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Spy Scandals in Brussels: From Cold War to Digital Age

BRUSSELS – Ever since becoming the seat of the European Union and NATO, Brussels has been a spy hub — with recent claims of US snooping on EU offices only the latest in a history going back to the Cold War.

BRUSSELS – Ever since becoming the seat of the European Union and NATO, Brussels has been a spy hub — with recent claims of US snooping on EU offices only the latest in a history going back to the Cold War.

Dozens of diplomats from the then Soviet bloc were expelled from Brussels during decades of cloak-and-dagger confrontation, which has now been replaced by more hi-tech methods of surveillance from a wider variety of countries.

Here are some scandals from the spy capital of Europe:

1970s-1980s — East German agents are found to have seduced three women working at NATO. The first worked as a flower seller in Brussels city centre and fled the country when his girlfriend was arrested for passing him classified information.

She worked at West Germany’s NATO delegation. The two other women reported to have been seduced by Stasi spies were the West German assistant to the director of operations of the NATO Council and a Belgian NATO typist, who both defected.

1978 — Bulgarian military attache Pavel Chervenkov begins a four-year posting at the embassy in Brussels. He later told interviewers he had been tasked with finding out about the deployment of NATO missiles near the Soviet bloc.

Chervenkov also reminisced about drink-fuelled meetings with fellow Soviet bloc spies to discuss the latest missions from Moscow in the embassies of the Soviet Union or East Germany.

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1983 — Belgian authorities arrest a foreign ministry official in charge of organising European summits, Eugene Michiels, for allegedly stealing hi-tech secrets presented at high-level meetings on behalf of the Soviet bloc. One Soviet and four Romanian diplomats are later expelled.

2001 — A French army major, Pierre-Henri Bunel, is convicted of handing military secrets including detailed NATO bombing plans to the Serbs shortly before the Kosovo conflict, while he was working at the alliance in 1999.

2001 — The European Parliament publishes an in-depth report on ECHELON, an intelligence programme between Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, saying it was used to tap private and commercial communications. The report says the programme had been started in the 1960s monitoring radio transmissions but had since developed and was being used to access satellites and tap underwater cables.

2003 — Five black boxes with espionage equipment are found in the European Council’s Justus Lipsius building. The boxes could be activated from the outside and were connected to the phone systems in national delegation rooms. Belgian investigators launch an inquiry into the case but decide not to prosecute anyone, although a Belgian intelligence agencies review committee later raises the question of possible Israeli involvement.

2008 — A top Estonian defense ministry official, Herman Simm, who advised the EU and NATO on their information protection systems, is arrested for spying for Russia and later sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison. NATO ordered the expulsion of two Russian diplomats in 2009 in what was believed to be retaliation for Simm’s activities, which included handling communications between NATO members.

2011 — US investigators report that hackers, possibly linked to China, accessed the email accounts of European Council president Herman van Rompuy and 10 other top officials.

Written By

AFP 2023

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