Dispatch

Spy Chiefs Descend on Munich Confab in Record Numbers

An annual security gathering in Munich has become the new hot spot for top intelligence officials meeting in the shadows of a public event.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission delivers a speech at the 2018 Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17, in Munich, Germany. (Sebastian Widmann/Getty Images)
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission delivers a speech at the 2018 Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17, in Munich, Germany. (Sebastian Widmann/Getty Images)

MUNICH — A record number of spymasters descended on Munich for an annual conference on European security, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and more than two dozen other senior intelligence officials from around the world.

They came for the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of world leaders and policy elites with public speeches and panels, where increasingly the sideshow has become the main event.

Twenty-seven heads of intelligence and other senior intelligence officials attended the conference — the highest number yet for the invite-only three-day event, which this year had over 600 participants. This included directors of U.S. intelligence agencies, the head of British spy service MI6 and a senior official from Britain’s GCHQ, and the director of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. Senior intelligence officials from several European countries, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Rwanda, which is widely considered to have one of the most capable spy services in Africa, also attended.

The showing from top spy chiefs “is really quite a record for our conference,” said Benedikt Franke, chief operating officer for the Munich Security Conference. 

The conference was founded in 1963, originally as a tight-knit gathering for U.S. and German officials to quietly talk shop on how to prevent future armed conflicts. But in recent years, it’s snowballed into a horde of world leaders, generals, intelligence officials, and other top thinkers. Behind a dense thicket of security checkpoints, they all crowd into Munich’s five-star Bayerischer Hof hotel for a weekend of nonstop networking and events.

This year, organizers say, the crowd included 22 heads of state and government, 41 foreign ministers, and 39 defense ministers, as well as United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, the heads of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and dozens of finance tycoons and CEOs. Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State John Kerry also made cameos.

But many conferencegoers weren’t there for the conference; they went for what goes on behind the scenes, where in the shadows, conference staffers and partnering organizations churned out private side events on an industrial scale.

The numbers are astounding: In the course of just three days, conference organizers say there were 150 side events — most invite-only and off-record — and well over 2,100 separate private meetings, where foreign ministers, heads of state, and others could quietly meet their counterparts for in one-on-one sit-downs — dubbed “bilats” in Eurocrat lingo.

All of this is by design, said Franke, who likened the public face of the conference to the “tip of the iceberg.”

He said it gives a unique opportunity for leaders to dive deep on topics like nonproliferation, the Syrian conflict, and North Korea offstage in a much more substantive way. “What we don’t want is people that come, give a speech, and go home,” Franke said. “That’s not us, we’re not a show.”

Officials say they get a lot done in those exhausting marathons of bilats, while the public speeches take place just a few doors down the hall. One European official said his foreign minister had a dozen of such meetings, all before lunchtime on Saturday.

But that’s nowhere near the record: Several years back, a former head of the Mossad apparently held 71 bilats before the conference had ended. The record has yet to be officially topped.

In addition to Pompeo and Coats, the U.S. delegation this year consisted of President Donald Trump’s national security advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green, with dozens of staffers and senior advisors in tow. A delegation of senior U.S. lawmakers, including Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and James Risch (R-Idaho), also flew in separately.

“Can you imagine what a media storm it would be if all of these guys just randomly went to another country all on the same day?” said one former U.S. official of the delegation from Washington. “But here, it’s just another day at Munich.”

Meanwhile, Biden had his own behind-closed-doors meetings as rumors of his 2020 presidential run swirled around the hotel. Side events ranged from a private breakfast with former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen to a Baltic war game hosted by defense experts at the Rand Corp.

The conference is an attractive target for the U.S. delegation in particular. When they’re all in one place, surrounded by some 600 other high-profile names, they’re free from the fanfare and public scrutiny of formal diplomatic visits or official summits, which could require publicly released schedules, speeches, and press conferences.

“It’s a poor man’s Davos,” said a senior European defense official, “but one where the work actually gets done.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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