Have British Spies Been Hacking the EU?

The European Union has accused British intelligence agencies of disrupting Brexit negotiations—creating a new public dispute that could poison further an already toxic situation, says Annie Machon. 

By Annie Machon
in Brussels
Special to Consortium News

Just after midnight on Aug. 16, I was called by LBC Radio in London for a comment on a breaking story on the front page of The Daily Telegraph about British spies hacking the EU. Even though I had just retired to bed, the story was just too irresistible, but a radio interview is always too short to do justice to such a convoluted tale. Here are some longer thoughts.

For those who cannot get past the Telegraph paywall, the gist is that that the European Union has accused the British intelligence agencies of hacking the EU’s side of the Brexit negotiations. Apparently, some highly sensitive and negative EU slides about British Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for Brexit, the Chequers Plan, had landed in the lap of the British government, which then lobbied the EU to suppress publication.

Of course, this could be a genuine leak from the Brussels sieve, as British sources are claiming (well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?). However, it is plausible that this is the work of the spies, either by recruiting a paid-up agent well placed within the Brussels bureaucracy, or through electronic surveillance.

The Ugly Truth of Spying

Before dismissing the latter option as conspiracy theory, the British spies do have experience. In the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, the United States and the United Kingdom were desperate to get a United Nations Security Council resolution to invade Iraq, thus providing a fig leaf of apparent legitimacy to the illegal war. However, some countries within the UN had their doubts (including France and Germany), and the U.S. asked Britain’s listening post, GCHQ, to step up its surveillance game. Forewarned is forearmed in delicate international negotiations.

Gun: Threatened with prosecution.

How do we know this? A brave GCHQ whistleblower named Katharine Gun leaked the information to The Observer. For her pains, she was threatened with prosecution under the draconian terms of the UK’s 1989 Official Secrets Act and faced two years in prison. The case was only dropped three weeks before her trial was due to begin, partly because of the feared public outcry, but mainly because her lawyers threatened to use the legal defense of “necessity”—a defense won only three years before during the case of MI5 whistleblower David Shayler. Tangentially, a film is being made about Gunn’s story this year.

We also have confirmation from one of the early 2013 Edward Snowden disclosures that GCHQ had hacked its way into the Belgacom network—the national telecommunications supplier in Belgium. Even back then, there was an outcry from the EU bodies, worried that the UK (and by extension its closest intelligence buddy, the U.S.), would gain leverage with stolen knowledge.

So, yes, it is perfectly feasible that the UK could have done this, even though it was illegal back in the day. GCHQ’s incestuous relationship with America’s National Security Agency gives it massively greater capabilities than other European intelligence agencies. The EU knows this well, which is why it is concerned to retain access to the UK’s defense and security powers post-Brexit, and also why it has jumped to these conclusions about hacking.

Somebody Needs to Watch the Watchers

But that was then, and this is now. On Jan. 1, 2017, the UK government finally signed a law called the Investigatory Powers Act, governing the legal framework for GCHQ to snoop. The IPA gave GCHQ the most draconian and invasive powers of any Western democracy. Otherwise known in the British media as the “snoopers’ charter,” the IPA had been defeated in Parliament for years, but Theresa May, then home secretary, pushed it through in the teeth of legal and civil society opposition. This year, the High Court ordered the UK government to redraft the IPA as it is incompatible with European law.

May: Breaking up is hard to do.

The IPA legalized what GCHQ previously had been doing illegally post-9/11, including bulk metadata collection, bulk data hacking, and bulk hacking of electronic devices.

It also gave the government greater oversight of the spies’ actions, but these measures remain weak and offer no protection if the spies choose to keep quiet about what they are doing. So if GCHQ did indeed hack the EU, it is feasible that the foreign secretary and the prime minister remained ignorant of what was going on, despite being legally required to sign off on such operations. In which case the spies would be running amok.

It is also feasible that they were indeed fully briefed, and that would have been proper protocol. GCHQ and the other spy agencies are required to protect “national security and the economic well-being” of Great Britain, and I can certainly see a strong argument could be made that they were doing precisely that (provided they had prior written permission for such a sensitive operation) if they tried to get advance intelligence about the EU’s Brexit strategy.

This argument becomes even more powerful when you consider the problems around the fraught issue of the border between the UK’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, an issue about which the EU is being particularly intransigent. If a deal is not made, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement could be under threat and civil war might break out again in Northern Ireland. You cannot get much more “national security” than that, and GCHQ would be justified in this work, provided it has acquired the necessary legal sign-offs from its political masters.

Our Complicated World

However, these arguments will do nothing to appease the enraged EU officials. The UK government will continue to state that this was a leak from a Brussels insider, and publicly at least, oil will be seen to have been poured on troubled diplomatic waters.

(ChiralJon/CC BY 2.0)

Behind the scenes, though, this action will multiply the mutual suspicion and no doubt unleash a witch hunt through the corridors of EU power, with top civil servant Martin Selmayr (aka “The Monster”) cast as witchfinder general. With him on your heels, you would have to be a brave leaker, whistleblower or even paid-up agent working for the Brits to take such a risk.

So, perhaps this is indeed a GCHQ hack. However justifiable the move might be under the nebulous concept of “national security,” this event will poison further the already toxic Brexit negotiations. As Angela Merkel famously, if disingenuously, said after the Snowden revelation that the U.S. had hacked her mobile phone: “No spying among friends.” But perhaps this is an outdated concept—and the EU has not been entirely friendly to Brexit Britain.

I am just waiting for the first hysterical claim that it was the Russians instead or, failing them, former Trump strategist in chief, Steve Bannon, reportedly on a mission to build a divisive alt-right movement across Europe.

Annie Machon is a former intelligence officer in the UK’s domestic MI5 Security Service.

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34 comments for “Have British Spies Been Hacking the EU?

  1. Oregoncharles
    August 21, 2018 at 15:11

    “, it is plausible that this is the work of the spies,” No, it isn’t; if it were, Westminster would hardly have blown the whistle on them by using the information so publicly.

    And in answer to the title question: Of course, If they aren’t, they’re guilty of unforgivable negligence. And vice-versa, too.,

  2. Ma Laoshi
    August 21, 2018 at 08:10

    As the author also acknowledges with the references to the Belgacom saga: what else is new. It’s not just spying, but outright sabotage of critical European infrastructure, which is one of the factors showing that if you’d ever want the EU to go anywhere, step one is that you’d *want* to throw the Brits out–the London branch of the US Govt will *never* be a loyal European ally. Instead of getting its own act together, the article informs us that the EU “is concerned to retain access to the UK’s defense and security powers post-Brexit”. This goes to show that the problem lies a bit deeper, since ultimately the loyalty of Merkel and Macron is also to the Dark Throne, though perhaps not to the same extent as with Ms. May.

    Anyway, what’s there to argue: in its founding documents, the EU declares that its foreign and security policies will follow those of NATO. In other words, Europeans have declared *themselves* to be incapable of thinking about their place in the world, letting Uncle Sam do this for them instead. Nobody will respect them unless they first learn to respect themselves.

  3. Bill Bucolo
    August 20, 2018 at 13:17

    Let’s hope so, and vice versa. If either side wasn’t they wouldn’t be doing their jobs.

    • August 20, 2018 at 17:56

      You mean fascism’s job.
      If you think they can spy on sovereign nation states what chance does the individual have.

  4. Nop
    August 19, 2018 at 21:38

    What right do EU bureaucrats have to withhold information from a member state? Are they keeping secrets from Paeis and Berlin too? Until it leaves, the UK sjould be given equal access and if they are not, then THAT is the scandal, not anything they have to do to protect their interests.

  5. Nop
    August 19, 2018 at 18:32

    How can the EU bureaucracy be allowed to keep secrets from member governments? The UK is still a member of the EU and until it leaves it has the same rights as Berlin and Paris etc. If the EU is keeping secrets contrary to the interests of a member, that is the scandal, not anything such a government may do to protect itself.

  6. John McCarthy
    August 18, 2018 at 20:24

    By the standards our Congress is applying to Russia, this would be an “Act of War”, now wouldn’t it?

  7. padre
    August 18, 2018 at 12:08

    First thing that comes to mind is, whether there were any Russians involved?

    • Peter
      August 19, 2018 at 15:28

      Of course they were. Britishers never would spy on their “friends”, would they now?. I think that Putin personally did the spying, the man has just too much time on his hands.

  8. JR
    August 18, 2018 at 12:05

    Jeff, you’re wrong! I saw through the RussiaGate farce back in the fall of 2016 when I was living in Vermont, USA & first wrote this piece of satire as “The October Surprise” but couldn’t get it published anywhere even as a letter-to-the-editor in our censorious press, so updated it to in time for the Jan. inauguration though without publication anywhere either:

    “The Red, White & Blue Plush Revolution”
    “The Old York Times missed it but back in October, a Bernie backer in the basement of the Vermont Teddy Bear factory in the village of Shelburne, Vt. confessed to Green Mountain Investigators that she, not Putin! had hacked the DNC emails to reveal that the Democratic National Committee had sabotaged her candidate. Furthermore, she explained that ‘Fancy’ and ‘Cozy Bears’, about which there had been CIA allegation-turned “fact” and much media hysteria regarding their ‘Russian Identification’, are actually two of their most popular plush products. So thanks to all of the free media marketing, the factory geared up and met the demand for a bear in every Vermont Christmas stocking and made enough profit to mail a free baby bear to every Vermont family for the New Year!

    But since Bernie didn’t get it & made the Big Mistake of campaigning for Hillary, Goldie Lock, who was previously best known for her expertise in sewing button eyes on the bears and never suspected of being a hacker, together with her backers at the factory, has called a press conference to declare that ‘It Only Took a Village’ to depose a phony after they demanded that ‘Hillary must go!’ So now they’ve got 4 years behind the scenes of the next DC Reality Show &its mainstream-media-fake-news to restore The American Republic which had been divided & almost conquered by the 1% & its media: The Old York Times, The Bezos Post & the rest of the me-too-media. LET THE RED, WHITE & BLUE REVOLUTION BEGIN!”

    *footnote: I did not vote for Trump, nor Lady Hillary Macbeth!

    • Jeff Harrison
      August 18, 2018 at 14:40

      Weeellll, I sit corrected. Although frankly I think that a teddy bear has many advantages over a several files of code.

  9. August 18, 2018 at 09:57

    The powerful always want more power.
    June 26, 2016
    “Brexit: Are The Serfs Finally Rebelling”?

    The establishment are shocked that the ordinary people want out of the European Union (EU). They just don’t realize that people are fed up being used, abused, dictated to, lied to, manipulated, and forced into an EU dictatorship by treacherous politicians. These are some of the same politicians who scurry to the meetings of the so-called elites in Davos, and also attend Bilderberg meetings. And many of them, when they leave politics, finish up on the boards of banks and multi-national corporations with the rest of the money-manipulating bandits that got bailed out with taxpayers’ dollars, some of whom, I believe, should be in jail….
    [much more info at link below]

  10. Brad Owen
    August 18, 2018 at 09:19

    Have British spies been hacking the EU you ask? Is it not true that spies have been at work in the isles and on the Continent for CENTURIES? I would say it’s an even more important force than the military forces, what with their ability to embroil one enemy in a war with another enemy, thus eliminating two enemies, with just a bagful of money and a few proxy provocateurs. No wonder finance is King, intelligence/covert ops his governing Prime Minister, and over rules the military industrialists and uniformed services and the citizenry and their elected representatives.

  11. john wilson
    August 18, 2018 at 05:35

    Well the EU swallowed the farcical story of the Scripals so I expect anything Mrs May tells them about a leak will be believed. Whatever the EU negotiators have to say about Brexit behind closed doors seems to be irrelevant as sooner or later they will have to put their cards on the table.

    • rosemerry
      August 20, 2018 at 15:11

      I was just thinking that. It is “highly likely” that there is a leak, or a hack, or any other story TerrrorismMay dreams up.

  12. Realist
    August 18, 2018 at 04:19

    International spookery is a lucrative job, if you can get in it. Mental time slip back to the early 60’s. Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” novels had just hit the states as the latest craze and one of my best friends, a Ukrainian fellow, therefore congenitally attracted to the dark side, discovers them and becomes a cult follower, so much so that when he’s kicked out of college for fraud a few years later he becomes involved in international gemstone smuggling under the mentorship of an ex-Nazi uncle ensconced near the Brasil-Argentine border, makes beaucoup lucre, marries a fellow American expat down in Latin America at the height of Iran-Contra shenanigans and eventually returns home a very wealthy man now living out his dotage in the closest thing to a manor house in the exurbs north of Chicago. Truth is every bit as strange as fiction, only dirtier. I have to believe that international skulduggery and its various specialties like espionage, smuggling, hacking, whacking and merking is a growth industry in today’s globalist world. Millennials take note, if you want to pay off those student loans in this lifetime, because I’m sure they will still collect on them in Hades.

    • bbuc
      August 20, 2018 at 13:23

      Love this comment!
      If you are publishing somewhere, Realist, please advise. I want to read it.

      • Realist
        August 21, 2018 at 05:36

        True story. I suppose we all in our lives sometimes encounter people who prefer to “live in the shadows.”

        Another fellow I knew had family connections to the IRA and related the brutal “justice” meted out to those who crossed them. One guy who raped a cousin of theirs did not fare well at all. He was maimed for life before the police scooped up what was left of him. My friend offered to do a Michael Corleone job on my brother-in-law who was beating my sister. I had to decline, of course.

  13. John A
    August 18, 2018 at 04:05

    GCHQ is there to support the establishment and the neocons. If Corbyn were to be elected, they will be in the thick of causing as much trouble as possible for the new government. Gladio springs to mind.

  14. whiteylockmandoubled
    August 17, 2018 at 23:03

    I’m sorry, but on what planet has the EU been “particularly intransigent” on Ireland? The EU has been crystal clear about its interests from the first day of negotiation. The morons leading the UK government have frittered away most of the Article 50 period with pathetic posturing.

    There has to be a non-porous border between the EU and the rest of the world, through which goods and travelers will pass. Full fucking stop. Ireland has been a nearly insoluble question from Day One. Barnier begged May to make a proposal, and she couldn’t, so last December the EU acceded to a complete bullshit temporary agreement so as to give May cover and time to get the Tories’ act together. But the politics of Brexit make it impossible to solve.

    Either there’s a full on border between the North and the Republic, or there’s a border in the Irish Sea, and the western English, Scottish and Welsh ports become the true border. The former demolishes the Good Friday Agreement. The latter effectively separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, which can’t happen because A) The lunatics are part of May’s coalition and B) even if they weren’t the de facto unification implicit in that arrangement would drive the lunatics crazy and threaten sectarian violence, shredding the Good Friday Agreement, lather, rinse, repeat. the idiots in the British press seem to think that joining the customs union solves this problem, when any marginally informed person knows it doesn’t.

    The customs union doesn’t affect food safety regulations or hundreds of other things, not does it obviate the need for immigration controls. May’s unicorn fantasies about “technological borders” have only wasted precious time.

    None of this has anything to do with the EU’s “intransigence.” The EU has to enforce its borders. That was bottom line from Day 1. May wants to have all of the benefits of being in the EU and none of the responsibilities. It’s not going to, and never was going to happen.

    I suggest you shuffle on over to Naked Capitalism and read their archive. You might learn a bit.

    • John A
      August 18, 2018 at 04:04

      You are exactly right. I too wondered what the author could mean by the EU being intransigent on Ireland. Either the Irish Sea is the border, or there is a hard border within Ireland. Anything else is wishful thinking.

    • john wilson
      August 18, 2018 at 05:44

      The EU enforcing its boarders? with the number of immigrants flooding in it seems to me that the EU boarders are anything but secure.

    • rosemerry
      August 20, 2018 at 15:13


  15. August 17, 2018 at 21:23

    Yes we all remember how lapdog Britain helped Bush lie the world int Iraq with lies and are now doing the same with Russia…..What ever happened to the Skripal case?

    Over a million people in Britain demonstrated against an illegal invasion of Iraq by the US and the UK that was justified by what in Britain was called a “dodgy dossier” of “sexed up” intelligence. In other words lies.Seems the UK is at it again.

    • john wilson
      August 18, 2018 at 05:49

      Jean, the latest in the Scripal case gets ever more bizarre. A few days ago the police went to the homes of 12 people who were in the Zizzies restaurant (don’t know if is was staff or members of the public) and took away their clothes for testing. This is a full FIVE MONTHS after the event. I know we British are a scruffy lot, if not down right dirty, but for Christ sake give it rest, even we wash our clothes after five months. The farce continues.

      • August 18, 2018 at 11:11

        john wilson – “the farce continues.” Absolutely. The Skripnal affair in the U.K. and Russiagate here in the U.S. demonstrate the absolute and utter contempt our respective elites have for the intelligence of the populace of each nation. It almost makes one long for the good old days when our intelligence agencies had to at least try to come up with plausible explanations for elite criminal activities: i.e. “the magic bullet (JFK assassination)” :) and “the pancake effect (9/11)” :)

        Ok, ok, maybe they’ve never really given us any real respect as critical thinkers, but I quite agree with you that government propaganda has now reached absolutely farcical levels of idiocy over the last several years and is now completely and utterly detached from any actual “physical reality” on planet earth.

        • August 20, 2018 at 20:17

          “Utter contempt for the intelligence” or “realistic assessment”? The mechanisms of acceptance of lies even after exposure of gigantic lies has a number of sociological and psychological reasons.

          For example, when you drive you must have some confidence that people on the opposite lane will not suddenly swerve and hit you. This happens but rarely, and expecting it all the time would paralyze you and you could not drive. Similarly, it may be psychologically debilitating not to trust the government, so people build rationalization to the effect that “we have sound institutions and the government would not lie unless it is for our benefit and they know better than us”. Thus the trust, even if not warranted on the basis of logic and public knowledge should be given because the deviations from truth, when they happen, are for the good cause. E.g. “even if Syrian/Russian/whatever government is not responsible for atrocity X, they are despicable ANYWAY so it makes no harm to behave if we totally believe”. Then avoidance of cognitive dissonance (a) simplifies it to “trust” (b) causes irritation whenever one is confronted to the contrary arguments.

        • August 20, 2018 at 20:40

          Given “farcical levels of idiocy” that you have observed, I would be weary to believe that Kennedy assassination and the destruction of WTC were performed by a diabolical conspiracy of the deep state. One has to ask: how complex would it be to execute “black flag” in this case? In the first case, having another sharpshooter or two in the area of assassination would be modestly difficult, so I classify it as “who knows”. In the second case, the logistic and engineering challenges would be enormous, placing many tons of fuel or explosives without the thousands of people working in those buildings noticing something and in a way that subsequently matches perfectly the official scenario seems far from intellectual capacity of the putative plotters. In the case of Novichok poisoning, a single person could acquire several milligrams of poison from the nearby facility (or a faraway facility), mix with something and spray on the victims, few weeks later on the door handle and drop the bottle somewhere.

          One may speculate that during the peak of Cold War, “deep state” could attract some of the best and brightest, and nowadays such super smart people would rather work for hedge funds, biotech, etc.

      • August 18, 2018 at 14:25


        How desperate are they?

        How is the Steele dossier and Professor Stefan Halper playing there?Just curiosity

      • rosemerry
        August 20, 2018 at 15:18

        Seeing the “interview” with Yulia Skripal a few days ago I wondered
        1. how she could be the only person in the world unaware of the assumption of guilt of her country, where she wants to return
        2.how PM May or her successor can ever let her or her father ever speak or write on the whole episode in their whole lives. The story would have to come out.

        • August 20, 2018 at 18:05

          Says it all…….She wants to get out of the country that tried to kill her…..Not Russia.I would fear for my life in the UK.

  16. mike k
    August 17, 2018 at 21:11

    We live in a world where the higher you go in the halls of power, the more treachery of every kind is the common currency. In a world based on “anything goes” this is the inevitable consequence. Those who expect fairness and honesty become victims of those whose philosophy is the most ruthless. How to restore trust in a world gone over to lies and deception is the difficult task we face, if we are to survive the machinations of the worst among us who have seized power.

  17. Jeff Harrison
    August 17, 2018 at 20:26

    No. No. No. You simply cannot have hacking and vote meddling without cozy bear and fuzzy bear (who aren’t people at all but rather a set of hacking tools) and the Russians being the guilty and responsible party. Anything else will lack street cred and label you as an unserious person. I’d suggest you go back and find the Russian connection. It shouldn’t be hard. Remember, proof isn’t required.

    • michael
      August 19, 2018 at 14:41

      The Russians were also probably behind Chinagate 20 years ago when the Clintons gave away permanent free trade status, advanced military technology and offshored American jobs to Communist China in exchange for campaign donations (which were repaid AFTER the Election). Otherwise the Democrats would surely have been shrieking “Treason!” and wrapping themselves in the Flag, like today for minor offenses by the hated Trump.

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