Intelligence cooperation: asset or liability?

by Nuno Moreira

Increasingly global threats call for secret services to share information, but cooperation comes with a price.

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In May 2016, Frederico Carvalhao was arrested at a café in Rome in a joint operation coordinated by Italian police and Portuguese intelligence. This rare public episode of successful international cooperation was proudly showcased as an argument for intelligence sharing between Western countries. In truth, it was exactly due to intelligence cooperation that Carvalhao, former Portuguese intelligence officer, was able to sell top-secret NATO documents to Russia, for about $10,000 each. How he managed to smuggle those files from the highly secure Ameixoeira Fort remains a mystery, but it is clear that it would have never been possible if the military alliance did not share classified information among its member-states.

Fig.1: Above, Frederico Carvalhão Gil, former Portuguese intelligence officer.

Nowadays, this instance of a European spy defecting to the enemy is hardly a rarity. Estonia claims to have detected 4 Russian moles in its intelligence agency in the past few years. “Either we’re the only country in the EU with a mole problem, or we’re the only country in the EU doing anything about It.”, said Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves in 2014. Recent events point to the latter option. In 2010, Henry Frith, posing as a New Zealand citizen in Spain, was found to have been operating for nearly two decades as a Russian spy, dropping off encrypted USB keys with information in “dead letter boxes” – previously arranged locations where someone would later come to pick up the items left there. Germany caught its own mole in the Verfassungsschutz last November – a radical Islamist who afterwards admitted having joined the agency to warn other Islamists of ongoing investigations – and of course, not in the EU but right across the Atlantic, it’s impossible not to mention the case of Edward Snowden, who exposed, among many other things, several NSA mass-surveillance programs in what was possibly the most significant leak in the history of American intelligence.

There is no shortage of examples of moles in Western countries leaking information to the enemy. Peripheral European countries such as Portugal and Estonia, either for geographical proximity to Russia or lack of serious and professional institutions combined with comparatively low salaries, are particularly vulnerable to Russian double-agents, while larger central European countries with significant numbers of Muslim immigrants are prone to terrorist moles, and everyone is well aware of the danger this can represent to a country’s defense and sovereignty. However, when information is no longer compartmentalized to each country and intelligence agencies share it with each other, there is much more potential damage to be done by a mole. Not only it’s the target country itself comprised, but the entire network of allies finds its secrets given away to the enemy. Sharing information causes somewhat of a multiplier effect on the impact of leaks.

Fig.2: Members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

To what extent intelligence agencies share information with each other is hard to estimate, but we can assume that it’s an increasingly common procedure. Globalization revolutionized communications, transport, business and, inevitably, terrorist and criminal organizations, which are now transnational threats. Either bilaterally or via multilateral arrangements such as NATO, the “Five Eyes” alliance and the Club de Berne, Western nations have progressively scaled up their cooperation efforts in an attempt to counter this phenomenon. The dangers and difficulties of cooperating are well-known to information services, but the truth is, nowadays, cooperation is not so much a choice as a necessity – the discussion is not on whether to cooperate or not, but on how to do it in a way that mitigates the inherent risks.

Concerning existing cooperation between intelligence agencies, bilateral relationships are always preferred over multilateral ones, since with such arrangements it’s much easier to control exactly who has access to exactly what information. Probably the most relevant multilateral relationship in which a substantial amount of information is shared is UKUSA a.k.a. Five Eyes, of which the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are members. However, even this agreement is the product of a series of mostly bilateral understandings, in some cases overlapping, whose origins date back to World War II.

Fig.3: Members of the Club de Berne.

One of the reasons truly multilateral agreements are relatively rare is that intelligence agencies are often associated with a nation’s sovereignty, which makes states very reluctant to give away the information they produce, much less to several other countries at once. We clearly see this in Europe, where international cooperation could surely have prevented at least some of the terrorist attacks in the past few years, and yet European leaders refuse to create an intelligence agency, in the true sense of the word, able to tackle the so-called “new terrorism”, which international counter-terrorism institutions currently in place are utterly unequipped to deal with.  The EU Situation Center is fed mostly by national agencies and lacks any operative capacity, while Europol’s Counter Terrorism Task Force is symbolic, at most. European countries do cooperate to some degree through the Club de Berne (where the heads of European security services gather to discuss several issues) and a second body, the Counter Terrorism Group, which focuses mostly on promoting convergence in methodologies and occasionally joint training.

Despite those forms of cooperation, a full-fledged European intelligence agency seems unlikely in the near future, mostly for political reasons. However, it may not be as unrealistic to envision some sort of pan-European data-mining agreement, where the gathered information would be shared with member-states. The possibility of a mole in that scenario is terrifying. Not only would intelligence of possibly strategic value be disclosed, the personal data of the countries’ citizens would be exposed to the enemy and perhaps the public.

The higher the degree of intelligence sharing, the greater the consequences of a possible mole. However, it’s increasingly clear there may be no other way to counter the new, transnational threats to Western civilization. To cooperate or not to cooperate? The answer may lie somewhere in between – sharing relevant information with partners, but simultaneously implementing effective counter-intelligence protocols and a careful compartmentalization of intelligence.


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