe, there was a security void.

The model for intelligence sharing has been set by the "Five Eyes" group of agencies: the United States far in the lead in manpower and global reach, with some 17 separate services and nearly 1 million employees with high security clearance. The two main agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, have budgets greater than many poor states. The NSA has the capacity to monitor most communications anywhere. The other participants in the intelligence-sharing group are the United Kingdom; Canada; Australia and New Zealand: all Anglophone, all at different times British imperial possessions (all but the United States remain in the Commonwealth).

The sharing, especially that between the United States and the UK, is relatively free and intense. The NSA and the UK equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have — as the NSA files stolen by Edward Snowden show — developed programs for surveying all communications they wish to collect, to examine material that shows times, places, persons rather than the content of communications in pursuit of terrorist links. The smaller services have more limited resources, but there is a division of labor according to geographical position and traditional areas of strength (Australia and New Zealand, for example, in East Asia).

Other agencies envy the scope of the Five Eyes — especially the access to the American material. Of the European agencies, France is reckoned to be nearest to the "Anglo-Saxons" in the reach and effectiveness of its services, with particular strength in the Middle East and Afria. The DGSI (internal affairs) and the DGSE (external affairs) had a history of non-cooperation. A senior official, now retired, assured me that it was better now — though he admitted to "continuing problems on the political level."

The relationship with the political class is central to the efficiency of the services. In France, the beginnings of the intelligence agencies was deeply marred by the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s, where a French-Jewish officer was wrongly accused of espionage for the Germans, found guilty on flimsy evidence and imprisoned on Devil's Island for years before the falseness of his sentence was exposed. Much of the affair was due to anti-Semitism and deliberate cover-ups in the military. The shadow, over a century later still falls, in large part because of the continuing mistrust between the services and politicians, and the use of secret service officers by both President Francois Mitterand and President Nicolas Sarkozy to spy on, among others, journalists whom they suspected of receiving leaks from their cabinets. (The suspicions usually correct).

Germany's services are widely thought to be at best average. They are under strong constraints (one British ex-official said "they spend all their time getting their actions past their lawyers") and the domestic service, the BfV — is split up and put under the control of the various states. The BND — the foreign intelligence service — is now said to be much improved, though no one from the British, American or French services would give it more than an pass mark.

Of the other large services, the Italian agencies have a history of involvement in politics that had damaged their reputation and their effectiveness. The labyrinthine political structure and the weakness of the bureaucracy have allowed various plots and alliances to flourish — though here too, the services are said to be improving. The pressure of terrorism and the seriousness of the challenge to the state, in areas where — unlike in the Cold War — the Americans cannot help much has mandated improvement.

The fabled KGB disappeared after the state, which had created it, the Soviet Union, collapsed in 1991. For some time, a former Western agency head told me, it was rudderless, with agents (as the present Russian President Vladimir Putin ) leaving the service – though he added that "it was still able to construct and run a network in the U.S. through that time." It's back in form now. The foreign intelligence service, the SVR, has been formed out of the firmer First Directorate of the KGB, and is active abroad, especially in encouraging anti-EU parties to keep up what Russia regards as the good work in weakening the European Union. None of the Western agencies underestimates the strength of the Russians and the force of its traditions.

But they know little, they say, about the Chinese — except that they are active, especially online and especially in seeking out new technologies to assist both civilian industries and the military-industrial complex. In an age of rapid technological change, it's a central task of all agencies — except the American, which assume they don't have to — to find out what's new, what it can do and how to copy it. The French, they will quietly admit it, are past masters in this area.

These agencies are, by nature and necessity, highly secretive, increasingly skilled in code breaking and monitoring, and closely tied in to their political masters, even if neither side trusts the other. The possibilities of better sharing may be prompted by the sheer size of the terrorist challenge, but it will be against their nature and instincts.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

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