Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles about the Columbus Group, an association of intelligence services from small countries in Europe. Columnist Robert Eringer was involved at the time as head of the intelligence service in the Principality 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.
Because our service had uncovered rampant corruption among them.
Welcoming our guests from Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Malta, I wrote:
“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, 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 Russian President Vladimir 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. Afterward, 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, 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.
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 pm.
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 unofficialness 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.
On June 18, 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 OK 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 canceled Columbus after French President Nicolas 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.
Robert Eringer is a longtime Montecito author with vast experience in investigative journalism. He welcomes questions or comments at email@example.com.