Saturday, December 10, 2022

SB NEWS-PRESS: MONACO: THE COLUMBUS GROUP




https://newspress.com/monaco-spy-story-columbus-group/





Note: The News-Press is running this story in two parts, the first published today, the second next weekend.

We are running the entire column in a single post (as we did with Spymaster Rules), hence no post next weekend.


During one of my briefings with Prince Albert of Monaco as his intelligence chief I proposed my vision to engage the intelligence services of micro-Europe—Monaco, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Andorra, San Marino, and Malta—into an intelligence club, an association of services that would share information on bad actors and create a cooperative/ combined shield.  

The prince already held a soft spot in his heart for micro-European countries evidenced by the high regard and courtesy he extended them during his investiture in July 2005.  They were treated with the same dignity as large powerful countries. So it was no surprise that Albert gave this idea his full backing and authorized me to proceed.

I brought this up with senior Italian intelligence (SISMI) officials because I hoped they would help organize introductions to their counterparts in San Marino and the Vatican. Foreign intelligence chief Albert Manenti was not only supportive but offered to personally introduce me to the director of the Vatican’s intelligence unit. He thought Liechtenstein would be the most difficult to crack but I’d already made a breakthrough with that principality tucked between Switzerland and Austria. 

Indeed, when I had the opportunity to meet Rene Brulhart, director of Liechtenstein’s Financial Intelligence Unit, Rene wholeheartedly welcomed this idea.  Liechtenstein, he told me, had no meaningful contact with Monaco so he was happy just to be in contact with us. It would be amazing, he agreed, if we could extend this concept to the other microstates.

In Washington DC soon after I met with recently retired CIA senior officers (including Tyler Drumheller, formerly European division chief) and broached with them my micro-Europe intelligence club concept. They thought it was brilliant and provided me with a senior contact in Luxembourg’s intelligence service.

Enter Frank Schneider, Luxembourg’s foreign intelligence chief, who traveled to Monaco and described his service to me. I immediately grasped that Luxembourg was the model to which we in Monaco should aspire—a streamlined, non-bureaucratic old-fashioned spy service that truly operated under the radar screen.

Over steak and frites in Le Beefbar, Frank showed great enthusiasm for an association of micro-Europe intelligence services and vowed to get the ball rolling with his counterpart in Malta. The Luxembourg service, he added, had no contact with Liechtenstein, Andorra and San Marino yet would relish establishing such relationships.


LUXEMBOURG


A couple weeks later Mr. Schneider greeted me at Luxembourg airport and checked me into Hotel Parc Beaux Arts in the old town around which we toured on foot.   Over mugs of the world’s finest hot chocolate in Oberweiss, Frank told me that his chief had already discussed with Malta my idea of a micro-Europe intelligence association and Maltese were receptive.  We also talked about including Iceland whose police intelligence unit had no club of their own and had been excluded from the Club of Berne, Europe’s intelligence association.

That evening Frank and his chief Marco Mille hosted me at Cercle Munster, a private bankers dining club.  He  too was highly enthusiastic about a micro-Europe association.  “We thought of this,” said Marco, “but didn’t have the contacts.”  Marco and Frank made an excellent team, Marco a sophisticate to Frank’s everyman. 

Through dinner—asparagus with Hollandaise sauce and smoked ham followed by filet of sole on a bed of peppers followed by a selection of gooey French cheese—we enjoyed a substantive discussion on how to proceed.   

Luxembourg was extremely gracious in their willingness to open doors for us into other intelligence services for liaison partnerships though, after retiring to the library for single malt whisky and cigars, I wasn’t sure my heart and liver would survive many more liaison relationships.

Marco offered to introduce me to anyone in the world of intelligence whom we needed to know.  This was significant as he was extremely well liked within Europe’s intelligence community and, significantly, the Club of Berne’s current chairman.  “Talk to everyone,” he counseled.

I knew I had created a very special relationship, perhaps our most important, not least because this impressive service had offered us their country as an operational playground for sensitive meetings and logistical support.

        

MICRO VERSUS MACRO

 

A month later I flew to Rome.  A SISMI officer met me at the airport and whisked me to lunch with Alberto Manenti after which Alberto accompanied me to the Vatican to meet Dr. Domenico Giani, director of Gendarmeria Vigilanti di Vatican, which he described as the Pope’s “intelligence group.”  

Giani told me he had been appointed by the Pope one month earlier to oversee all security and intelligence and to brief His Holiness personally.

I made my pitch for the Vatican to join the micro-Europe intelligence association that we in Monaco and Luxembourg had created.  Giani was quick to give us his blessing for our club but could not understand why I thought the Vatican (the world’s smallest country at 0.2 square miles) was a microstate.  As far as Giani was concerned the Vatican is a macro-state with global reach.  (Later, Alberto joked all priests are case officers, all parishioners are agents, all confessions noted, cross-indexed and filed away…)  Nonetheless, Giani asked that I send him an invitation when we had a date for our first meeting.

 

 A UNITED SHIELD


Our first ad-hoc meeting of the Micro-Europe Intelligence Association took place in July, lunch in the open air at Quai des Artistes with representatives from Monaco, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. Over a bottle of chilled Pouilly Fume we agreed some basic club rules:

·      Nobody wears ties.

·      We eat gourmet food and drink fine wine.

·      At the earliest opportunity we purchase a yacht as association headquarters with funds confiscated from arms-dealing money launderers (and when threatened by fire bombers we pull anchor and cruise away). 

Jocularity aside, we had good reason to band together.  First, cooperation and a united shield against shady characters wanting to park dirty money in our neighborhoods.  As a collective we could alert one another so that when a dirty client got turned away from Monaco and aimed himself toward Luxembourg or Liechtenstein they’d be watching for him. 

Luxembourg offered to host our first formal meeting to which we would invite Malta’s intelligence service.  Marco, as its host, would follow up on my contact with Domenico Giani at the Vatican and invite him too.  And I would drive to Andorra presently and determine the disposition of that microstate’s representatives for attending an October confab.  Iceland and Cyprus would be kept in abeyance for when we were better organized.  SISMI had already offered to help with San Marino.  I’d wait to see how that played out.

Following lunch we boarded the boat belonging to my deputy and cruised Villefranche and Cap-Ferrat.   Clair George, the former CIA spymaster phoned me late afternoon checking to see if I was still alive.  

It was a fair question considering when I had visited Rome four months earlier Alberto Manenti told me his service had been taking bets NOT on whether I’d make it through the year but on WHO would eliminate me.  

These were their odds:


CIA:  100-1

Russian government:  20-1

Corsican terrorists (my ASM football enquiries):  15-1

French Freemasons:  10-1

Italian organized crime (“The Organization”):  5-1

Russian organized crime:  4-1

French government:  3-1

Monegasque establishment (“The Clan”):  2-1


“THROUGH UNITY COMES STRENGTH"

        

The day after our micro-Europe luncheon I briefed Prince Albert on our progress, recounting my experience at the Vatican where I’d discovered they were a macro-state and I informed the Prince I would visit Andorra that week and try to enlist into our club that principality tucked into the Pyrenees between France and Spain.

Andorra, I soon discovered, was an odd little place, more of a duty-free shopping center than a country—a consumer paradise staffed by dark and ugly misshapen natives.  Even the hotel—said to be Andorra’s finest—was creepy and surreal and its employees scarce and unfriendly.  But I needed to see these microstates up close.

At ten o’clock the next morning I appeared at a small office in Prat de la Creu, Unit # 402.  Jordi Pons Lluelles, their one-man Financial Intelligence Unit, greeted me and I made my pitch.  

Lluelles seemed to grasp my position—chief of the unofficial Monaco intelligence service, responsible to the prince—and seemed to grasp the concept—micro-European states band together to fight money laundering as a united group.  I used Andorra’s own motto— “Through unity comes strength”—to clarify and justify what we were attempting to achieve.

Andorra’s banking business, Lluelles explained, derived from Spain and South America—the safe-haven in Europe where Spanish speakers (read:  drug cartels from Colombia) launder and/or park their revenues.  Russians, said Lluelles, had not yet discovered Andorra.  He smiled a lot and pronounced this a good idea and agreed to attend our kick-off con-fab in Luxembourg come October.

But Andorra’s presence was not to be. Monaco Police Chief Andre Muhlberger soon provided me a fascinating tidbit on Andorra that helped explain this: Andorra was not interested in cleaning up their money-laundering problem because for them it was NOT a problem.  Because, according to Chief Muhlberger, the sister of Andorra’s interior minister was connected to a big-time Andorra-based money launderer.  Andorra was simply not interested in an association that might cramp the style of a money-spinner from which higher circles had been profiting for decades. 


CLUB OF LUXEMBOURG

 

When my Luxair flight landed at 4:40 pm Frank Schneider stood on the tarmac to greet me, grab my luggage directly from the hold and speed me through the VIP lounge to the Hotel Beaux Arts.  


That evening the Club of Luxembourg (named as such for the purposes of our first meeting) kicked off to a flying start over a long sumptuous dinner in Le Bouquet Garni-St. Michel hosted by Lux intel chief Marco Mille. 

Godfrey S, chief of Malta’s intelligence service, graced us with his presence despite a disdain for foreign travel and brought with him his operations chief.  Godfrey listened to everything, spoke little and observed everyone with eyes black as oil.  Of all the intelligence chiefs I’d met Godfrey won the award for the longest eye-grip. He could go a full minute before turning his gaze away from my own eyes.

Rene Brulhart of Liechtenstein completed the circle.  

Our club meeting that morning took place at a government conference center called Chateau de Senningen.  (“Once we get people to Senningen,” joked Marco, “no one is allowed to leave until the problem is solved.”) 

We began—around a large conference table—with presentations of our services.  

Luxembourg put on a slide show the first image of which was a donkey in the air and the cart it led overturned.  “This is the problem,” intoned Marco Mille keeping a straight face.

After my own presentation on the genesis of Monaco’s intelligence service Marco graciously provided words of support, adding that our joint operations had been working out very well.

Iceland:  We all agreed Iceland should be invited and that perhaps we should be a club of Europe’s “small countries” rather than microstates.  The Misfits.

San Marino:  All agreed that San Marino should be contacted, cultivated and invited.  I offered to handle this myself, expecting SISMI to provide an introduction even though they kept putting me off by saying the time was not yet right. 

We agreed our club should meet three times a year; that Monaco would host the next meeting five months hence and call it the Club of Monaco on that occasion with a view to creating a permanent name thereafter.

One participant felt that when the services of large countries learned about our club they would ridicule it “but then they’ll become curious.”

The point we would make to them, said another participant, is that we stand together against criticism about money laundering from the large countries and turn it around on them:  We’re all working together effectively—what are YOU doing about money laundering? (We already knew that most dirty money was laundered through London, Paris and New York City, if blamed on tax havens.)

We agreed that our association should be based upon human chemistry; that though we would cultivate the “misfit” countries to join we must LIKE the service chiefs involved as a pre-condition of inclusion and same for their successors.


The key to our success we all agreed was to be asymmetrical and quirky.  If anyone from other services should ask about our club we would tongue-in-cheek explain it as a wine appreciation society.  And in fact that evening we drove en masse to Ehnen, a village in Luxembourg’s wine-producing region, for wine tasting at the Linden-Heinisch vineyard:  Riesling, pino gris and pinot noir.  This—the enjoyment of fine wine—would become a running theme as our club evolved.

           

CLUB OF MONACO

 

 When it came our turn in Monaco to host the next association meeting, the intelligence service I had created for Prince Albert was in limbo. Members of the royal court had come to know of our existence, felt threatened by it and wanted to see us gone.

Why? 

Because our service had uncovered rampant corruption among them.


Welcoming our guests from Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Malta I wrote:

            Dear Friends,

            With great pleasure, our micro-service welcomes you to our microstate.  Our objective is to eat well, drink fine, talk business to our mutual advantage and, most important, to laugh as much as we can.

            It was Sidney Reilly who coined the phrase “Trust no one” (and eventually got himself killed by trusting someone running something called—of all things—The Trust).  But trust us at least to show you a good time even if, in the great tradition of Sir Francis Walsingham [Queen Elizabeth I's spymaster], we bankrupt ourselves in the process.

            It is truly spectacular to have you here.  We’re already moving mountains—and just cranking up.

Thus the Club of Monaco convened in Hotel Columbus, where the participants lodged.  I requested everyone remove the batteries from their cell phones.  “I think I’ve made the French nervous,” I explained.

If I’d made the French nervous it was for one or two reasons:  1) They had dirt on corrupt Monegasques and they liked it that way for their own leverage as needed.  2) I knew about President Putin’s network of energy trading and distribution companies—and money laundering—along the Cote d’Azur, which the French could leverage to their advantage in negotiations to gain a long-term energy deal with Gazprom.  They were nervous that I might disrupt or compromise one or both either by design or by accident.

First order of business: To give our association a permanent name.  One participant suggested “something generic,” another suggested Columbus Group, as we were meeting inside Hotel Columbus. I liked the poetry of this since it was in Columbus that the prince had retained me to create what became the Monaco Intelligence Service.  

Next on the agenda, the status of other countries we would want to include.

Iceland:  They wanted to participate but were still trying to decide whether their participants should be from the foreign or defense ministry.

San Marino:  I was still waiting on the Italians for an introduction.  Rene Brulhart offered to help; his deputy had made a new contact in San Marino. Let’s play it, I said. 

Cyprus:  Malta had the best contacts and would consult with them and provide an update at our next club meeting.

Next, a “peace concept” I had conceived.  Who better to resolve international conflict than intelligence services?  They are well informed and know how to operate behind the scenes.  The Columbus Group would invite representatives from 10-to-15 intelligence services, specifically from countries at odds with one another, to a reception hosted by our club.  We would offer them our club’s services and our tiny countries to facilitate the patching of their own countries’ differences while tapping new members for Columbus.

Monaco would host the first reception and we would do it the following October on… Columbus Day!  

Malta offered to host our next club meeting and we resolved to regroup in June.

At 7:30 our members reassembled at the Monte Carlo Wine Bar, the upper floor of which we had booked for a tasting of superb Margaux and Pomeral from Bordeaux.

Next morning Lux chief Marco Mille appeared at our safehouse to meet Prince Albert. 

Marco provided the prince a succinct and inspirational soliloquy on the usefulness—from his perspective—of Monaco’s intelligence service, at a time when some of the prince’s courtiers were trying to close us down.

The prince was unusually attentive and very focused and riveted by Marco’s words. Afterwards he asked thoughtful questions of Marco. Was his service in contact with Monaco before the existence of the Monaco Intelligence Service?  Answer:  No.  Furthermore, Marco explained, before my initiative Luxembourg also lacked any meaningful contact with Liechtenstein.

Did Luxembourg intelligence brief their Grand Duke?  

Marco’s answer: “We would like to but we cannot go to him.  He can come to us, if only he knew how much he would benefit.”

Albert: What is the size of Luxembourg intelligence?  

Marco told him their size and annual budget and then looked at my deputy Jean-Leonard (JL).  “He wants a submarine.”  

The prince looked at his cousin, aghast.  

“A nuclear one,” I added, thinking of our enemies within the principality. 

 

SAN MARINO

 

A month later JL and I zoomed out of Monaco through France and into Italy.  The computer navigational narrator guided us around a carnival of roads to The Most Serene Republic of San Marino arriving at 1:45 p.m.  

San Marino is the world’s oldest republic, boasting a millennium of democracy.  

Their form of democracy is this:  Five families take turns running the country.

Its culture is something else.  You can tell a lot about a country by its museums.  In San Marino there are three:  Two are torture museums—one with wax figures being tortured—and the third is a freak museum.  And there are very many duty-free shops abounding with knives, swords, BB-guns and replica pistols and rifles. 

We’d left a bright sunny day down below in Rimini but San Marino was enveloped in grayness and moisture.  Within this medieval setting we ate pasta and moistened our faces with a walk before meeting Nicola M of the Banca Centrale in our hotel lobby.  We drove with him to his office at the central bank and he introduced us to his director-general, Luca P.  

I explained our mission and invited Luca to attend our next Columbus Group meeting in Malta.  At first skeptical about the un-official-ness of our status Luca warmed up quickly.   Not only was Luca enthusiastic to attend Columbus he also had a piece of bilateral business to conduct with us.  

Nicola retrieved a file from another room.  An Austrian was trying to buy into a San Marinese bank and they had found a Monaco connection in his C.V.  Had we heard of him?  We had not.  Could we access intelligence on him?  We could and we would.

That, in a nutshell, was the essence of Columbus:  We micro-states/tax havens/financial centers would work TOGETHER to keep bad money out.

Within two days we knew enough to tell Luca that their bank-buying Austrian was as crooked as the hind leg of a donkey and, consequently, they denied his application to buy into a San Marinese bank.  This is how our system worked, as it had never worked before. 

 

MALTA

 

On June 18th (2007), two days after the fifth anniversary of my appointment by Prince Albert to handle intelligence for him, I flew with JL to Malta for a Columbus Group meeting.  Our host, the Maltese intelligence service, booked Columbus participants into the Westin Dragonara Resort.   

At 6:15 a minivan drove us all to Meridiana vineyard for—but of course—wine tasting.  I drew Luca aside and solemnly informed him that our meetings were really about chardonnay and cabernet. 

Sitting at dinner in the old capital of Mdina I knew we had created something very special.


Next morning we reconvened in a Dragonara conference room.  Godfrey, our host, requested we create a mission statement to justify our existence to ministers and politicians.  Marco took it upon himself to draft something for our next meeting.

I suggested that Luca, our newest participant, introduce himself.  “You’ve passed the first test, Luca,” I said.  “You like wine.”

Luca explained his role as chairman of San Marino’s central bank with responsibility for investigating suspicious clients.

The Maltese had discussed Columbus with the Cypriot service, which was keen to join.  Iceland remained enthusiastic and wanted to attend next time.

We talked at length about our Columbus Day reception and short-listed intelligence services from 20 countries, dividing up responsibility between us to convey invitations.  Nothing quite like this had ever been attempted within the global intelligence community—a creative, bold and cutting-edge approach to peacemaking.  We in Monaco would host the reception; we would reserve the Monaco Yacht Club for our private party, a buffet with open seating, full bar and a jazz trio.

One participant expressed concern about what the large intelligence services from superpowers would think.  Another offered the view that if they were collectively reassured that we were fully in control (rather than a larger country’s intelligence service) they’d be okay with it.

Sitting across from Frank Schneider during lunch I joked with him about the future of the Monaco Intelligence Service.  “I think I’ll have to put it up for sale,” I joked.  “Maybe place an ad in The Economist.”

“We’ll buy you,” Frank replied.

“It’ll be an auction.  Highest bidder takes all.”

“Put it on eBay.  You are the pivotal point to all this, a magnet,” said Frank.  “How do you do it?”

All this and so much more was the resource Prince Albert squandered when he allowed his courtiers to sway him down the path of least resistance—a thoroughfare steeped in corruption.

When I realized I had to disassemble the Monaco Intelligence Service I planned a sweep through Paris, Monaco and Luxembourg to gently close the door they had so kindly opened to us.  

However, my friends in Luxembourg became nervous and cancelled Columbus after President Sarkozy’s new DST chief, Bernard Squarcini, told Marco Mille that I was “CIA station chief in Monaco.”  

This was how the French finally chose to discredit me.  Not very original but calculated to ensure our liaison partners would become wary.

Tragically, this meant the end of The Columbus Group, which, it seems to me, is what the French wanted.

 

https://newspress.com/author/reringer/