Security service (Kapo) ex-chief advised retirement of staff with KGB background. To deaf ears.
Jüri Pihl, the one-time Kapo chief who hired traitor Vladimir Veitman – a former KGB employee – into state office, explains the decisions of the day, claiming the next Kapo leadership failed to heed his 2007 order as interior minister to force former KGB folks into retirement.
In 1991, Estonia’s security was fragile, nothing was known of intelligence and counterintelligence. It was unclear if security authority would be laid on the police department under your command – or secret service led by Jaan Toots at Toompea.
I would not address these conflicts. As Estonia regained independence, I was working in the security police department fighting with organised crime. Back then, we had to start creating Republic of Estonia, liquidating the Soviet structures including the KGB department.
As Kapo chief at the time, you played a leading role in liquidating the Estonian KGB department.
During KGB dismantling, I worked in the subcommittee dealing with weapons and special technology. With weapons, all was clear – which is a pistol, which an assault rifle. KGB surrendered over 400 weapons. With special KGB technology, it was more difficult. As we did not know it, we started to seek for people with knowledge what it was and what could be done with it.
And you arrived at former KGB staff.
Yes, certain people from their technical service agreed to share their information with us. However, we did not need all the technology they left here. KGB had stuff here that posed health hazards, containing radioactive isotopes... We tried to keep the technology that the future secret service might need.
Sharing information lead to official working relationships.
Already then, one could sense the technical staff was inclined to change sides. As the technology and devices were taken over, the question arose what to do with these. Discussions followed, with participation of the then interior minister Olev Laanjärv, who has since died. We went with the assumption that the technology could be of use. And, along with this, some former Soviet Union security staff. Then it was decided to hire them. From the very beginning, these folks were told they would never enter leadership nor become analysts.
The «no career» message may lead to treason...
Yes, the risk was there. Even so, times were totally different. For instance, there were no laws prescribing penalties for treason. In the initial years, no one really believed anybody would turn a traitor. This was considered a conspiracy theory entertained by secret services. The Simm case was an eye opener; after that, Penal Code treason section was toughened up.
While working in the [Soviet] militia criminal investigation department, did you have occasional personal cooperation with KGB?
I have no occasions of being pulled into cooperation by KGB. Had that been the case, I would not have accepted the Kapo chief position.
Coming back to the beginning: what made the technology so special that only KGB’s own people could manage it?
It was located at the Pagari St facilities; there was an entire part of a certain floor housing the wire tapping centre. Also, they had the secret surveillance department, with much more technology.
People get the impression that all security policemen work in the main building at Toompuiestee Avenue, knowing one another. In reality, Vladimir Veitman and his companions worked in another building, in central Tallinn. Was such separation purposeful, or due to lack of space?
That was on purpose. As a rule, organisations everywhere set these departments up separately.
Hiring KGB staff being a forced move, how do you relate to retrospective critics of it?
There were a couple of opportunities, windows for letting these people go. The first one came along a year after abolishing KGB; us being ready to create our own secret service. Crime was rampant, wire tapping was not possible; still we managed some covert surveillance in the summer of 1992. As Kapo was created in 1993, the question arose. What do we do with these men. There were two options: kick them out or try to use them for some more years. It was concluded that we better kick them out and hire new people. But then the issue arose. Who then will be able to use the technology. And so it was decided to let them be. Sure, there remained shadows of doubt around them; even so they were the only people in Estonia, at the time, who were able to do that kind of a job.
As, towards the end of 1990ies, Estonia started approaching NATO, shouldn’t is have become clear that such people have no place in intelligence? As this is ruled out by NATO requirements.
Yes, then it became clear these people could no longer be used. And then, new people replaced them – graduates of our own schools.
Still, former KGB folks remained on your payroll. You did not kick them out, did you?
As things go with secret service, it must always be considered how turncoats are treated, afterwards. These things are noticed, remembered.
I agree. But, at some point in time, these people could have been sent into retirement.
To my knowledge, the opportunity arose in 2005–2006. I am being asked: why did I not kick them out as I left Kapo in 2003? On the one hand, that would not have been humane. On the other hand, with secret service, that would be no excuse...
It was known, in 2007, that an insider is leaking NATO secrets to Russia. It turned out to be Herman Simm, a man with brief prior stints with KGB. That was a signal on unreliability of people with KGB backgrounds. That they should be sacked from sensitive jobs. At that time, you served as interior minister, why did you not require that?
With the initial traitor caught, it became clear that perhaps we had missed it in the first years, promoting wrong people. In 2007–2008, all former KGB turncoats had the option to retire. Here, I will be true to myself, declaring that an order like this was given to the then police leadership: while performing necessary restructuring within the organisation, the people who have done their job ought to retire. That was a totally logical order: we can have no people working for security service who, pursuant to NATO rules, may have no access to state secrets.
With whom did you talk about that? And why, as a minister, did you not see that the order be fulfilled?
I discussed this topic with Aleksander Toots (Kapo counterintelligence chief – RB) and Raivo Aeg. We were talking that if it is possible to retire these people, why should be risk the state’s reputation, keeping them employed. I cannot tell why they did not fulfil that order, at Kapo.
How well did you know Mr Veitman?
We mostly were in contact at the beginning of 1990ies. It felt like he came over to our side – his descendants living lives elsewhere, already; his daughter living in USA. Some other colleagues had more personal ties left with Russia. With Mr Veitman, it felt like there should be no trouble: he did look towards the West, rather. Even so: you can’t see inside a person, of course.
For a decade, Russian secret service may have known who and how Kapo is wiretapping here. That is an embarrassment, for an investigative body.
Well I would not know what Mr Veitman was up to, these past ten years at Kapo. It is always unpleasant to discover a spy. It is worse if they are not discovered. In any case, he being caught is a good sign. Even so, I have to admit that it is difficult for Kapo, in hindsight, to justify keeping Mr Veitman on their payroll till 2011.
Raivo Aeg, Kapo director general in 2008–2013
I would treat job guidelines given me by minister, while in office, as something meant for professional use, not for public explanation. The more so that some such issues may fall under state secrets. When it comes to his expressed desire to swiftly retire former KGB officials, Jüri Pihl is rather relaying his thoughts, not official orders.