The Multilateralist

Espionage in international organizations: Brussels edition

It’s an open secret that United Nations headquarters in New York is a hive of intelligence activity. During the Cold War, intelligence agents sometimes planted themselves in interpreters’ booths, hoping to snap photos of classified documents in the hands of incautious diplomats. As Colum Lynch documents here, Moscow has been a particularly active player in ...

It’s an open secret that United Nations headquarters in New York is a hive of intelligence activity. During the Cold War, intelligence agents sometimes planted themselves in interpreters’ booths, hoping to snap photos of classified documents in the hands of incautious diplomats. As Colum Lynch documents here, Moscow has been a particularly active player in the UN spy game, but certainly not the only one. In the late 1970s, the CIA helped engineer the defection of a senior Soviet UN employee. And in the run-up to the Iraq war, the United States and the United Kingdom apparently snooped on private meetings of states opposed to the war.

But Belgium’s intelligence chief makes the case in this interview with the EUObserver that Brussels, home to the European Union and NATO, bids fair to be the world’s spy capital:

I have said several times, and we are very well placed here in Belgium and particularly here in Brussels to say it, that the level of espionage is the same if not even higher than in the days of the Cold War. Some services thought that with the coming down of the Berlin wall the Cold War was over and espionage was somethig of the past. But we can state that in Belgium, espionage, Russian espionage and from other countries, like the Chinese, but also others, we are at the same level as the Cold War, which is not surprising given where we are. We are a country with an enormous concentration of diplomats, businessmen, international institutions, Nato, European institutions. So for an intelligence officer, for a spy, this is a kindergarten. It’s the place to be. You have people here who have commercial and political information, people whom you can try to recruit, people you can try to influence. You have governments where you can try to lobby. And the border between allowed lobbying and not-allowed interference – influence and espionage – is sometimes very hard to identify. Given the special context we have here, I think you can safely say that Brussels is one of the big spy capitals of the world.

EUObserver has compiled this list of recent espionage operations in Brussels.

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