How to get them, how to run away from them and what is it for?


My first juicy leak was in 2013 when an EU source gave me a thick folder of files documenting the European Commission’s diplomatic security bullshit in Afghanistan.

They brought it to my house in Brussels and told me they felt morally obligated because lives were being put at risk and taxpayers’ money was wasted.

It was a hodgepodge of email correspondence, internal meeting minutes and supply contracts.

A gem was a “restrained” report in which an EU ambassador complained about his security guards in Gaza. Another, marked “confidential”, said the EU had reversed an overpayment of €1million to a security firm.

My source first contacted me by phone after writing a series of articles about private security companies in the EU.

They had printed the files to avoid leaving a digital trail for internal investigators.

What is a leak?

The Afghanistan story has done what a leak is supposed to do – it has brought greater democratic scrutiny, for example, by the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee.

Leaks are necessary to hold the EU to account on matters of public interest, as the documents constitute evidence of allegations.

You can’t deny letting a Russian diamond company off the hook if it ever appeared on a draft EU blacklist and then disappeared from the final sanctions.

And you can’t say that your human rights dialogue with Russia saves souls when your own internal report admits in black and white that it doesn’t.

My escape to Afghanistan was exceptional, but less sensitive stuff comes out every day in Brussels.

Common leaks relate to draft summit declarations and sanctions proposals, EU draft laws and internal reports on EU drafts.

They are almost all labeled “LIMITE” – the lowest level of the EU’s French-speaking classification system.

The higher levels are RESTRICTED, CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET and TOP SECRET – you can lose your job or face criminal charges if you disclose them.

I have seen very few RESTRICTED or CONFIDENTIAL files in 20 years on foreign policy and none of the best.

The EU Ambassador’s report on Gaza was RESTRICTED. A leaked CONFIDENTIAL document was an assessment by IntCen, the joint intelligence arm of the EU foreign service, of the reasons for the failed coup in Turkey in 2016.

According to EU contacts, the SECRET and TOP SECRET files could contain information such as advance warning of a foreign coup or cryptographic keys to EU communications networks.

You should ask yourself if you would like to post something like this.

Truly secret documents do not leak (Photo: tedeytan)

Who is leaking and why?

The main sources of banal leaks are the embassies of the 27 EU countries in Brussels.

Diplomats and some European Commission and EU Council officials leak draft proposals to the media in hopes that a political or public outcry over an issue will help them get what they want in the final talks .

But whichever country holds the EU presidency at any given time tends not to shy away, according to the Brussels etiquette.

You might think the ideal backer is one who acts on their conscience, but even holy whistleblowers tend to be tactical, revealing information that supports their side of the story.

An even better source is one that releases files in bulk for the sake of transparency, leaving the press free to find their own angle – and sources like these exist in Brussels.

Some people also become sources by mistake: an EU bill may be a big deal in the agricultural sector, for example, but a friendly EU official who deals with the digital market may have access to it and think that it is acceptable to release it to the press.

In any case, for me, the substance of the information is more important than the motivations of the leaker.

When someone brought hidden evidence of deaths linked to the Russian coronavirus vaccine Sputnik to EUobserver in 2021, a Russian MP then called us an agent of rival US pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

Our source wasn’t Pfizer, but does it really matter if it’s a whistleblower, a rival or a fool given the seriousness of the issue at stake?

For all that, it always leaves a bad taste in your mouth if you ever learn that your source’s motives were less than pure.

And the history of private security in Afghanistan that I was initially so proud of taught me a lesson in due diligence on background checks.

My whistleblower was then revealed to be a fictitious business partner trying to screw up a rival for an EU contract in Kabul.

And that made me wonder how I should have written the story if I had known everything from the beginning.

Most EU files are mundane (Photo: European Parliament)

Which EU files are interesting?

The vast majority of LIMITE documents circulating in the EU capital are mundane kitchen items, such as meeting agendas.

But even these can be useful for the work of journalists, for example by disclosing the names and emails of all EU officials involved in a project.

The most commercially valuable documents come from the European Commission services responsible for agriculture, competition, consumption, energy, environment, tax affairs, health, market unique and commercial.

Draft EU legislative proposals, which can run into hundreds of pages, need a specialist lawyer to lead or queue.

But these exist in law firms, NGOs and think tanks in Brussels and they can sometimes help journalists find a market-moving story in a small amendment to an EU regulation.

The most eye-catching LIMIT files are those summarizing the remarks of EU countries during discussions on sensitive political issues, such as asylum seekers or the rule of law dispute with Hungary.

Documents dealing with the EU’s joint political agency Europol, the fight against terrorism and data privacy can provide important information for human rights activists.

Internal reports from the EU’s external service also give unvarnished insight into conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East in potentially serious revelations.

A LIMIT file seen by EUobserver said EU-trained soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR) were being used by the Russian mercenary group Wagner, causing an additional string of coverage in the French media and ending with a decision by the EU to end his training in the CAR. assignment.

Make friends and influence people (Photo: European Commission)

How to get your leak

There are few shortcuts to farming springs.

In my experience, the best way is to write a series of stories on a niche topic using open source information and eventually the sources start contacting you on their own.

Talent and charisma aside, it helps to work for a major media outlet, so the funder gets credibility and maximum impact for their efforts.

It helps to make the most of tribal connections. Diplomats from EU states in Brussels favor journalists of their own nationality because there is an unspoken assumption that they share patriotic interests and values, but so do EU officials. to the blue and gold flag, which all come from somewhere.

It is also useful to know how the EU sausage machine works.

Drafts of new European Commission laws are first circulated to relevant departments via “inter-service consultations” weeks before being adopted by the full college of 27 commissioners.

They are then pre-approved by the 27 managing directors and 27 chiefs of staff in two final stages a few days before adoption.

The process creates several opportunities for scoop hunters to try to gain access.

On the one hand, sources feel more secure if they are part of a wider circle of people with access to a file, as in the interagency phase. But on the other hand, the smaller and senior the circle, the more up-to-date the version of the document you get.

Diplomats from EU countries also feel comfortable disclosing because once a European Commission proposal has been circulated to 27 embassies, hundreds of people have access to it.

Meanwhile, one leak can lead to another, in the way EU documents are exchanged between journalists, politicians, lobbyists and gossips seeking them in the EU capital.

Your competitor will post first if they get a scoop, but if they owe you a favor, their correspondent might send you the leaked file and let you post second, quoting the material “seen by EUobserver” as if you had it dug up yourself.

Leave No Trace (Photo: Jane M.)

How to escape safely

LIMIT files are normally sent to journalists via secure mail servers such as Proton or applications such as Signal (on a message setting that disappears).

EU leak investigators cannot hack or subpoena phones and laptops like some national authorities could.

The worst the European Commission ever did to me was to go to my unsecured Facebook page in 2010 to see who my official EU ‘friends’ were (I stopped using Facebook ages ago). years).

But sending encrypted files is always risky because digital documents contain metadata.

If online media releases the entire file or it gets back to leak investigators in some other way, they can use it to help track down the source.

That’s why some sources create their own JPG or PDF files to clean them up first.

There are more creative, albeit time-consuming, methods. An EU Council official used to invite journalists into his office, ostensibly place a file on his desk, then walk out for 15 minutes on a mock errand, leaving you to read and take notes at high speed as if you were a spy.

If the leak is sensitive enough to be worth the effort, you can print out the paperwork and personally deliver it to an out-of-the-way cafe.

If you don’t want to leave a print trail of a file, open it on your computer screen, photograph the screen with a phone, print those photos somewhere, and meet EUobserver at the cafe.

The way to leave the slightest digital trace is to trust the journalist to meet them face-to-face.

And while some fear being followed by the security services, in reality Belgian intelligence agencies had better things to do than spy on hacks long before the Russian war broke out.

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