NSA and the Netherlands: Spy vs. ‘Spy’

The Atlantic Alliance has been through many upheavals in its 65-odd years. Since June this year the revelations from Edward Snowden on the communications surveillance practices of the National Security Agency have placed the whole idea of ‘alliance’ in a new light. PRISM, XKeyscore, Special Collection Service. Merkel’s mobile. US embassies revealed as data-gathering vacuum-cleaners. Germany and France lining up against the US to demand that it back off.

NSA and the Netherlands
Nothing going on in the Netherlands though. Walk along people! Nothing to see!

The NSA and the Netherlands?

Last weekend the NRC produced the first items from Edward Snowden concerning NSA data-collection from Dutch communication channels. The Netherlands has been on the NSA list for “targeting, collecting, or processing” of its communications since 1946, with an uncertain end date (the stated ’1968′ is almost certainly too early). Outrage from expected quarters (PvdA, SP, D 66), while the government remained calm, and others such as the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies’ Rob de Wijk remained “completely unimpressed”. Indonesia, New Guinea – of course the Americans listened in. More revelations from Snowden’s database are definitely on the way.

Kennedy getting the low-down from Prince Bernhard on New Guinea.  

There are two sides to this story, which has been brewing for a while. The first is the predictable, critical one.

NSA and the Netherlands: Cozying up to Uncle Sam

The Rutte government has consistently refused to criticize the American eavesdropping, instead hiding behind the EU and staying clear of Hollande and Merkel. In mid-October Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk even said in parliament that he did not mind NSA surveillance of Dutch citizens because “they could also be fanatical terrorists.” He tried to deny this the next day via Twitter, but instead came out with a contradictory “The US is not allowed to spy on Dutch citizens, but if they discover terrorists here then a signal is welcome” (another example of why ministers should stay away from Twitter). Less than a week later, after Tweakers revealed that metadata from 1.8m Dutch phone calls in December 2012 – January 2013 had been collected by the NSA, Plasterk was tougher – the US was using double standards, since it was easier for them to collect data on non-Americans that Americans. He claimed to be in regular contact with NSA chief Keith Alexander about this. Parliament, unimpressed, first called on the CTIVD to investigate AIVD and MIVD activities concerning the exchange of information with foreign services (report expected in January), and then followed the Germans and voted in favour of Alexander Pechtold’s D66 motion for a ‘no-spy treaty‘ in early November. Even Rutte seems in favour, but he remains tight-lipped on the whole affair.

NSA and the Netherlands
“You can wiretap us this much Mr. President”

In short, a poor show. The government seems mildly upset about possible NSA activities in the Netherlands, no more than that. But then there is the other, more interesting side to the story.

NSA and the Netherlands: the AIVD

For the past few years the AIVD, the Dutch intelligence service, has taken every opportunity to highlight the snooping of foreign intelligence agencies on Dutch soil, with special reference to the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians. All of a sudden it looked like the Americans should also be on the list – how much did the AIVD know? Or were they not part of the show themselves? Plasterk informed parliament in late October that any attempt to gather information in the Netherlands by a foreign service must go via the AIVD to stay within the law. On the same day the news broke that while US embassies were used as locations for the NSA’s Special Collection Service, this did not include The Hague (or Brussels). The report tellingly remarks that either there was no interest, or “the Americans have access to telephone traffic in another way.”

This is the clue. Another look at the news items over the past five months starts to reveal a different pattern. Already in early July an NRC report included several salient details:

1) The Netherlands is the location of the Amsterdam Information Exchange (AMS-IX), the second-largest transit point for international internet traffic. A perfect site for ‘tapping’ information. In September the Pirate Party’s Dirk Poot added that AMS-IX is going to open an affiliate in the US, placing the system under the regulations of the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA): “Unless AMS-IX has a watertight legal defense, the chance is therefore large that the NSA will pretty soon have easy access to the Dutch and European internet traffic that travels via AMS-IX.” Interesting decision – while countries like Brazil are looking to bypass the US as the central node for global internet traffic, the Netherlands looks to burrow in deeper.

2) The undersea internet cable by Katwijk is a vital communications channel and of potentially great interest to the NSA.

NSA and the Netherlands
Something of interest in Katwijk, that’s newsworthy by itself.

3) The Ministry of Defence has contracted the Israeli firm NICE Systems for communications surveillance, to the tune of 17m Euro.

4) The Netherlands is the base for the SWIFT data system for international banking transactions, which in 2006 was revealed to be tracked by the CIA.

To this list can be added the news from September that the MIVD and AIVD are establishing a new apparatus,  the Joint SIGINT Cyber Unit. Previously known as Project Symbolon, it will be operational in 2014. This despite the fact that the legal basis for the Unit does not yet exist, because the WIV (Intelligence and Security Law) of 2002 does not sanction the extraction of information from “cable-based telecommunications.” The CTIVD apparently knew this was coming for two years, but failed to inform parliament.


What to draw from all this?

The (unsurprising) conclusion that the Netherlands, thanks to its infrastructure and long Cold War history of (intelligence) cooperation with the US, is (almost) part of the inner circle when it comes to the US-orientated global surveillance networks. The policy of the Dutch government is to maintain that position as far as possible. This continues to be a cornerstone of Dutch security policy. The mild response to the NSA revelations from the political leadership is at least more honest, in this respect, than the flapping around of the Germans and the French.

The NRC, eager to follow up its earlier Wikileaks scoops as the paper of choice for Snowden security leaks, ran another story last weekend on how the Dutch mission to Uruzgan from 2006-2011 – and the provision of communication data by the MIVD’s surveillance base at Eibergen – resulted in the Netherlands entering the sublime world of  the ‘Five Eyes’ inner circle. The morale of the story – as all security commentators have been saying since the AIVD budget came under threat – is that if you have nothing to trade, you are worthless in the world of intelligence. The Uruzgan story is only further confirmation that the Dutch services – and the Dutch government – strive to maintain as effective a working relationship as possible with their American counterparts. Even the NRC journalists, wanting to generate scandal (and so sell papers), seemed to admit this at the end of their article.

Its business as usual, guys.

It also puts the recent demands for Dutch participation in international security missions in a slightly new light.

Mali or bust, I reckon.


  1. It’s also the VVD and the JSF. The Dutch don’t dare say anything against the USA. Good article, really gained some insight in the relationship and spying between the two countries, good movie with Bernhard and Kennedy too!

    • Hi John, I have written several pieces on the JSF over on the Holland Bureau – that is one very interesting story (and it will be with us still for a long time!)

  2. Excuse me? ‘Something of interest in Katwijk, that’s newsworthy by itself’…No, you didn’t just say that! A professor stating something like that…well, well, aren’t you a big boy! It is probably meant as a funny statement, and maybe for many it is, but you are also hurting people’s feeling by stating this…but I guess that is unimportant to you. Oh well, you are only teaching students and don’t have a role model function. Oh wait…you do!

    • Oh, get over yourself, Ramona. It’s just a joke. There are more important things in this article to worry about, like the fact that the NSA now knows how you feel about Katwijk-jokes.

    • Hi Ramona, nothing wrong with Katwijk. I live in Middelburg and we definitely don’t have anything like as cool as a major undersea cable. So think yourself lucky!

  3. Very interesting! When giving up your privacy, it at least sounds better that you’re doing so because you’re part of a cool spying club than the alternative, that is you are too unimportant to make a fuss about it (I think….)

  4. […] access to cable-bound communications for some time. The ambition to legislate for cable tapping was already apparent in 2013 with the Dessens Report, reviewing the intelligence legislation, aka the 2002 […]


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