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How The Dutch Treat Captured Spies

Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons building facade
Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, The Hague, Netherlands. Photo by Steven Lek.

According to its own press office, the Dutch intelligence service AIVD is pretty hot stuff these days.

It cracked the Kremlin’s hacking of the U.S. Democratic Party. It expelled two miscreant Iranian diplomats. Most recently, broke up a four-member Russian spy ring.

So to help the good folks over there reach the next level in their professional growth, I respectfully offer a single tip. If they need to reach police in the Netherlands in case of emergency, they should dial 112.

Apparently this is new information to AIVD’s counterintelligence squad.

The Netherlands said that it caught the four suspected agents in the act of attempting to hack into the network of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons at The Hague. But once AIVD caught them, it couldn’t or wouldn’t keep them. The four men were simply sent home.

“I don’t want to describe this as ‘letting them go,’” the head of Dutch military intelligence told the BBC. “We disrupted an operation. That’s how we do this type of operation.”

However they describe it, Dutch intelligence did not detain the four men, reportedly in part because they did not have the power to do so directly. Because the action was an intelligence operation rather than a criminal inquiry, the intelligence services would have had to take the colossal step of ... informing the police. While the four were traveling on diplomatic passports, they were not accredited diplomats in the Netherlands, so the police could have arrested them had anyone asked.

Of course, the explanation that the alleged Russian spies could not be held because the people who caught them weren’t law enforcement fails to hold up under even light scrutiny. Unless, that is, we believe the Dutch spooks didn’t know a three-digit phone number that the average Dutch toddler might easily memorize. I’m not buying it. There is no doubt that had the operatives been dispatched from the Islamic State group rather than the Kremlin, criminal authorities would have been called.

The news that the four Russians had been ejected from the country arrived in apparent concert with the release of anti-Russian counterintelligence updates from agencies in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. Unlike the Netherlands, however, the U.S. did not hesitate to level criminal charges at agents who allegedly targeted the International Association of Athletics Federations, FIFA and the Westinghouse Electric Company, among other targets. Those charged included the four men that the Dutch recently sent home.

The catch-and-release approach to Russian espionage gives the appearance of political and financial expediency. Just last year, the Netherlands became a net importer of natural gas for the first time since the 1950s, now that its old North Sea fields are playing out. Russia is the largest supplier of gas to western Europe, but one the Dutch have not had much need to rely on in the past.

Relations between the two countries have been under severe strain since 2014, when a Malaysian airliner was shot down over Ukraine on a flight that originated in Amsterdam; 298 people died, including 193 Dutch citizens. The Dutch also participated in European sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea the same year. But now their government may be warier of totally alienating Moscow.

If the Dutch want to play Cold War games with the big kids, they are going to have to learn the rules. The first one is that when you catch a spy, you keep the spy – at least until you can trade the spy for one of your own spies, or something of equal value. You don’t just hand the spy a souvenir tulip bulb and a one-way ticket home.

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