“Europe has a false sense of security”

Peter S. Vincent, a former high-ranking civil servant at the United States Department of Homeland Security, warns that a million people become naturalised Europeans every year – without proper checks being carried out. He thinks that Schengen is full of holes and member states fail to disclose complete information to each other.

Few American civil servants are entitled to access “top secret” information. This means that they are entrusted with information that would cause “exceptionally grave damage to the security of the USA” if it were to be released. Normally, this authorisation remains in place even once they have left their role in the civil service. This is the case with Peter S. Vincent. He was a counter-terrorism expert at the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security between 2002 and 2014. He was General Counsel to the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security for a period of five years, and was in charge of its international activities. Today, Vincent oversees the Government Advisory and Business Intelligence departments at Henley & Partners, the world’s leading agency for residence and citizenship planning.

Mr. Vincent, how much would it cost you to buy a Bulgarian nationality?

I've seen reported that individuals are able to obtain legitimate passports in Romania or Bulgaria for as little as €5,000. Other reports suggest that individuals are able to purchase legitimate passports for €30,000.

Is it also feasible to create new identities with this kind of fraudulent service?

When I was at the Department of Homeland Security, we were well aware of international criminal organizations that specialized in creating very authentic looking, but fraudulent documents that would enable individuals to obscure their true identities: birth certificates, voter registration documents, drivers’ licenses that were on legitimate, actual, authentic paper containing all the appropriate watermarks and security features. Therefore, we have no idea who those individuals are, why they are seeking to obscure their true identities, and what their intentions are once they have valid travel documents to include passports.

From which criminal groups did you see the highest demand for those kinds of identity theft or identity creation?

We noticed that a number of Eastern European transnational criminal organizations, including organized criminals from, in particular, Ukraine and other frontier European countries, like Belarus, were the most adept at obtaining very authentic looking fraudulent documents and selling them on the black market through the dark web to individuals who then were able to convert those documents into European Union membership naturalization documents and passports – through corruption, based on no due diligence and no vetting.

Did you also see these kinds of demands from Latin American criminal groups, or is there less of a problem there?

I first became interested in this issue when I was posted to the US Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia, in 2006 until 2009. We were receiving frequent reports of members of designated terrorist organizations to include the FARC, and their ability to pursue, through obscuring the true identity, citizenship through programs in the Caribbean basin. They were actively looking for ways of engaging in that activity to obscure their identities but we could not identify individuals who actually were successful because of the due diligence done by the Caribbean countries was sufficient. That given their geographic proximity to the United States and special agreements with the United States very serious deep vetting was done of all those applicants and we're able to identify individuals before they were able to obtain citizenship in any of those countries.

With respect to Latin America, there are those vast ancestry programs from Italy, Portugal and Spain that give people with sometimes very loose historic ties to those countries a path to citizenship. Do you have evidence that those programs are abused as well?

The process for vetting or engaging in due diligence to my understanding has never been extraordinarily rigorous and disciplined and yet there are thousands of new Spanish and Italian citizens from Brazil and Argentina every year for whom we have little information as to the legitimacy of their ancestral claims, as well as their true identities as well.

Talking of first world countries: Have the US similar issues or is this purely European phenomenon?

Despite billions of dollars committed to identifying nefarious actors and despite the fact that many of the United States' best minds and most experienced officials look extraordinarily closely at all threats to the United States, there are still opportunities for unsavory nefarious actors to obtain entry into the United States using fraudulent or falsified documents. That is to say that the United States is not alone in the challenge faced by the European member states in identifying true threats. Unfortunately, organized criminals especially terrorists that have a strong supportive network to include nation states that support terrorism are extraordinarily clever and savvy and are able to tragically exploit seams or gaps in the global counter-terrorism infrastructure. That is what literally kept me awake day and night during my service with the US Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security.

You are talking of travel documents and not of fraudulent US citizenship?

Travel documents, either fraudulent, or forged, or photo-substituted travel documents. Now, the vast majority of individuals using fraudulent, forged, or photo-substituted documents, are actually not threats to the United States other than they are looking for greater economic opportunities, or educational opportunities for themselves, or their children in the United States, and they have no intention of carrying out terrorist attacks, or evading the long arm of the law for crimes committed elsewhere. Still, it's a concern because one individual who's able to enter the United States or Europe, who is a terrorist, and who hurts people by blowing himself or herself up is, obviously, a tragedy. That is why so many resources go into identifying that small, very small, but very lethal, percentage of true threats.

Are US borders are protected in a better way than the Schengen borders?

The United States has a very clear vulnerability, in that the northern border…

Wait, everybody is talking about the southern border…

We share our northern border with the amazing neighbor – Canada – which is very vulnerable to terrorists transiting into the United States, and that the United States is, unfortunately, obsessively, concerned with the southern border wherein, many economic migrants, or asylum seekers fleeing poverty, and terrorism, and criminal street gangs in Central America, simply are looking for a safe haven. Terrorists understand that the southern border is pretty tightly controlled by the US government and our Mexican counterparts south of the border, whereas, this northern border is a vast very open border where there are very few border patrol officers present in rural areas to stop a committed and sophisticated terrorist.

Henley & Partners, your employer, has been criticized by the European Commission for helping to set up a citizenship-by-investment program in Malta.

The European Union is rightfully concerned about due diligence and vetting of all applicants for a citizenship in European Union member states, but it should be spending its scarce resources, time and energy on true threats. The citizenship by investment programs subject all applicants to multitiered due diligence at the initial stages and then, submit their applications to member state intelligence and law enforcement officials to conduct additional deep due diligence and intense vettings. As a counter-terrorism expert, my focus is always on the most effective and most efficient means of identifying true threats and leveraging scarce resources in a way that is targeting the greatest threats.

You are also advising governments on how to set up this due diligence process.

Due diligence is already at the heart of the initial stage of an individual seeking citizenship by investment. That needs to be done at the initial stage by the agent or the broker of such services in order to determine whether or not those individuals are who they say they are and that their funds are completely legitimate. That due diligence and vetting needs to be conducted by a legitimate third-party due diligence providers to identify an individual in terms of establishing his or her true identity, as well as the source of provenance of all sources of income that they're relying on. Then where there is any doubt whatsoever it must be resolved against the individual correctly or incorrectly and the agent or broker should not go forward if they cannot establish the identity and/or the source of all of their funds.

Once an individual has cleared this process by the broker: What are the most important rules the country’s agencies should follow?

The law enforcement and intelligence gathering services of that sovereign nation state must conduct its own robust due diligence of those applicants to include not only its own records but that of its partner countries across the globe, and also, providing that information to Interpol to ensure that the individual's not on a wanted list, such as a red notice, as well as coordinating with the United States and its sanctions through the Office of Foreign Asset Control or the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network with the Department of Treasury to make sure that individuals are not seeking to avoid Iranian and North Korean sanctions.

Would you say that those processes are followed, let's say, in Romania or Bulgaria?

Romania and Bulgaria have really robust intelligence agencies that are very skilled and experienced, given their history, but my concern is not that those agencies are in any way deficient. My concern is that applications submitted by unscrupulous brokers don't ever go through those agencies for vetting or due diligence, that they're simply handed-off to a Government official authorized to grant citizenship and to issue passports with no initial third-party due diligence, let alone sovereign state intelligence and law enforcement agency checks.

Is this just a general concern or do you have facts that show that it's a real issue?

All I can say is that it's a real issue, the facts, because I currently hold a National Security Top Secret sensitive compartmented information clearance, I'm not able to reveal. I can tell you that the United States Government is concerned and the European Union should be concerned.

Do you think it's been an error to take Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen area?

No, I think Bulgaria and Romania are legitimate Schengen beneficiaries, but that we need to have a very hard and serious discussion about inadequacies in the law enforcement and intelligence gathering efforts to identify individuals who are essentially off the radar from those agencies because they've been able to obtain fraudulent birth certificates or other ancestry-related documents on the black market and are therefore able to simply be issued a naturalization certificate and shortly thereafter, a passport. That's where we need to come together, not just the European Union but as a global community to address these serious topics in a serious way, in sometimes unpleasant but entirely necessary conversations.

Switzerland is a small country in the heart of the Schengen Area. What should the Swiss citizens be worried about being part of this whole system?

Because they have no borders pursuant to Schengen zone, they should be concerned about the one million new European citizens each and every year that have access to Switzerland for whom we have no idea as to their true identity or backgrounds.

How would you assess the quality of the data that are exchanged by the Schengen countries?

The European Union does a good job of sharing information amongst intelligence and law enforcement agencies. However, given historic cultural sensitivities, that sharing of information, which should be seamless, is not always the case. Some countries, for historic reasons, are less willing to share intelligence with other countries, given a past history of war and conflict or a lack of trust in their fellow European member states and their ability to hold that information closely and secretly.

Are there better examples of international cooperation?

The so-called Five Eyes, United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom have had historically a very robust, intelligent sharing agreement. If the United Kingdom does actually leave the European Union, which is yet to be decided, then the European Union will, unfortunately, lose most, but not all, of the incredibly powerful intelligence that the United Kingdom's MI6 and MI5 currently hold.

In the domestic debate in the UK, it's rather the opposite way around: It’s claimed that Britain won't have the brilliant information of the Schengen databases.

My friends and colleagues in France, in Germany, and Italy, told me that they share everything they can with their counterparts in the United Kingdom, but the key is that "they can" is code for they don't share everything. I think for historic reasons, there will long be tensions and gaps in information and intelligence sharing between the member European States and that's just a reality. Unfortunately, it's a reality that is apparent to well-funded, well-organized, lethal terrorist organizations that are extraordinarily good at exploiting those spaces, those gaps between member state intelligence services.

Also in Switzerland, we are feeling quite safe partly because of our access to the Schengen databases. Given that some countries in the Schengen area are not sharing their real information, this might be a false sense of security.

I think it's a false sense of security for the European Union as a whole. I think actually, having been briefed captured terrorists, that Switzerland is seldom, if ever, an actual target, because of Switzerland's incredibly unique and important history of non-alignment and intervention in conflicts that might generate a great deal of hostility amongst terrorist organizations. Switzerland's greatest security is its well-earned and respected reputation for neutrality in matters involving war and civil conflict globally. The individuals that I've talked to have looked to damage the coalition united against Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. In military terms, attacking NATO member countries in particular and citizens of those countries.

How would you assess the Swiss cooperation with the Five Eyes that you mentioned?

The Swiss don't get enough credit for having a very capable intelligence and law enforcement apparatus. There is a great deal of cooperation between Switzerland and the Five Eyes on counter-terrorism matters. The Swiss don't like to advertise or publicize that cooperation because they don't want to make themselves a target of terrorists.

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