Listening devices found at EU offices

Bugging operation apparently targeted 5 of 15 member nations

March 20, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS - The European Union has uncovered a bugging operation aimed at five of its 15 member countries, the organization said yesterday.

Listening devices were found late last month in a headquarters building in central Brussels that houses the offices of the French, German, British, Austrian and Spanish delegations, officials said.

"This equipment, which is assumed to be of hostile intent, is currently being examined in order to determine whether it may have resulted in breaches of privacy or possible damage," a European Union statement said. "A full investigation is under way in cooperation with the member states involved."

The disclosure came on the eve of a two-day summit of the European Union, which has been torn apart by differences over the American stance on Iraq.

The sprawling glass-and-marble Justus Lipsius building, where the listening devices were found, opened in 1995 and is used for high-level meetings. It also houses the secretariat of the EU's council of ministers.

The EU had hoped to keep the investigation secret, at least until it was completed, but the findings were disclosed yesterday by the French newspaper Le Figaro. The newspaper quoted Belgian police as identifying the devices as American, but the Belgian police declined to comment on the report. EU officials said they could not confirm the origin of the devices.

"At this point, we cannot say who planted these bugs," said Cristina Gallach, a spokeswoman for Javier Solana, the EU's high representative for foreign and security policy.

The devices were uncovered in a routine sweep by EU security services. According to the group's statement, officials discovered an "anomaly in an internal telephone line" and detected the presence of "an unknown electronic device linked to the telephone system."

"A small number of similar devices were found immediately afterwards in other locations in the building," it said.

This is the first time in the building's history that a spy operation has been uncovered, officials said, and the devices could have been in place for some time, perhaps years. No devices were found on the phones at the organization's sensitive military wing in the same building, Gallach said.

A spokesman for the U.S. mission to the European Union, Ed Kemp, said the mission had "received no communication about the investigation from the EU."

EU officials reacted to yesterday's disclosure with shock and anger. "The first thing I can do is to condemn this act," said Foreign Minister George Papandreou of Greece, whose country holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency.

"To all those who feel that it is necessary to tap our phones, we say that Europe is a very transparent organization" and that no one should "go to such lengths to try to find out information." He vowed that "appropriate measures" would be taken against those responsible.

In Paris, Francois Baroin, a parliamentary deputy and a spokesman for President Jacques Chirac's party, UMP, said he was "surprised, very astonished and profoundly shocked" by the discovery.

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