January 28, 2010

Sorting out intelligence mess

In the eyes of the outside observer, Estonia’s intelligence and security services maintain a rather low-key profile in country’s public affairs, as befits their secretive and subtle mission. They have had their share of bad publicity and embarrassment – Herman Simm’s treason as well as scandalous allegations of illicit wiretapping activities by military intelligence spring into mind. But all this is nothing compared to the storms that battered Lithuania’s main intelligence and security organisation, the State Security Department, or VSD, over the last few years. (Not to mention past scandals of varying degree that hit other Lithuanian security and intelligence services such as the anti-corruption agency STT or military intelligence and counterintelligence service AOTD).

In the eyes of the outside observer, Estonia’s intelligence and security services maintain a rather low-key profile in country’s public affairs, as befits their secretive and subtle mission. They have had their share of bad publicity and embarrassment – Herman Simm’s treason as well as scandalous allegations of illicit wiretapping activities by military intelligence spring into mind. But all this is nothing compared to the storms that battered Lithuania’s main intelligence and security organisation, the State Security Department, or VSD, over the last few years. (Not to mention past scandals of varying degree that hit other Lithuanian security and intelligence services such as the anti-corruption agency STT or military intelligence and counterintelligence service AOTD).

Perhaps the first high-profile controversy of the last decade was related to the agency’s role in collecting evidence, which eventually led to the impeachment and removal from office of president Rolandas Paksas in 2004. It was the wiretapping by the VSD of the president’s key financial backer and shady arms merchant Yurij Borisov which produced the core of the evidence and entertained the nation during public hearings of the case for months. And it was a dramatic statement of the outgoing chief of the agency, Mečys Laurinkus, to the parliament which triggered the entire process of downfall of the disgraced president. Paksas, who was eventually barred from holding any elected or appointed national office requiring taking oath to the nation and who dodged this constraint by being elected to the European Parliament in 2008, has never ceased arguing that his impeachment was a conspiracy and essentially a coup d’état, engineered by the VSD. (Never mind, of course, that he was impeached by the majority vote of the members of parliament, after a due process of inquiry, defined by laws and the constitution). To him, the latest developments serve a further proof and vindication that he was right all along.

And those developments have been abundant. First, there was a mysterious death of the senior intelligence officer in Brest (Belarus), who was first removed from a key position in the VSD and sent out to an obscure diplomatic position in the consulate at Grodno. The circumstances surrounding the incident and its investigation by the Lithuanian authorities were more than suspicious and even prompted a parliamentary inquiry. Then came an outcry about the VSD’s refusal to submit to the parliament its analytical memos, allegedly focusing on a nexus between Russian financial and political interests and the Lithuanian political, administrative, business, media and academic elites. (As a result, the chief of the VSD was forced into resignation, but the agency did not budge on the memos issue). Add to this the fresh charges that the agency has been, without a sufficient ground and oversight and by means of getting easy approval from friendly judges, eavesdropping on critical journalists, and you get the gravity of the picture.

Most recently, the VSD’s operations came under scrutiny over the alleged presence of the CIA secret prisons in Lithuania, where suspected terrorist might have been brought in bypassing all border and migration controls and without any knowledge of the country’s political authorities (and, of course, probably subjected to all the “pleasures” of the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”). The seriousness and international resonance of the charges as well as strong conviction of the president Dalia Grybauskaitė that they were true warranted another parliamentary inquiry. It found that the conditions for holding the prisoners had been created (e.g. facilities, practices of bypassing border controls etc.), but it could not find any proof that they had actually been used. Nonetheless, this was sufficient for the president to deem the VSD guilty as charged, and the heads of its chief (who is appointed and dismissed by the president, with the parliament’s consent) as well as some of his deputies had to roll again.

All these episodes, which polarised the public opinion, discredited the VSD both domestically and internationally and undermined trust necessary in cooperation with the allied intelligence services, revolve around a fundamental and perennial issue familiar to all students of intelligence organisations or democratic control of security services. On the one hand, it is the question of how to ensure that such inherently powerful and secretive organisations serve public and national interest rather than their own agenda. Rogue intelligence services may well mutate into a threat to national security far greater than any external foes. On the other hand, it is the question of how to protect these organisations from political interference, which may turn them into subdued servants of one political party, instrumental in harassing its political opponents and in maintaining the party’s grip on power.

To the fierce opponents of the VSD, such as many members of the Conservative Party / Homeland Union and the minister of national defence Rasa Juknevičienė, the agency became a state within a state, hijacked by a corrupt clique who have been privately referring to themselves as “statesmen” and whose entangling network spanned civil and diplomatic services, military, media, business and academic world. The VSD, in this narrative, is one of the key centres of power of this web, shielding its members, collecting discrediting information against their opponents and deploying it to silence them. Worse still, as the story goes, the financial muscles of the “statesmen” clique, provided by certain gas traders, is on the Russian doping. So, by extension, Russia controls the VSD and the “statesmen”, thus accomplishing the plan of insidious and latent re-occupation of Lithuania. Knowing Moscow’s methods as well as such interesting facts that some players of the “statesmen” web like one (now former) foreign minister and one (also former) chief of the VSD were KGB reservists (“there are no former KGB people” – V. Putin), this narrative does not sound so implausible.

On the other side of the fence, the VSD’s defenders point to the long record of the conservative party in trying to politicise security sector by appointing loyalists to various positions, from top and deep down the chain of command. They also remind that some ultra-nationalist members of the party, even former MPs, were linked to the terrorist acts of the 1990s such as blowing up a bridge on the railway to Kaliningrad district or bomb assassination of the VSD agent investigating these links. These ultra-nationalists would certainly harbour a grudge or two against the agency. The case of the VSD’s defenders is that the conservatives are trying to bring the agency under the party control, whatever the damage to the organisation or to Lithuania’s reputation. And, of course, Russia is ever lurking behind. The conservative party allegedly has its own share of financing from businesses linked to Russia, and the VSD has become too much of a thorn in Russia’s neck by obstructing its insidious influence-building which reached top levels (i.e. president Paksas).

The reader would be excused for feeling like Alice in wonderland after reading these two narratives. Indeed, this is exactly the state of mind of most Lithuanians, watching all these developments with incredulity as well as, at least some of them, with growing resignation. They do not trust the politicians and, as it appears, they cannot trust organisations mandated to protect the country. The deficit of trust runs so deep as to drive a wedge between the society and the state, thus profoundly undermining national security and opening void to all sorts of populists, autocrats and political charlatans. Some say president Grybauskaitė, seen by so many as a tough leader, almost a mesiah, capable of lifting the country and its institutions out of this mess, is exactly such a character (and, of course, Russia is again calling all the shots when it comes to her actions).

Brushing all this “kingdom of broken mirrors” aside, there is one thing which gives some hope. Under the direction of the president, reform of the national intelligence system has been initiated. The first step was to ensure that there would be a proper authority which would formulate intelligence requirements and tasks as well as would oversee their delivery through a national intelligence coordinator. Until now, the VSD as well as other agencies essentially have tasked themselves. Now, the tasking will be in the hands of the State Defence Council, comprised of the president, speaker of the parliament, prime minister, minister of national defence and commander of the armed forces. At long last, supremacy of national politics and strategy over bureaucratic interests might be asserted, although it is absolutely not certain if, in practice, politicisation of intelligence and security community will be avoided.

This is because the full scale and details of the reform are yet to be revealed. It is conducted, yet again, in a manner not conducive to restoring public trust: the national intelligence concept has not been made public or open for debate (at least its non-classified parts). In liberal democracies, concerned about “who guards the guardians” and about the balance between liberties and security, revealing only general principles is not enough. And it is certainly not enough in Lithuania, where the mess is so great, the distrust is so pervasive and the role of the intelligence community in ensuring national security is so essential.

Contemporary democratic societies have learned how to debate sensitive issues of intelligence and counterintelligence architecture without compromising national secrets. Transparent debate and robust mechanisms of public oversight would assure that no undue influences were exerted on the details of this architecture or framework governing interactions of various players. Alas, as in many cases of governance in Lithuania, exclusion and decision-making behind the closed doors prevail over transparency, proper debate and inclusion of society. Pity as it is, this approach will have sown the seeds of another institutional failure in the future, and of all people, the president ought to know it best.

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