Spying the spies...

Dutch control on Secret services
by gathering information to disclose secret activities.

Published in Hungary and Romania, autumn 1991

The recent changes in the former Eastern European Countries have rather bluntly put the spotlights on the inherents of the Cold War in the West.

The domestic intelligence services, most countries in Western Europe are blessed with it. For instance the Netherlands, a small country near the sea bordered by Germany and Belgium. The Dutch, proud of their democratic history, have the pleasure of having the 'Binnenlandse Veiligheids Dienst', the BVD (National Security Service). After the decease of the Communist Enemy, the BVD hurried to defend their right to exist. In order to proove there's still work to be done, they came out in the open.
The question is how the activities of a Secret Service can be controlled publicly. Or is this contradiction impassable? It seems to depend on the amount of pressure on the Parliament.

Public control.

Until very recent the existence of the BVD was based on a Secret Royal Order, replaced by a Royal Order in 1972. Since then the gouvernment has worked on a Law on the Secret Services, which was accepted by the Parliament to come into force in February 1988. The main concern of the gourvernment was to make a law that would not endanger the effective actions of the Service, they had to be able to procede as usual. Although the parliament stressed the demand of democratic control, the law only provides in a commission of chairmen of the four major parties on a basis of secrecy. Unfortunately these chairmen are no specialists on the subject, besides they are among the most occupied people in parliament. The commission only gathers a few times a year, irregulary, mainly forced by public scandals. Nevertheless they bear all responsability on controlling the Minister of Home Affairs and the Head of the BVD. This commission offers a well used escape route to avoid critics. Public complaints about the Secret Service or questions in parliament are almost always put aside, or postponed to the next commission meeting, because giving details could reveil 'stratigic information.'

Defining the enemy.

Furthermore the democratic control of the Service is being complicated because the Law is not exactly detailed in job description. On the contrary. Beside the more or less excepted tasks of the Secret Service like protecting the country from espionage by foreign enemies or screening people who have to work with confidential information, the BVD has to deal with internal threaths. Their major task according to the law: "The collecting of information about individuals or organisations, who by their goals or activities give reason to believe they could endanger the democratic legal order, or State security or other important interests of the State."

The concepts used remain indefined and thus tend to be extended by the Minister according to the specific need of the circumstances. Specially the term "important interests of the State" is favourite for covering up BVD activities towards the 'enemy within': anything could be dangerous.

Another difficult issue is the BVD doing police work. The BVD was never given the authority to do police investigations. To avoid the risk of founding a political policeforce like the Gestapo in World War II, intelligence agents have to stick to gathering intelligence. They are for instance not allowed to carry a gun, or to make arrests. BVD investigation is not restricted by Justice control. The Court doesn't accept BVD information as legal evidence, because the way it has been gathered cannot be controlled, unlike police evidence. Of the record the BVD knows how to sneak their information into police files whenever they think it is usefull. Besides, the BVD has local policemen working for them to inform them about their premisses. The legal status of these policemen has never been very clear, as they work for the Intelligence and for the Police in turn or at the same time. So, in fact we have had political police for a long time.


The recent storms in the former Eastern Bloc countries, resulted in a wind of change even within the Dutch Secret Service. The official word is that the need for classical espionage is diminishing now the communist threath has past away. Perestroika rules! To reassure the public of their continuing right to exist the BVD decided to act as a modern capitalist company. An external organisation-agency was asked to make a report on the structures of the BVD. Their conclusions would have been disasterous for any company on the free market, but the BVD kept up the confident attitude. An extensive reorganisation plan was presented to the parliament last autumn: the structure of the Company was to be changed drasticly, new directors would replace the veterans and one out of every six of the present employees would be thrown out. The BVD declared that now the time was right for a more business-like approach, the Service will respond to the demands of their clients. Along with this new wave of openness the BVD went onto a media offensive to explain their newest view on society. Newspapers were allowed interviews and for the first time in history a television- team was invited into the catacombs. To confirm the public that espionage was still going on, the BVD opened files and even produced a secret videotape of a secret meeting between a soviet agent and his informer.
To disprove their preoccupation with the extreme left, we were showed the evidence of the BVD working on a certain Dutch group on the extreme right.
The reporters asked no critical questions at all, their report was the perfect commercial spot to support the idea of the indispensability of secret services. For this they were severely critized by every independent newspaper and the other broadcasting stations.
The Minister of Home Affairs nevertheless put an imidiate stop the 'new openness' of the BVD and told them to be as silent as they had always been before.


One of the most important proposal the BVD made, was to destroy one third of the dossiers they kept since the end of the second World War. The destruction of so much material of great political and historical interest caused a wave of protest in the press and the parliament. Civilians bundled their concern in an organisation to prevent the immediate destruction of the dossiers. They demand the right for inspection for every person who's in the files and for historians who want to study the work of secret agents in the recent past.
The minister of Home Affairs tried to evade this critisism by postponing her definitive approval of the destruction for two years.

Radical control

Some critical citizens have their own opinion on this 'new opinness' at the BVD head-quarters.

For instance, the anonimous authors of "The Tragedy of a Secret Service", a book on the local secret service in Nijmegen, a provincial town near the German border. They state serious discussion about a secret service is impossible without knowledge of the methods and routines of the Service. To make their own contribution they published a detailed report on the whereabouts of the Nijmegen political police, working for the BVD. This local force is pretty famous for putting their nose into the affairs of local studentorganisations, the peacemovement and housing-activists in the squattersmovement.
Now, for a change, the spies were being spied. The book contains the names and photographs of the agents working for this local BVD, descriptions of their cars, of safe-houses and private addresses. By following them around several infiltrators were exposed, one of them was an older man who had been active in the peace movement and working for the secret service for almost ten years in progress.

The Dutch gouvernment has always denied being interested in the peace movement as such. The pacifist protest against nucleair arms has been very populair in Holland until recent. The majority of the people, even the parliament and the gouvernment were proud of the famous 'Hollanditis', the pacifist illness that was so connected with democratic values and the right to demonstrate. Attention of the Secret Service directly opposes this sense of freedom, as if the peace movement were considered a threath to statepower.

The disclosure of once again an informer who had been collecting information about any possible group of pacifist activists he had acces to, made the denial of the Minister of Home Affairs almost ridiculous.

The police of Nijmegen and the BVD were furious about the book, although they officially kept the statement that they were 'not amused'. As the authors had not revealed their names it was impossible to prosecute them, besides nothing illegal could be found to charge them. The policemen involved decided to blame the messenger by sueing the distributor, the small publish-house Ravijn (Ravine) for violating their privacy. Ravijn welcomed the lawsuit because it meant free publicity, the book had three reprints within a month. By the time Ravijn was forced to stop spreading the book, another distributor offered to take over. And they were never charged.
The political police of Nijmegen was unable to continue their work for severval months and went through a serieus reorganisation.

The internal enemy

The Nijmegen revelations and the demasking of the peace movement- spy confirm the conclusions drawn by police-investigators Jansen & Janssen who point out that the BVD would rather be vetting the entire movement of activists and demonstrators left from the socialdemocratic labourparty in Holland. This research bureau collected 59 attempts to recrute informants among activists. Analysing these conversations with the representants of the secret service outlined the fields of interests of the BVD. The results were published by Ravijn in the book 'Regenjassendemokratie' ('Raincoat-democracy', security-peoples way of dressing is universal). It appears that the BVD is not exclusively interested in those who could be throwing bombs or others who may be a serious threath to the "existing democratic legal order" or "important interests of the State", as they are supposed to be. On the contrary. Anyone who has ever been polically active in some way or another, or anyone who knows people of such kind, is bound to be an object of state-attention. Furthermore the BVD is open for any kind of 'soft' information, like contacts, friendships, (ab)use of alcohol, the interiors of certain caf's or other meetingpoints, in short information way beyond the limits of the private live.
And, speaking with the minister of Internal Affairs: The BVD is not collecting information to put it on a shelve.
The book also reveals several occasions in which the prosecuter used BVD-information, presented as police evidence. For instance to charge activists for being member of a 'criminal organisation', this is a favourite accusation in case of streetriots when the exact involvement of each individual person cannot be proved.
The BVD started changing a long time ago, so it seems, the focus is being put upon the internal enemy and Perestroika is being used to get public approval.

These two books certainly had their influence on the public discussion on the future usefullness of the Secret Service, because they were published at the very moment the BVD came out with the reorganisationplan mentioned above.

Running after the refugee

The latest BVD-discussion concerns the interference of the Intelligence Service with foreigners who request for politcal asylum in the Netherlands. In many cities the Aliens Branch is very closely connected with the local intelligence service, often it's the same officers having a dual task. So the BVD has direct access to information on the personal and political past of those who requested asylum. This knowledge is being used to pick out the perfect moment to recrute aliens as an informer for the Service. By using inside police-information the BVD tries to get into the personal life of the refugee to persuade him by offering money, subscription or even concrete help, a Dutch passport of a refugee permit. The refugee is being put under pressure, and the dual task of the policeman can be very confusing. Refugees will sometimes hand over information to the BVD thinking the Alien Branch will need this to arrange the residence permit. The BVD is using this weak position to win informants.

With the unification of Europe coming up, secret services tend to seek more systematic cooperation with their counterparts in other countries. In order to defend the European strongholds against an overflow of undesirable aliens intelligence services now join in supranational toplevel conferences without the disturbances of democratic control.
On both sides of the borders of the extended Europe, refugees, political dissidents and other brave citizens will be hold back from going where they want to go.
In order to improve demoncratic control on secret services anywhere, offensive and original initiatives of citizens could help to prevent morbid growth of secret powers.
Keep moving!