Fog in the Baltic
Nov 6th 2008 | TALLINN
From The Economist print edition
A sensational arrest inside Estonia’s defence ministry
FROM the published information, it hardly seems like a big deal. On September 21st Herman Simm, a middle-ranking civil servant in Estonia’s defence ministry, was arrested, along with his wife, and charged with spying for an unnamed foreign power. Mr Simm has made no public statement and his lawyer has not responded to requests for comment. Estonian officials flatly decline to discuss the case. But it is likely to come to court next year. If convicted, Mr Simm faces a jail term of between three and 15 years.
Some of the case’s details are startling. Mr Simm was already sidelined at the time of his arrest. But his previous job had been ultra-sensitive: he set up and ran the system for handling all classified information—including top-secret documents from Estonia’s NATO allies. He had been responsible for handling security clearances for Estonian officials in the military, security and intelligence services. A foreigner who is familiar with the case talks of “a potential European equivalent of Aldrich Ames” (once Russia’s top spy in America, who for years headed a CIA counter-intelligence department and is now serving a life sentence in jail). That could make this the worst NATO security breach to have happened for many years.
More intrigue surrounds the mysterious disappearance, at about the time of Mr Simm’s arrest, of a contact who is an Italian-employed Spaniard. This person is thought to have been an “illegal”: a Russian spy infiltrated into Europe via Latin America, using a carefully constructed false identity, and able to operate all round the European Union without suspicion. Such “illegals” are the crown jewels of foreign intelligence work: their bogus identities are complex and expensive to arrange, and they usually handle only a single source. But in what appears to have been a bad bit of espionage tradecraft by Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, this Spanish citizen contacted another highly placed source in a different NATO country and made slightly clumsy attempts to recruit him. The subject reported the encounter, setting in train the investigation that led to Mr Simm’s arrest.
A huge damage-control operation is now under way to work out what Mr Simm knew or had tried to find out. The security clearances he issued and denied, and any personnel moves resulting from them, are also under review. And security officials across Europe are busily checking the elusive Spaniard’s recent movements for other clues about clandestine activities. They are also following up the paper trail that brought him such an apparently convincing identity as an EU citizen.
The affair has raised many other questions. The Russian media are jeering that the Baltic states are not only Western stooges, but incompetent to boot. Yet the consensus in the world of shadows is not that new members of NATO such as Estonia are unreliable. On the contrary, Estonia’s intelligence and security services are well-regarded, which makes them a worthy target for foreign espionage. It was good counter-intelligence work that led to the arrest. And in most NATO countries, notes a seasoned Baltic-based spook, such scandals are usually hushed up, not prosecuted so gutsily.
Thursday, November 06, 2008
Fog in the Baltic