EU: Parliamentary questions in Germany reveal further information on European police project aimed at enhancing covert investigative techniques (1)

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08.11.2012 - Further information has been made public on the EU-funded project International Specialist Law Enforcement (ISLE), the existence of which was revealed in August by Statewatch.

The participants, information on meetings, and the potential future of the project have all come to light following information, made public in September by the German government, following the submission of a number of questions by deputies of the party Die Linke.

In the words of Andrej Hunko, one of the Bundestag deputies who put his name to the questions, the project is "designed to help police officers exchange and communicate information on secretly gaining access to rooms, vehicles and electronic devices… Police officers can use surveillance technologies like microphones, cameras and Trojans to listen in on private conversations."

Official project documents use rather different terminology. They state that the project is aimed at increasing coordination and cooperation amongst EU law enforcement authorities using "specialist techniques" such as "covert entry into premises or vehicles and the facilitation of covert searches of property, covert forensic capabilities and covertly installed technical devices." [1]

EU funds

On the back of €115,614 provided by the European Commission's 'Prevention of and Fight against Crime' fund, Project ISLE ran from March 2010 to March 2012, although cooperation between the participants has continued beyond the funding period.

Originally in charge was the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), an "Executive Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) of the Home Office" [2] which superceded the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad. It is soon to be replaced by a new "FBI-style" National Crime Agency. [3] Questions to the agency have yielded few substantive answers, and its secrecy is aided by the fact that it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Alongside SOCA were two other lead partners - Germany's Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) and Belgium's Commissioner-General's Office - Directorate of Special Units (CGSU), while the answers of the German government show that the Interior Ministries and police or security services of ten other EU Member States were involved, as well as Norway:

- Austria - Federal Ministry of the Interior
- Czech Republic - Czech Police
- Finland - National Bureau of Investigation
- France - GiGN Gendarmerie
- Hungary - Special Service for National Security
- Ireland - An Garda Siochana
- Italy - ROS Carabinieri
- Netherlands - Korps Landelijke Politie Diensten
- Norway - Oslo Police District
- Slovenia - Criminal Police Directorate
- Spain - Spanish National Police

Two group seminars were held in the UK, in September 2010 and October 2011, although beyond the general aims of the group, what was discussed at these meetings remains shrouded in mystery. A representative of SOCA told Statewatch that the agency "doesn't disclose details of individual meetings."

Information obtained from Europol, however, makes clear that over the project's two-year timespan, "the project partners conducted bilateral meetings with all participants and Europol (at their respective HQ)."

Europol provided direct support for the project, setting up "the platform and the technical requirements for secure communications between the project participants." The German government says that "it is not known at present if other EU institutions are involved."

Ongoing cooperation

EU funding for the project may have ended, but a third conference of the participants was held at Europol's headquarters in The Hague this October, and the German government's answers to Die Linke's questions state that:

"during a second phase, the network formed under the project will explore solutions and methods for bypassing the technically complex security systems encountered in practical police work."

Despite stating that "the exchange of technical information will continue," so far "there have been no suggestions as to how this should be organised and structured," and according to Hunko, the German government "does not know whether this informal association will be assigned to an EU institution."

According to a spokesperson for SOCA, "at this time the project still operates under the 2009 Terms of Reference," although documents outlining new terms "for the establishment of a long-term program and its administration" were supposed to be agreed at the 2011 conference in the UK, with "subsequent annual seminars… administered by a different MS each year." [4]

Human rights

The activities with which Project ISLE is concerned - covert entry and surveillance of people and property - are all highly intrusive, and according to a preparatory document "are strictly controlled in the EU by legislation relating to the protection of human rights." [5]

The German government says that "respect for human rights is one of the eligibility criteria for EU assistance. All participants in a project must confirm their commitment to human rights." The details of how this commitment is confirmed remain unknown.

Statewatch asked SOCA what procedures the ISLE workgroup used to ensure that participating organisations were aware of and are able to meet their human rights obligations, to which the agency responded: "All members work to the European Convention on Human Rights and all members' legislation is compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights."

SOCA has in the past been criticised in court for the actions of its officers in dealing with covert surveillance. During a 2006 drugs investigation, having authorised the bugging of a suspected drug dealer's car, the senior investigating officer in the case instructed that no record be kept of the observations made, a decision "open to severe censure and… a clear breach of the applicable code of practice."

Despite this, the judge was "satisfied that there was no conspiracy or dishonesty among police officers on the question." [6]

"No directly linked activity" with other police networks

A number of transnational police networks and organisations have come to light in recent years, such as the Cross-Border Surveillance Working Group, the Remote Forensic Software User Group, the International Working Group on Undercover Policing, and the European Cooperation Group on Undercover Activities. [7]

Unlike these groups, however, the intention for ISLE was that:

"right from the start… the project, if it happened, would be funded by the EU. Specific preparations for the project only began once applications for assistance under the relevant EU programme had been invited."

When asked if Project ISLE worked with any other police groups concerned with clandestine and covert activity, the German government responded firmly: "There were no links to other cross-border police forces so the project does not build on any such links." The response of SOCA to the same question was that "there is no directly linked activity with such groups."

Whether any informal, indirect links exist between European police forces' collaborative projects - for example through the personal connections of those participating - remains to be seen.

Previous coverage
'Another secretive European police working group revealed as governments remain tight-lipped on other police networks and the activities of Mark Kennedy', Statewatch News Online, 23 August 2012

[1] 'International Specialist Law Enforcement', Document 2, 2009
[2] SOCA, 'How we are run'
[3] 'All-seeing, all'knowing: the proposal for a National Crime Agency in the UK', Statewatch News Online, June 2011
[4] 'International Specialist Law Enforcement', Document 1, 2009
[5] Ibid.
[6] 'Application nos. 46559/06 and 22921/06 by Russell KNAGGS and Ramzy Khachik against the United Kingdom', European Court of Human Rights, 30 August 2011
[7] See 'Another secretive European police working group revealed' for more information on these groups.

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