Nato’s tiny ally, Luxembourg, stands accused of years-long safety failures, as the West continues an unprecedented crackdown on Russian espionage in Europe.
It would not be the first time if the Grand Duchy regarded like a weak link in EU and Nato intelligence-sharing.
In a case at the finish of the Cold War that made worldwide headlines, Luxembourg’s ambassador to Nato, Guy De Muyser, was stripped of his safety clearance when America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was knowledgeable by a Russian defector that he was leaking Western secrets and techniques to the Soviet Union.
But De Muyser, who’s now 97, remained Luxembourg’s ambassador to Belgium and retired with a string of medals, together with France’s Légion d’honneur.
“I was good friends with him,” recalled Jamie Shea, a retired British Nato official, talking to EUobserver.
And Shea’s recollections made Luxembourg’s intelligence service, the Service de renseignement de l’État (SRE), sound a bit foolish.
“He [De Muyser] was dismissed [from his Nato post] because of multiple undisclosed trips to Moscow. It was the CIA that tipped off the Luxembourg intelligence about these trips,” Shea mentioned.
“They [the SRE] didn’t seem to know themselves,” he mentioned.
That was again in 1990, however in line with some SRE insiders, the Grand Duchy continues to be letting down Western allies by not doing correct vetting of officers earlier than giving them clearance to deal with labeled EU and Nato recordsdata.
And two current profession strikes by elite Luxembourgish officers posed the query in the event that they had been the proper males for the job.
Luxembourg’s former ambassador to Russia, Jean-Claude Knebeler, left to work for the Kremlin-owned Gazprombank in 2020.
Luxembourg’s former defence minister, Etienne Schneider, additionally took a job in 2020 with Russian funding agency Sistema, which is now below US sanctions over Kremlin ties.
Knebeler and Schneider have not been accused of leaking something.
Gazprombank and Sistema did not reply when EUobserver tried to achieve them through their employers.
Nato has 5 forms of safety classification: RESTRICTED, CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, COSMIC TOP SECRET, and COSMIC TOP SECRET ATOMAL.
COSMIC stands for “Control of Secret Material in an International Command”. ATOMAL is no matter nuclear weapons data the UK and US shares with Nato.
And each Knebeler and Schneider would have had SRE clearance to deal with SECRET-level paperwork in their pre-Kremlin jobs.
Luxembourg declined to say when their safety clearances had been revoked.
But whether or not they did something flawed or not, the optics alone had been unhealthy sufficient to break belief amongst Nato pals.
“It’s a known modus operandi of Russian special services to use state firms to corrupt Western officials,” mentioned a Western intelligence contact, talking on situation of anonymity.
“What’s the difference how they [Knebeler and Schneider] share their knowledge? I’d do it orally — that way there’s no trace of what was mentioned,” the contact mentioned.
The Luxembourg downside first arose in 2016, when authorities reforms noticed its nationwide vetting company lose entry to police data, making it unimaginable to see if candidates met authorized standards.
The SRE’s inner commerce union wrote to Nato HQ in Brussels in 2018 to warn them, in correspondence later made public by Luxembourg’s parliament.
Nato replied saying Luxembourg needed to meet “minimum standards” enshrined in EU accords, comparable to the the 1997 Agreement of the Parties of the North Atlantic Treaty for the Security of Information.
“The actions taken [by Luxembourg] do not support the spirit of the policy”, a Nato official mentioned.
But the Nato official additionally famous that vetting was a part of “national prerogatives that fall outside of the remit of the NOS” — Nato’s Office of Security.
And some 4 years later — on 3 June 2022 — nothing had modified, when the SRE commerce union wrote to Latvia’s intelligence service, the Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB), to say Luxembourg was nonetheless dropping the ball.
The SRE reacted by giving a “dishonourable discharge” to the trade-union chief, Philippe Schaack, on grounds he had leaked nationwide secrets and techniques to an unauthorised celebration (SAB).
“My only objective was to fix long-standing and officially acknowledged shortcomings in the national vetting procedures,” Schaack, who’s combating the determination in a Luxembourg tribunal, advised EUobserver.
“As a fellow Nato ally, Latvia can hardly be seen as an unauthorised party with respect to common Nato security procedures,” he added.
“It was easier to make them [the SRE trade union] shut up by trying to discredit them than to fix the problem, which has persisted for seven years now and counting”, a Belgian intelligence contact advised EUobserver.
The SRE and Luxembourg have a chequered report other than any De Muyser-type eventualities.
Luxembourg is a monetary centre with a popularity for Russian money-laundering, as uncovered in the 2014 LuxLeaks scandal.
Its SRE has simply 80 or so workers, in line with a database leak reported in 2020.
Luxembourg’s ex-prime minister and ex-European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker resigned in 2013 in an imbroglio involving SRE unlawful wire-tapping and corrupt pay-offs.
And the SRE’s former chief of operations, Frank Schneider, is at present a world fugitive, after snapping off his ankle bracelet whereas below home arrest in France in June, pending extradition to the US for his alleged position in a $4bn [€3.68bn] crypto-currency Ponzi scheme.
The Grand Duchy declined to touch upon vetting, on the Gazprombank and Sistema instances, or the Ponzi affair.
“The problems that have arisen from the conduct of the SREL, the SRE’s predecessor, have been fully addressed in 2016 when a clear, detailed legal framework, appropriate comprehensive procedures and supervision mechanisms were put in place,” the workplace of Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel advised EUobserver.
“The SRE is a respected member of the international security community and thus actively participates in the related intelligence-sharing fora”, they added.
Nato declined to remark.
But the NOS performed a Luxembourg inspection in 2019 and gave it a broad all-clear, Nato sources advised EUobserver.
And some specialists mentioned it was exhausting to consider the NOS would have turned a blind eye if the SRE commerce union was proper.
Edward Arnold, a safety specialist at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think-tank in London, was a British navy officer serving at Nato in Belgium when Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014.
“Nato definitely cares about this stuff [proper vetting and counter-intelligence], even if it’s not resourced at the level that you’d like”, he mentioned.
The Luxembourg downside regarded like a “molehill” somewhat than a “mountain”, a senior EU official added.
But two Western intelligence contacts painted a unique image.
“It seems like Nato doesn’t really care about the security of its SECRET files, only from COSMIC TOP SECRET and ATOMAL — that’s huge, it’s reckless,” one in all the sources mentioned.
“This isn’t just a Luxembourg cock-up — it’s a Nato cock-up,” he added.
The second contact mentioned: “Russian special services exploit the fact that international structures, like the EU and Nato, are fundamentally dysfunctional when it comes to countering intelligence threats.”
“They only seem to take action in major cases, usually for PR reasons,” they added.
And the Luxembourg alert wasn’t the first of its variety.
The Club de Berne, a Western intelligence-sharing construction exterior EU or Nato establishments, highlighted safety failures in Vienna in 2019 in a report leaked to Austrian newspaper Expressen.
Belgium is the present presidency of the Club de Berne and can also be partly accountable for EU and Nato safety, as their HQs’ host state.
Its intelligence service, the La Sûreté de l’Etat (VSSE), is nicely conscious of Luxembourg’s alleged shortcomings.
But it mentioned: “The VSSE would like to stress that our service retains full confidence in the SRE”.
It additionally voiced “full confidence” in Austria’s intelligence providers.
“The VSSE as a [Club de Berne] president has no authority on the functioning of individual services, who solely report to their national hierarchies,” it added, although its membership did use its comfortable energy to press for Austrian enhancements.
Latvia, whom the Luxembourg commerce union warned, did not defend the SRE.
“It is not our duty and responsibility to evaluate the work of other services and express opinions”, the SAB advised EUobserver.
“For sure, security vetting of personnel with regard to Nato trust and intelligence-sharing is highly important,” it added.
“A working and trusting relationship in the sphere of intelligence gathering and sharing is a critical part of successful actions against crime and international terrorism,” the Austrian inner ministry additionally mentioned, after conducting reforms below Club-de-Berne strain.
The alleged Luxembourg vetting downside comes amid an unprecedented Western crackdown on Russian espionage in Europe.
The SRE wrote to Latvia in June 2022 at the identical time as Nato states started expelling a whole lot of Russian diplomats on grounds they had been spies working below cowl.
Luxembourg’s neighbour, Belgium, expelled 40 Russians — nearly half of all the Russian diplomats in the nation — in the largest counter-espionage clear-out in its historical past.
Brussels was once the “spy capital” of Europe 10 years in the past, in line with former VSSE chief Alain Winants.
The Russian acting-ambassador to the EU, Kirill Logvinov, continues to be in place, although the VSSE warned the EU international service final yr that he works for Russia’s foreign-intelligence service, the SVR.
“Belgium has taken this action [the 40 expulsions] in an effort to reduce the risk of Russian spying on and from its territory. However, the VSSE is aware this does not stop such activities,” the VSSE advised EUobserver.
“The VSSE will continue to monitor the situation and advise its political authorities on the course of action to take,” the Club-de-Berne presidency holder and EU-and-Nato safety supplier mentioned.
Brussels will, this week, grow to be a “spy capital” in a unique manner when Nato’s Civilian Intelligence Committee and Military Intelligence Committee meet at Nato HQ.
The twice-yearly occasion brings collectively 75 intelligence-service administrators from Nato’s 31 member states to debate information-sharing.
But if that kind of occasion made Brussels a goal for hostile international powers, then close by Luxembourg was additionally in danger.
Luxembourg is a brief drive from Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, all of that are in Europe’s free-movement ‘Schengen Zone’, which suggests no border controls.
“A Russian operative based in Luxembourg could easily drive across the border to meet his informant or handler and be back before anyone knows he’s gone,” a 3rd Western intelligence supply mentioned.
But Luxembourg expelled only one Russian diplomat in 2022 — Dmitry Alexandrovich Solomasov, a 35-year outdated “cipher clerk” at the Russian embassy, who was suspected of being an SVR officer, in line with EUobserver’s sources.
That nonetheless left eight Russian diplomats in place, Luxembourg’s international ministry mentioned, in addition to 11 different Russian officers and spouses named in Luxembourg’s “corps diplomatique” ledger in October 2023.
Luxembourg declined to substantiate or deny if Solomasov was the Russian it expelled.
Its muted response was all the way down to fears that Russia would shut down Luxembourg’s embassy in Moscow if it went too far, a Luxembourgish supply advised EUobserver.
Recalling the Cold War-era De Muyser case, Shea, the retired Nato official, mentioned: “This was long ago and I can’t say if it points to endemic problems in Luxembourg intelligence services”.
But for a few of the Grand Duchy’s bigger Western pals, the Solomasov case confirmed that Luxembourg nonetheless wasn’t taking the Russian menace severely.
“He [Solomasov] was a cipher clerk, which is kind of funny, because it means the SRE didn’t want to exclude any active Russian field officers. It means that the SRE’s counter-intelligence unit is doing little to fight Russian spy activity,” one in all the Western intelligence contacts mentioned.