Sunday Times 1999-12-05  -  Europe plans its own spy agency

BY Stephen Grey, Brussels

A secret shared: British agents fear Nato's military operations, such as this year's air strikes in Serbia, left, could be jeopardised if GCHQ, right, shares intelligence under plans drawn up by Chirac and Schröder

Tony BlairR is under pressure from European leaders to support the creation of a "federalised" EU intelligence service to help manage world crises.

The move, proposed by Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, and President Jacques Chirac of France, is seen as the first step towards the creation of Europe's own spy agency, based in Brussels.

Both leaders claim common intelligence-gathering must be a "core element" of the 50,000-strong European rapid reaction force that has been proposed by Blair and is due to be discussed at this week's EU summit in Helsinki.

According to a draft declaration drawn up for the meeting, the force must include not only air and naval elements but also command and control and intelligence. France believes the EU force can act independently of Nato and free from American interference only if it has its own intelligence capability.

As a first step, it wants its European partners to set up a central intelligence staff and a network of spy satellites. Later stages would see deeper co-operation, with the sharing of information collected from intercepted communications and spies.

In a little-noticed declaration signed at a Franco-German summit in Paris on Tuesday, the two countries committed themselves to work together to enhance their intelligence capability.

"As far as intelligence is concerned, which is a core element of the European Union's independent assessment and decision-making capacity, we are determined to federalise the existing or future means, including in the space field, in order to create common European capacities," their declaration read.

Britain's secret services remain profoundly sceptical about any sharing of high-grade intelligence with the French or Germans, let alone smaller European nations. Key pieces of intelligence from within Nato were leaked to Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict, including some of the targets to be bombed.

With the GCHQ listening post in Cheltenham under expansion, Britain is strengthening its links with American intelligence. Rupert Allason, the spy-book author and former Tory MP, said other countries were living in "cloud cuckoo land" if they imagined that British intelligence services would allow a European project to jeopardise relations with their counterparts in the United States.

"In no circumstances would we want to confide with the French on the level of success achieved by the US, for example, in reading President Milosevic's private faxes," Allason said. "It is unthinkable that we would want to compromise our special relationship with the US by enhanced co-operation with others."

A British security source confirmed that discussions were already under way about closer exchanges of intelligence between European allies, but said the government merely wanted to improve the flow of tactical battlefield intelligence.

"We would resist attempts to share all our intelligence with other European organisations," he said.

Among British diplomats, however, there is greater willingness to entertain the Franco-German ideas. A senior British official said it was "logically true" that an EU defence staff would eventually require access to its own high-grade intelligence.

A senior Foreign Office source confirmed that "mechanisms of intelligence co-operation" would be developing at EU level.

However, he added: "We are a long way from a European spy agency. We are right at the beginning of the process and you will only see some small beginnings: a look at the intelligence requirements for the rapid reaction force and at how national agencies could work together more effectively."

The Conservatives are not convinced. "Blair has let the genie out of the bottle," said Iain Duncan-Smith, the shadow defence secretary. "The French plan is to kick the Americans out of Europe, and what is going on is harming this country's interests."

This week's summit declaration at Helsinki is likely to be the first to endorse common intelligence-gathering in support of the proposed EU force.

The nucleus of a future Euro intelligence agency would be formed from security staff being assembled by Javier Solana, the former Nato secretary-general who is now the chief foreign policy official for the EU's council of ministers.

Intelligence sources in France said one of its prime objectives was to persuade its European allies and the EU itself, to share the cost of its next generation spy satellite, Helios II. On Friday it launched Helios IB, a replacement for its only current spy satellite, Helios 1A, which is shared with Italy and Spain.

None of the French satellites can see through clouds, and their technology proved of little use during the Kosovo conflict. Helios II will have all-weather radar and infrared cameras.

American officials fear that a duplication of efforts by the EU and Nato could waste resources.

"We would rather see the Europeans concentrate on improving the quality of their armed forces," said an American diplomat.

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