Dutch spy chiefs: a new book by Paul Abels

Dutch spy chiefs: a new book by Paul Abels

Special Professor of Governance of Intelligence and Security Services, Paul Abels has brought out a new book, called Spionkoppen: spy chiefs. A prosopographic study into the leadership of Dutch security services from 1949 until the present, it presents eleven portraits of Dutch spy chiefs.

The founder of the Domestic Security Service [Binnenlandse Veiligheidsdienst] was a man with a mission. Extremely motivated to protect the Netherlands against the communist threat, he built – in almost sixteen years – the service as he saw it fit,” the opening line reads. It is an introduction to the portrait of Louis Einthoven, the fascinating first head of the Domestic Security Service of the Netherlands– the ‘John Edgar Hoover of the Netherlands’. He, and his predecessors, are portrayed on the basis of secondary literature and primary sources, such as news articles and a number of interviews with the former heads of the Security Service themselves and people around them.

Each portrait is structured in the same way. After a brief introduction, the preamble (or pre-life) to the position of head of service is described. This is followed by thick description of the way the particular head of service was ‘recruited’ and appointed as head of service. Some of these application procedures reveal some juicy details: Pieter de Haan, head of the BVD between 1977 and 1986, was asked in his capacity as director of a study and training centre for (higher) civil servants whether he knew any suitable successors for the sitting head. He replied that no one came to mind, but that he himself was the perfect candidate.

The third part of each chapter deals with management styles and internal leadership issues. Issues of institutional overhaul, reorganisation, or the invention of new modus operandi, or other initiatives that marked the organisation are discussed. Gerard Bouman, head of the General Intelligence and Security Service (the BVD’s successor since 2002) between 2007 and 2011, was, for example, “astonished by the lack of professional planning and management” in the organisation and reorganised the service in order to do exactly that. As a former police officer, however, his style was rather ‘direct’, ‘blunt’, and ‘harsh’, which led to opposition [Spionkoppen, 241-243].

The fourth and fifth sections deal with the heads’ relationship management skills and the way they cooperated domestically and liaised internationally. In the final part of each chapter, the so-called ‘afterlife’ is presented. By way of conclusion, this chapter does not only detail what each head did after being a spy chief, but it also offers a balanced view of their ‘legacies’ after leaving the service. The final chapter of the book then takes all these portraits together and offers several general conclusions on intelligence leadership in the Netherlands and the way in which this developed.

Professor Abels

Arthur Docters van Leeuwen

Abels’ approach provides a captivating picture of the individuals and their relationship with the Dutch services. See, for example, the chapter on Arthur Docters van Leeuwen, head of the Domestic Security Service between 1989 and 1995. Born on the day of National Socialist Germany’s surrender in 1945, Docters saw himself as a born civil servant. After studying constitutional and administrative law, he found employment at the Ministry of the Interior, in the chief department for pensions and redundancy payments. From this position, Docters quickly advanced through the ranks to become deputy director-general for public order and security. In 1988, Docters van Leeuwen was ‘tapped on the shoulder’, although he had been aiming for a different high position. He was asked whether he wanted to take on the challenge of bringing the Security Service up to date. For such a job, politicians and high civil servants had a profile in mind of someone intelligent, with imagination, creativity, and someone who had a feeling for societal and human issues – because that was exactly what the Security Service lacked at that time. Docters van Leeuwen fit this profile well and so he was asked.

He realized how difficult the job would be and asked for the necessary means, time, and support. Five months before actually starting the position, Docters talked to a great number of people inside and around the security service in order to familiarise himself with the service’s content, structures and personnel. He was up to speed, then, when he assumed office. In the first few weeks he had his analysis ready: the security service did relevant work, but somehow it had lost touch with its political, bureaucratic, and societal surroundings. It produced qualitative intelligence reports, that no one really read or was waiting for. The service at this point in time mainly collected intelligence for its own sake and hardly any intelligence was shared with consumers that would be relevant to them, Docters observed.

An overhaul was therefore necessary. In his first interview with the BVD’s internal staff magazine, Docters van Leeuwen communicated these plans directly to all employees. Change was coming and everyone needed to get on board. The five cornerstones, as put forward by Docters van Leeuwen, focused on professionalising the internal structure and procedures, and changing the external orientation of the service. Whilst Docters mobilised support in the political arena, which he found in several top officials and his ‘own’ ministers of the Interior, he faced skepticism from others, including Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers who thought of him as a ‘loud person’.

In the process, Docters decided to publicly publish annual reports in which the BVD discussed their activities and their topics of interest. In addition, the service started organising discussion evenings and spoke to the press at length. Docters himself became a public figure in the process, appearing on television regularly. Although some left the service, many stayed and became part of the sweeping changes Docters had in mind. By the time Docters left the service, he had transformed it from a Cold Warrior to a new, viable, serving security service that was well embedded in its political, bureaucratic, and societal context. It was future-proof, although, as Abels remarks, the disadvantage of such a powerful and creative figure as Docters was that it left a great vacuum after he retired. Some of his innovations – unfortunately, as Abels sees it – dried up after he left and, therefore, did not fully come to fruition.

These structured discussions of what the consecutive heads of the Domestic Security Service were like, paint an interesting picture of the Dutch intelligence culture. In this culture, the heads of service were all relatively old (55+) – although Docters van Leeuwen, who was 42 years old when he started, was an exception – men. They used to get a ‘tap on the shoulder’ by ‘insiders’, but since the end of the Cold War it has been the politicians and top officials in The Hague who do the tapping. Their styles were diverse, but most strikingly in light of the literature on British and, more emphatically, American leaders in intelligence, is the fact that all of them were serious, well-behaved administrators. They embodied the consensus that intelligence was first and foremost something democratic and bureaucratic. They were solid civil servants, not cowboys.