A data security breach at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs has fuelled calls for foreign intelligence operations.

THE BUNKER-LIKE colossal office building extends across a dreary industrial site in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands. Stakes, erected to prevent car bombings, skirt the gigantic honeycomb building; it is hard to see inside due to the tinted windows.

It is impossible to send e-mails to anyone in the building. Only a few employees are known by name.

The steel-coated building certainly does not invite visitors, and trespassers may be sentenced to six years' imprisonment.

It is time to step in.

Behind the iris scanner waits a man in his sixties, donning round spectacles and a signet ring. He smells of tobacco and has a deep voice. He is Robert Spronk, the director of the Dutch foreign intelligence agency, who has been with the agency for 30 years.

Audio recorders, mobile phones and memory sticks must be left to a locker by the security desk. No photos of the intelligence director are to be taken.

“We have rather tight internal security guidelines,” Spronk apologises.

This is what the Dutch call the Algemene Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdienst – the AIVD or, in English, the General Intelligence and Security Service. It was established after the major terrorist attack against the United States roughly ten years ago.

Why is admission to the colossal concrete building of such significance?

The reason is Ilkka Salmi, currently on a leave of absence from his post as the director of the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo), and, more expressly, a proposal that has gathered momentum in recent months. Now a director at the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (INTCEN), Salmi proposed a year ago that in addition to domestic reconnaissance Supo perform foreign intelligence operations.

Finland would thus be able to deploy agents overseas to investigate people deemed a threat to national security.

After three years at the INTCEN, Salmi knows European intelligence agencies like the back of his hand and believes the operational structure of the AIVD is transferable to Finland.

The differences between the AIVD and Supo are pronounced: First, the staff of the AIVD is seven times and its budget ten times those of Supo. Second, the AIVD is a so-called civilian security agency, not bound by laws on pre-trial investigations and forcible measures but rather by a special piece of legislation.

The need for such laws is soon to be weighed up also in Finland. The Ministry of Defence has appointed a task force to mull over cyber-security, while the Ministry of the Interior has appointed a task force to mull over developing Supo.

“The task force has been invited here for a visit,” Spronk suddenly says.

According to Salmi, the operations and oversight of the AIVD have been orchestrated ingeniously. The Netherlands has, for example, brought its internal and foreign intelligence services under the same roof.

In the United States, foreign intelligence operations are conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), while security within its borders is safeguarded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A similar division exists in France and Germany. In Finland, Supo is the equivalent of the FBI but at present no equivalent of the CIA exists.

Also Spronk appreciates the benefits of the consolidation: internal and external security threats are no longer deemed different and information sharing has improved.

“It was at first challenging to establish an understanding between security and intelligence personnel, because they approach the domain of intelligence from opposite sides. Others were used to conduct intelligence operations and others to repel them,” explains Spronk.

The operations of the AIVD are governed by a special act enacted in 2002, which allows the agency to deploy agents abroad with cover jobs. In their country of destination, AIVD agents gather intelligence from foreign officials in the fashion of James Bond. Supo has no such authority.

Why are foreign intelligence activities significant for the Netherlands?

“You can only reveal the hidden objectives of countries through espionage. They can be revealed by recruiting informants and conducting signals intelligence activities,” Spronk replies.

The intelligence director reminds that the agents may violate the laws of the country of destination but must always abide by the Dutch law. The agents are, for example, allowed to pay for state secrets but do not have the licence to hurt.

The AIVD has allocated ten million euros in its budget for obtaining secrets. The methods employed by its agents to motivate informants are as if from a detective novel: the agents feed the vanity of the moles and make them feel important. Rewards depend on the position of the moles and the kind of information they can provide. Some are motivated solely by their convictions.

“You should not set up a foreign intelligence service unless you have the yen and capacity for espionage. This is one of the oldest occupations in the world,” the intelligence director says and winks.

Similarly to the Netherlands, Salmi proposes, Finland should have the authority to investigate suspicious activities outside its borders, such as terrorist training programmes. In contrast to the Netherlands, however, Finnish agents should abide by the laws of their country of destination and thus operate under the supervision of local security authorities, views Salmi.

His views have gained support especially after the recent revelation that the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs has been subjected to an extensive cyber-espionage campaign. Finland is one of the few countries in Europe that does not conduct foreign intelligence or internal signals intelligence operations.

According to Salmi, Finland must know how to spy to be able to counter the espionage activities of other countries.

The destinations of the agents deployed by the Dutch intelligence service are classified, but its annual report implies that agents have been deployed to countries such as Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Caribbean Region and Russia, where energy matters are of particular interest.

In the Middle East, the AIVD has tried to, for example, ascertain whether a Dutch citizen has radicalised and taken part in a conflict outside the country's borders. Meanwhile, the intelligence agency has also produced information to support foreign policy-making.

Industrial espionage, however, is not part of its activities.

“In industrial espionage missions, who would be the customer?” Spronk asks.

With allies swapping intelligence, espionage operations can also produce means of exchange.

Salmi believes firmly that a foreign intelligence agency is necessary in Finland also in order to “produce means of exchange from outside the country's borders”.

At present, Supo conducts no foreign or signals intelligence operations, and thus its headquarters on Helsinki's Ratakatu road has little to bargain with in the world of intelligence agents. Intelligence can, however, prove crucial. The tip about the espionage campaign against the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, for example, was received from a friendly country, presumably from Sweden.

Another marked division between the AIVD and Supo is associated with signals intelligence activities. The AIVD is authorised under the law to monitor all communications transmitted through the air without prior permission.

The AIVD can therefore monitor and sift through mobile phone calls, text messages, wireless Internet activity, intranet traffic and communications transmitted by satellite.

“The commission that evaluated the activities of the AIVD proposed in early December that the monitoring right be extended to also encompass wired communications, such as Internet cables. That could be useful for us,” reveals Spronk.

Without prior permission, the AIVD can only analyse metadata, such as the identifiers of mobile phones. In order to access suspicious communications, the agency requires the permission of the interior ministry. Annually, as many as 1,500—1,800 such requests are made.

Supo director Antti Pelttari said in the autumn that also Finland must consider granting Supo the power to monitor data communications at its own discretion. If granted, the right would also be extended to the mooted foreign intelligence agency.

Today, both foreign and signals intelligence operations are performed by the Finnish Intelligence Research Establishment, which, established under the Defence Forces, only monitors communications outside the Finnish borders, according to its own reports.

The Dutch military intelligence service, the MIVD, engages in extensive collaboration with the AIVD. Together, the services are to establish a special unit of roughly 350 personnel within the Zoetermeer headquarters to monitor phone and data communications.

A similar collaborative arrangement between military and civilian agencies would also be the best option for Finland, believes Salmi. The likely centre for the operations would hence be Tikkakoski, where the operations of the Intelligence Research Establishment are conducted.

The bones of contention in the inevitable debate over the establishment of a Finnish foreign and signals intelligence agency already seem clear: Who would oversee clandestine intelligence operations in today's democratic Finland, not to mention beyond its borders? And how would these operations affect privacy protection in Finland?

In a European manner, the AIVD reports to a parliamentary committee but also to a joint regulation commission of the country's security agencies. The commission is composed of former judges, researchers and police officials and has unlimited access to information produced by the AIVD.

“The arrangement has worked brilliantly,” Spronk touts.

Finally, the faceless man escorts the visitor to the contraptions by the exit. A pass is required to open the gate.

Entering the intelligence headquarters is difficult, but so is leaving it.

Tuomo Pietiläinen – HS
Aleksi Teivainen – HT
© Helsingin Sanomat
Illustration: Klaus Welp