Belgium’s intelligence services are making more and more use of what are called “special investigative techniques” such as telephone taps and secret house searches. That’s the main feature of the newly-released annual report of the Comité I, the parliamentary body tasked with oversight of the civilian and military intelligence services.
The Comité I was set up in 1991 to set up a parliamentary oversight of the activities of the intelligence services, which had previously been the sole responsibility of the justice and defence ministers. A similar committee, the Comité P, is the parliamentary regulator of the police.
The committee looks into issues raised by complaints from members of the public or MPs, issues decisions on questions put before it, and publishes an annual report on the general state of operations in the intelligence services.
According to the report for 2018, which has just appeared, the use of special investigative techniques has risen by 25% in one year alone, from 2017 to 2018. Last year, permission was granted for the use of such techniques on 2,445 occasions.
There are three categories of techniques used by the intelligence services:
Ordinary methods include identifying the user of a telephone network or of a pre-paid phone card;
Specific techniques include observing a suspect in a public place, or identifying the source and destination of a telephone call; and
Special or exceptional techniques, the most recent addition to the services’ arsenal, which include telephone tapping, intercepting a suspect’s mail, observation in a private place or obtaining banking information. The category also includes carrying out searches of private residences without a court order and without the knowledge of the occupant – although all special techniques require clearance from an administrative committee, which has to be convinced that the measure is proportional, or justified by the gravity of the investigation, and that it is the only way to achieve the aims of the investigation.
The final court of appeal is the Comité I, which has the power, if it detects irregularities in the use of either specific or special techniques, to suspend the entire investigation concerned.
In Belgium, the use of special techniques was only made legal in 2010, triggered by the rise in international terrorist threats, and adding substantially to the powers of the intelligence services, bringing them more into line with their foreign counterparts. In 2013, the first year for which figures are available, there were 1,378 permissions granted; that figure has increased by 80% in the half-decade to 2018.
Two factors influence the growth. In the first place, international terrorism has taken its place at home, with radical young men going to fight with extremist forces in Syria. The report points out that even when these men are arrested and imprisoned on their return to Belgium, they are bound to be released sooner or later, and many of them either remain radicalised or become even more so in prison.
The second factor is common or garden espionage. Belgium and Brussels in particular is the home to Nato and Shape, and to the EU, making it a target for military and economic espionage respectively.
“Espionage is a perpetual growth activity,” explained Kenneth Lasoen, professor of intelligence at the University of Antwerp, speaking to the RTBF. “We know for example that Russian espionage services are more active now than ever during the Cold War. Their targets are not necessarily Belgian, but their activities are not in Belgium’s interests.” The professor predicted the continuing growth of special investigative techniques in the years to come, but stressed that most targets are not even Belgian nationals, and that the framework for their use is strictly under legal control.