Intelligence Agents in MSF

Circular: Discussion Paper (April 2014)

For circulation internally in MSF only. Do not quote. Level of publication under consideration. Comments and critique can be sent to Niels Hahn at

All of us in MSF have heard about it. The mainstream media reports on it daily. It regularly creates international political scandals, and raises important issues of privacy, anticipatory self-censorship and confidentiality. It makes some people very uncomfortable, while others ignore or marginalise it. Most people, however, want something to be done about it.

The issue is the widespread espionage being conducted by Western intelligence services worldwide, collecting data, and manipulating decision making and policies.

Most people working for MSF in coordinating positions in the field and in the headquarters know that the nature of MSF's work makes the organisation very attractive for both local and major power intelligence services. Yet, we are significantly silent about it in MSF, and we take few precautions.

In our field projects some people may talk about local intelligence agents in MSF, and there we sometimes take precautions on how we treat data and sensitive information. In contrast we know relatively little about major power intelligence agents. Yet many people in current or former key positions in MSF that I have talked with about this issue, have had some sort of experience with major power intelligence agents, mostly Western, and some have strong suspicions that some of their colleagues are working for intelligence agencies.

We already knew from the spy scandal that was brought up in the European Parliament about 15 years ago, that a network of Western governments illegally taps phone calls, e-mails and other forms of communication through the sophisticated Echelon system.[1] The recent exposure of information about PRISM and the ‘Five Eyes’ by Edward Snowden has given an even deeper insight into the technological capacity and the all-encompassing scope of the intelligence services operated by the US Government in cooperation with a number of NATO countries.

The budget and number of employees working in the US intelligence community is confidential, but according to the Washington Post the 'Black Budget' of the top five US intelligence agencies alone exceeds US$ 50 billion each year. These five agencies together employ more than 100,000 people full time.[2]On top of this comes the capacity of the US Armed Forces and their intelligence sections, and the intelligence services in other NATO countries.

Besides tapping electronic data remotely, intelligence services infiltrate organisations at the highest possible levels, and deploy their staff into key control positions. They manipulate information and decision-making, sway policies in favour of their own government's political and economic interests, and frame the debate in the literature, the media and the public debate.[3]

Whereas most European states are relatively closed about the size and scope of their intelligence activities, the US Government is at least relatively transparent about the sheer size of their agencies and of their historical scope. The National Security Directive NSC-68 that was declassified in 1975 gives an insight into the depth and breadth of historical US intelligence operations, that ranged from removing governments from power through covert operations to the overt bombardments of countries, as well as the manipulation of academia and sophisticated propaganda campaigns.[4]

The more recent example in the UK of Mark Kennedy gives an indication of how far police infiltration can go. Kennedy operated as an undercover police officer who infiltrated an environment organisation in the UK and engaged in a long term relationship with a leading female activist, so that he could pass on information to his employer.[5]Other cases in the UK shows that undercover police officers go as far as to have children with the people they spy on.[6]This case demonstrate the lengths to which the police in the UK will go to illegally infiltrate a relatively unimportant movement compared with many humanitarian organisations.

The history of US intelligence infiltration is relatively well documented, and this gives an indication that in areas of armed conflicts where MSF works, similar and even greater means will be employed by western intelligence services to infiltrate and manipulate international humanitarian movements.[7]MSF also have a rich history of close collaboration with agencies suspected to be CIA front organisations during the Cold War. In this period, parts of MSF took side with the NATO countries against the socialist oriented movements and governments, and advocacy was frequently used as war propaganda.[8]

I was first introduced to the issue of intelligence agents in MSF when I worked in Liberia from 2002 to 2004. Although we discussed the problem of expatriate 'reporters', the main concern was about local spies who worked for our organisation. We knew that it was logical that some of our staff would report on MSF activities to the different conflicting parties. 

I went back to Liberia in 2006 to do a research on neocolonialism where I interviewed a number of people who had played a key role in the war. Former Liberian National Security Advisor, John Richardson, was very forthright and I was surprised how much information the Liberian Government had been able to collect about MSF during the war. Richardson could distinguish sharply between the different MSF sections, and individual people within MSF. In general, the Liberian National Security Agency (NSA) had good records on the key expatriates working for the different aid agencies, and could create problems for the agencies when suspecting a Head of Mission or coordinator to be associated with a foreign intelligence agency that would undermine the interests of the Liberian Government.

According to former Liberian Minister of Land, Mines and Energy, Jenkins Dunbar, the governments of Britain, France, and the US had great interesting in the Liberian oil fields and were deeply involved in the armed conflicts.[9]Former US Assistance Secretary of State, Herman Cohen, describes the war in Liberia as "a surrogate fight" between some French speaking and some English speaking alliances in the West African region.[10] Richardson notes that over different periods of time, the Taylor administration received aid and intelligence information from both the French Government and the US Government, sometimes through their proxies in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, but they were not always sure when it was credible information and when it was disinformation. Many people in the Liberian NSA considered organisations such as the International Crisis Group, Global Witness, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Rescue Committee, as being parts of the US/UK alliance, whereas MSF-France was seen as having close ties with the French Government.

In 2008/9, I went back to Liberia again for a year to do a research on US covert military operations from the 1970s to 2003. By coincidence I met a former electrician from the Redemption Hospital, who had been forcibly retired from the Liberian Armed Forces when the US Military Command for Africa (AFRICOM) had taken over the control of the Liberian security sector. As he was now retired he could tell me that he had held the position of Captain in the Liberian army, and as he was also a trained electrician he had been deployed to the Redemption Hospital to obtain information because as an electrician he was able to move around everywhere in the hospital and listen to conversations while appearing to check the electrical systems above the ceilings. He gathered information from war wounded patients, but was also instructed to observe the activities of MSF. His observation of MSF-B (now OCB) was that they operated in that hospital as they should according to the humanitarian principles.

When I worked for MSF in Somalia in 2004, I wrote daily security updates of what happened in the region, and sent them to MSF in Geneva via a satellite connection. I was told it was very important not to send them via the local Internet connection because there was a risk that people in Mogadishu could intercept the information. It is commonly known in Somalia that US oil companies have special interests in the country, and that the US Government is a key actor in the conflict. Some of our local staff in Somalia expressed that they felt very uncomfortable with the Sitreps that MSF wrote in Somalia because the detailed information could be used by the US Government. I mentioned this to MSF in Geneva, and noted that I found it problematic that we were sending unencrypted Sitreps that the US Government could intercept. When I suggested that at least we should use encryption systems, I was told that MSF had nothing to hide, so there was no reason to encrypt our Sitreps. This of course contradicted the order that I could not send Sitreps via internet lines that could be intercepted by local groups in Somalia that were hostile to the US Government. I therefore felt uncomfortable with the data collection in Somalia, and found it strange that MSF in Geneva rejected the concerns I expressed, and which reflected the concerns of our local staff.

In Darfur in 2006/7 it was clear to the management team in the mission that we had many people among our local staff who reported on our activities to the different parties in the conflict. As long as MSF follows the humanitarian principles of maintaining the highest degree of neutrality, impartiality and independence this should not be a problem. It can be a way to ensure that decision makers at the highest levels are aware that MSF is trying to be as neutral and impartial as possible. The problem is, however, that when MSF is not being neutral and impartial, then it will also be reported.

It was clear that the OCA in South Darfur was not impartial and neutral, and there were problems of revolving doors between US funded agencies and OCA. I brought up this problem in the Country Management Team and in Amsterdam, but it appeared to me that some people were proud of taking side in the conflict, and some of my reports were edited to such an extent that I considered it as censorship. Unfortunately, it was not until after OCA was expelled from Darfur in 2009, that the internal review report of 2010 could conclude that "MSF OCA's position was partisan" (ibid: 39).[11]

The case of OCA being expelled from Darfur relates well to the fact that many Africa, Asian and Latin-American governments and intellectuals perceive Western NGOs and aid agencies as Trojan Horses and spy agencies of the NATO countries within which their headquarters are based.[12]In an interview with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2009, she explained to me that the Liberian government is very concerned about many of the Western funded NGOs operating in Liberia, because they come in with hidden political and economic agendas and operate through local partner NGOs. However, they are like holy cows and well protected by the governments that fund them. The Liberian Government has tried to implement some regulations, but the state is too weak to do anything serious about it.[13] Some of the key staff in these local NGOs, who I have interviewed, have stated forthrightly that they are funded by western based organisations that are closely associated with the CIA. They felt uncomfortable with this connection, but stated that they had no other options because they needed a job so they could get food on the table, pay their medical bills, and provide education for their children.[14]

Over past few years we have seen an increasing number of NGOs and government aid agencies being expelled from a number of countries because they have been accused of spying and engaging in politics. For example, USAID was expelled from Russia in 2012, and from Bolivia in 2013.[15]-[16] In Ukraine, an army of Western government funded NGOs have supported the opposition in removing the elected government in 2014, after the Ukrainian parliament had rejected to sign a free trade agreement with the EU. One of the key institutions behind the funding of these NGOs is the US based National Endowment for Democracy (NED).[17]Former advisor to Bill Clinton, Joseph Nye (2007), notes that the NED is a component of the USG’s “soft power” with references to the co-founder of NED, Allen Weinstein, who states that “A lot of what we [NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA”.[18]

It will be impossible to convince non-NATO member countries that MSF is not infiltrated by western intelligence agencies. I do believe, however, that MSF can increase its credibility by taking three main steps on this issue:

1) Acknowledge that it is highly conceivable that MSF is infiltrated by intelligence agents, and start discussions about what to do about it. There is a wealth of literature on this, and the CIA has been relatively transparent about their programmes and have declassified a substantial amount of material on this issue which is available on their website.

2) We cannot prevent intelligence agencies from deploying their agents in MSF, but based on information and debates, MSF can develop policies and mechanisms that could limit how agents can influence and manipulate MSF's operations and advocacy.

3) MSF should go public about this issue and make it clear to all parties in the countries where we operate, that we are aware of the problem and doing what we can to deal with it.

There will be nothing new in this for most non-NATO member states, who are struggling with the problem of espionage themselves, and I believe it is better to be transparent and speak out about the problem, rather than keep silent.

To conclude, it is immoral and unethical for governments and their intelligence agencies to use humanitarian organisations such as MSF for their political and economic interests. We should not just accept this problem silently, but do what we can to limit their intelligence-gathering and manipulation activities within MSF. 

At first sight, the problem may seem overwhelmingly complicated and impossible to deal with, but it may not be that complicated when first we start looking for solutions. The sooner we start the discussion, the sooner we can start implementing policies on this issue, and thereby increase the credibility of MSF and improve our access to populations in need of medical assistance.

[1]BBC, 2000. Echelon: Big Brother without a cause? (

[2]Washington Post, 2013.U.S. spy network’s successes, failures and objectives detailed in ‘black budget’ summary (

[3]See for example the Chief Historian of the CIA, Michael Warner's, review of Huge Wilford's (2008) "The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America Intelligence in Recent Public Literature" (; and Saunders, Frances Stonor. 2000. Who Paid the Piper? - The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London: Granta Publications.

[4]U.S. Department of State.Office of the Historian. (no year) Milestones: 1945-1952, NSC-68, 1950. (

[5]See for example Simon Hattenstone, at the Guardian (2011). Mark Kennedy: Confessions of an undercover cop. (

[6]Evans, Rob and Paul Lewis. (2013). The Guardian. Undercover police face tighter regulation after Mark Kennedy scandal (

[7]Wagenen, James A. Van. 2014. Critics and Defenders: A Review of Congressional Oversight. CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence 1997 [cited 2014]. Available from (

[8] See for example Weissman, Fabrice. (2011). Silence Heals... From the Cold War to the War on Terror, MSF Speaks Out: A Brief History. In Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience. Edited by C. Magnoe, M. Neuman and F. Weissman. London: Hurst & Co. Ltd.

[9]Dunbar, Jenkins. 2006. Former Minister of Land, Mines and Energy, Republic of Liberia, from 1997 to 2003. Interview conducted and recorded on June 16, 2006, by Niels Hahn in his home in Monrovia.

[10]Cohen, Herman J. 2000. Intervening in Africa. Edited by G. R. Berridge, Studies in Diplomacy. London: MacMillan Press Ltd. PP. 155.

[11] Review MSF OCA North Sudan 2005-2009. Final draft version 2 January 14, 2010. Submitted to MSF OCA by Max Glaser and WouterKok. Retrieved from the review meeting in Amsterdam, in January 2010. PP. 39.

[12] See for example: Hearn, Julie. 2007. African NGOs: The New Compradors? Development and Change 38 (6):1095-1110; and Petras, James. 1999. NGOs: In the service of imperialism. Journal of Contemporary Asia 29 (4):429-440.

[13]Sirleaf, Ellen Johnson. 2009. President of the Republic of Liberia. Former Minister of Finance in the Tolbert Administration from 1979 till 1980. Interview conducted and recorded by Niels Hahn, April June 2, 2009, in her temporary office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Monrovia.

[14] Confidential Sources. Interviews taken place in Monrovia in 2009.

[15] Russia Today. 2012. Russia shows USAID the door. (

[16] CNN, Mariano Castillo. 2013. Bolivian President Evo Morales orders expulsion of USAID (

[17] See National Endowment for Democracy. 2014. (

[18]Nye, Joseph. 2007. Solutions, or Problems? Foreign Policy 161 (Jul. - Aug.):8-13.


By: Niels Hahn