Thursday, May 11, 2006

Poland survey chapter 3: spy games

Spy games

May 11th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Old habits die hard

IMAGINE that different factions in America's Federal Bureau of Investigation made a habit of bugging politicians and leaking material to journalists; that America's military intelligence agency was not under effective Pentagon control, and was engaged in large-scale business activities, both legal and illegal; and that former senior officers held influential positions in many of America's big companies and public organisations. Imagine, further, that several dozen officers currently serving in the organisation had been trained by Soviet military intelligence and were still in regular contact with their former trainers.


Sikorski was spied on for too long

That, broadly, was the situation confronting Poland's new government when it took office late last year. It helps to explain why it has made cleaning up the country's intelligence and security services such a priority. In particular, liquidating the WSI, the military intelligence agency and one of Poland's last outposts of unreformed communist-era bureaucracy, was a central theme of last year's election campaign.

One of the politicians keenest on sorting out the WSI was Radek Sikorski, who had already served in two post-communist governments. The skeleton in his cupboard, he feared, was that while studying at Oxford in the early 1980s, as a political refugee from communist Poland, he had been a member of the Bullingdon club, a student fraternity notorious for its wild parties. He fully expected some of his youthful follies to rebound on him during the election campaign. But there was not even a rumble. Within days of Mr Sikorski becoming defence minister, he was negotiating the resignation of the WSI's director and other top brass.

A few months later, he was able to see his own file. This showed that the WSI's communist-era predecessor had indeed been spying on him at Oxford (though the champions of proletarian internationalism had failed to penetrate the aristocratic Bullingdon). That was to be expected. What was more alarming was that the WSI had also kept him under intensive surveillance after the collapse of communism—and even after his brief stint as deputy defence minister in 1991-92.

Mr Sikorski (who is married to a former correspondent for this newspaper) has started to send all the WSI's Soviet-trained officers into early retirement. All remaining staff will have to undergo rigorous scrutiny. The organisation will be divided into conventional intelligence and counter-intelligence units. The new boss will be a civilian, not a soldier, and new recruits will include civilians too.

Both new services will have plenty to do, not least keeping up to date with the military developments in Belarus and Russia. Poland's Western allies already value their co-operation with the country's foreign intelligence service, the AW. The military branch should enjoy similar trust after its clean-up. But “there is still a huge threat to security from these people because they are rich and powerful,” says Zbigniew Wasserman, the government's intelligence co-ordinator.

There is another danger: that as one monster is slain, a new one may arise. Although Mr Sikorski insisted on keeping his intelligence service inside his ministry, Mr Wasserman wanted all the reformed services to report to him. Some fear that if Mr Wasserman did get his way over creating a single ministry of state security, the vital Chinese wall between politicians and spooks would crumble further. That is worth worrying about because the process is already under way. And however conscientious the present government may be in keeping the spies away from political opponents, its successors might prove less fastidious.

Mr Wasserman, a charismatic former prosecutor, brushes such worries aside. “In the light of the threats, we need full co-ordination and full control,” he says. Not everyone will be reassured by that.

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