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Paul Abels | Dutch Intelligence History and Present | Intelligence & Interview N.27 | Dr Giangiuseppe Pili

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As our readers know, one of the missions of Intelligence & Interview is to bolster the debate on intelligence and security services all around the world. This is particularly true in Europe, in which we are inside the same community, but there is still no unified intelligence. For this simple reason, I believe it would be imperative to know more about each country and each institutional and historical experience. The diversity of European history should be a strength in a world in which the challenges are so global, whether we like it or not. Since I started studying philosophy during secondary school, I had the chance to dive into the Dutch philosophers, historians, and Dutch history. Since then, I deeply appreciated such a great country, which was and is at the forefront of all human thought, science, and art. (And they had always had great chess players as well!) For this reason, moving to the present, I had the pleasure to discover how different European intelligence services are, and this interview will bring you to a better understanding of Dutch intelligence directly from a practitioner with a scientific background. Paul Abels is Professor by special appointment in Governance of Intelligence and Security Services at Leiden University. It is a real honor for me. Without further ados, it is then with my distinct pleasure to publish the interview on Scuola Filosofica – for those who don’t know it yet; it is one of the leading cultural blogs in Italy. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Giangiuseppe Pili, Paul: thank you!

1. Professor Paul Abels, let’s start from the basics. How would you like to present yourself to the International readers and Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?

I am what you could call a practitioner with scientific background and affinity. I studied history, wrote a PhD on ‘radical reformation in the 16th century’, worked as a journalist and during the last 37 years first as an intelligence producer at the Dutch Intelligence and Security Service and after that as an intelligence consumer, being head of the analysis department of the office of the National Coordinator on Counter-Terrorism and Security (NCTV). In 2017 I became a policy adviser in the same office and started for one day a week as a special professor on the subject of Governance of Intelligence and Security Services at the University of Leiden.

2. What is the current structure of the Dutch intelligence community?

In the Netherlands, we have two combined Intelligence and Security Services, one for the military field and one for the civil domain (MIVD and AIVD). This means that in both cases foreign intelligence and internal security work is combined in one organization. Furthermore, there is a strict separation in the Netherlands between prosecution and intelligence. Our services don’t have any executive powers. Both AIVD and MIVD, work under the same law, which was approved by Dutch parliament in 2018, although a small majority rejected the law in a referendum. Especially the possibilities for the services to use mass surveillance were criticized. In order to gain the trust of society, two independent oversight committees were installed, that have full access to all data they want. A first evaluation of this law has just been completed and will be send to parliament, together with a reaction of the government.

3. Let’s come to history. What are the main steps that shaped the Dutch intelligence history?

You can distinguish two main episodes in the history of the Dutch services. Like most of the Western European services their roots are in the Second World War and people who were active in the resistance build the first services after the war ended. Soon after they got rid of the old nazi-enemy and their collaborators, the communist threat became the new and exclusive focus. In the seventies, society changed rapidly and the need for a security service was more and more questioned. Terrorism was a relatively new phenomenon and only accepted with reluctance as a new task. The services in the Netherlands kept sticking to the old priorities. Only at the end of the eighties, but before the fall of the Berlin Wall, politicians in the Netherlands realized that a fundamental change was needed, either to prepare the services for the future or to abolish them (as they ultimately did with our foreign intelligence service). Especially the civil service needed a fundamental change and it was intelligence leader Arthur Docters van Leeuwen who changed the organization from a threat-oriented service into an interests- or consumer-oriented service. He also put an end to needless compartmentalization within the service and created multi-disciplinary teams. Due to these changes, the Dutch services since then play an active – and also a relatively open – role in warning society of threats to national security. It is significant in this respect that no one questioned the need for the services anymore, even in the debates surrounding the referendum.

4. Thanks to another Intelligence & Interview publication, our readers learned the differences between British and French approaches to intelligence inside the African colonies. Did the colonial Netherlands’ involvement shape the intelligence culture? What was the Dutch approach to intelligence overseas?

The only concrete heritage of the colonial period within the services – that were established only after World War II – were a lot of employees with an Indonesian background who had been loyal to the Dutch government and therefore came to the Netherlands after the independence of Indonesia. Due to the long Dutch colonial past in the East Indies, the Dutch services were in the international intelligence community considered as experts in this area and often consulted. The same is mutatis mutandis the case for Surinam that became independent in 1975. After our separate foreign intelligence service (IDB) was abolished in 1994, the government soon discovered that a modern state could not function without ears and eyes abroad. They decided not to create a separate foreign intelligence service again but to task the existing military and civil service with intelligence gathering abroad also and so creating combined services in 2002.

5. Was WWI a major moment for the Dutch intelligence as it was for many other countries? And what about WWII?

The Dutch stayed neutral during WWI and they had no serious security or intelligence apparatus in those days. Even in WWII they hadn’t hardly any professional intelligence structures. The notion that this shouldn’t happen again, was one of the main drivers to create intelligence and security services.

6. The Cold War definitely shaped all Western European history. This must be the case for the Netherlands too. How would you describe the Netherlands’ involvement in the Cold War?

The civil Dutch security service, established in 1945, was shaped after the British example. But the influence of the Americans was bigger. They paid for equipment and human capacity and were actively involved in a lot of operations. The Dutch services showed them close allies of the Americans and of NATO in the Cold War and had a good reputation due to some spectacular operational successes. For instance, the establishment of a pro-Maoist political party in the Netherlands by the service, created access to the communist leadership in both China and Albania that no other western service had.

7. Let’s come to the present. First, there is a “Dutch intelligence community”? What is the current mission? Is it more devolved to the foreign intelligence or counterintelligence and counterterrorism?

We are just in the middle of new paradigm shifts. Only today (3rd of February) the two services, together with the National Coordinator on Counter-Terrorism and National Security, presented to parliament and the media a threat analyses on so-called State Threats. This shows that counter-terrorism isn’t the all-dominant threat anymore, and that counter-intelligence is becoming more and more important again.

8. NATO headquarters is very close to the Netherlands. Does this geographical proximity give any advantage from an intelligence collection and analysis perspective?

I don’t think in these days of modern communication the geographical proximity plays a role of importance anymore in this respect.

9. According to you, are we ready for more integrated intelligence sharing in the EU? Is this a plausible direction in the intelligence sphere or, instead, it is just a remote, and maybe not entirely desirable, possibility?

When I see the current ‘Covid-nationalism’ these days, you realize that in a world that is so related to own national interests as intelligence is, integrated intelligence sharing is a nice dream not to come true in the foreseeable future. Only where there are real common interests, intelligence sharing happened and will happen, but mostly bilateral, because multilateral sharing has too many risks.

10. How can our readers follow you?

I work for the Institute for Security and Global Affairs of Leiden University or Twitter @intellprof

11. Five keywords that represent you?

Practitioner, News animal, Historian, Follower oriented leadership, Family man

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