NEWS

Spy scandal strikes EU

The European Union yesterday condemned the discovery of illicit phone taps at the EU’s Brussels headquarters, on the eve of a summit clouded by huge rifts over Iraq. The mystery bugging system targeted the offices of half a dozen delegations, including France, Germany and Britain, diplomats said, while issuing a pointed rebuff to whoever was behind the taps. Senior officials denied a report that investigators had concluded that the United States was behind the phone taps, saying a probe has not yet determined who planted them. «The first thing I can do is to condemn this act,» said Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, representing EU president Greece. «We will be waiting for the results,» he said, adding, «To all those who feel that it is necessary to tap our phones, we say that Europe is a very transparent organization. They are welcome to use our website. They shouldn’t go to such lengths to try to find out information.» EU security services found the taps on lines between the switchboard of the Council building, where meetings of EU ministers and leaders are held, and delegation rooms. According to the French daily Le Figaro, Belgian police have identified «Americans» as those responsible. But Belgian police declined any further comment. EU officials agreed. «The investigation has only just started and we know nothing yet about who has benefited from this crime,» said Dominique-Georges Marro, head of the Council’s press service. «I deny that we have identified whoever was responsible, whether it was the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese or whoever. We have launched an investigation,» said a Council official. «We are still investigating but it seems it was pretty professional,» he said. A spokesman for the US mission to the EU declined to comment on the report. «We are aware of the press reports. We have received no communication from the EU about this investigation,» he said. French European Affairs Minister Noelle Lenoir, attending a ministerial meeting ahead of the EU summit, said she was «very shocked» by the discovery. France and Germany have been in a fierce standoff over the looming war on Iraq, notably with EU members Britain and Spain who support the US threat of conflict. Marro said the bugging systems were found «in the past few days» during regular inspections by security services. «Attempts had previously been made but this is the first time that we have found a system already in place,» he said. A British delegation spokesman confirmed that London’s offices were among «about half a dozen» countries targeted. «We are obviously very concerned about this. We’ve offered whatever help we can,» said the spokesman. He echoed EU officials’ denial of a newspaper report that US agents were behind the intercepts. «It’s incorrect to make that particular allegation,» he said, referring to a report in Le Figaro. The bugging system was apparently put in place via the Council’s switchboard to monitor telephone lines to rooms used by delegations inside the building. EU political leaders and their civil servants meet in such rooms on the sidelines of ministerial meetings and summits. An official said there were no military offices in the building. Christina Gallach, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, confirmed the phone taps but denied that an investigation had determined specifically who was responsible. «Rumors about the specific origin of this situation are absolutely untrue. This is a very limited case and it is fully under investigation,» she said.