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Security chief: Russia failed to surprise us

Send us a hint
PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu / Postimees

Arnold Sinisalu, having completed a year as director-general of Estonian Internal Security Service – the Kapo – tells Postimees it is typical for people to pop up and claim «I knew it» as somebody gets caught. He stressed that when troubled for security and safety of the state, people ought to see that they do right as the opponent makes no decisions. All it can do is try and trick us to make the wrong ones.

A year ago, your predecessor Raivo Aeg said «Arnold Sinisalu has practically grown up in the organisation. As a leader, he may come under the one-of-us kind of pressure when having to take decisions.» Was he right?

Surely, in certain kinds of situations emotional ties come into play, trying to hinder. Going by the relationship alone, the danger would be there to take too long to decide and miss out. I personally don’t think I have been impeded this way, but perhaps some things have been more difficult to communicate to employees, emotionally.

Several domestic security insiders have said the last Kapo Annual Review was less meaty than the ones before. That’s not necessarily a put-down, but it serves to raise the question whether Kapo no longer has feats to display, to warn the public? Or, have the Mihhail Kõlvart and Yana Toom cases [who have sued Kapo, with partial success at initial stages – edit] made you more careful?

I don’t think we have had fewer feats, rather the opposite is true. The issue is what to publish. I don’t think the public would like to find, while reading, overly sharp or ambiguous expressions. Five years ago, we intentionally chose to have a review more placid, not emotional.

When it comes to court cases of Ms Toom and Mr Kõlvart, we are waiting for the verdict as there are lots of things we don’t agree with in principle. But we definitely haven’t changed anything because of the court cases, neither have we chickened out.

But overall, how many things are there that Kapo will not touch publicly, thus not revealing major feats?

Rather, it is only a part of our work that we may publish.

In an ideal world, security service would have a situation where there’s no treason and no one needs to be jailed. A little while before I became director-general, people responsible for proceedings decided that, like counter-intelligence, we must do more to inform the decision-makers. If an employee is at fault while organising a public procurement, let’s say, then the management of the agency is able to sack him early on. We will not wait for that person to commit the crime. That’s been a change. The aim is not try hard to get criminal cases going and to spawn court cases.

British journalist Edward Lucas recently complimented Kapo, noting that Estonia’s counter intelligence towards Russia is far ahead of the rest of Europe. Which is it then: are we so good, or are the others depressingly bad?

Hard to say. Mr Lucas knows Estonia well. I, on the other hand, do not know the other European countries so well as to pass a judgement. A lot depends on the country, the legal environment. Possibly, in some countries, they have managed to direct the processes so as to avoid court cases.

I do not believe, of course, that Russian intelligence in Estonia would be multiple times more active than in other countries. We get along well, with our colleagues. I think they all do a serious job.

After the recent corruption case surfaced at Information Board, the question has been posed. Who would control the controllers? Chancellor of Justice Indrek Teder – as advised by your predecessor Raivo Aeg, by the way  – wishes to legalise his oversight regarding security authorities. Defence and interior ministries have refused to support the bill; what do you say?

It’s a very old question. In 1995 ideas were expressed that an organisation ought to be created, as large as Kapo; around the clock, they would be checking each officer at intelligence. Somewhere, there needs to be trust. If trust has not been damaged, no need for blanket control. That would sink the organisation; for if you’ll keep letting honest people know they are not trusted, there comes a time they’ll say «good bye».

By the Wikileakses and Snowdens, lots of dust has been stirred up; human right activists now wish to combine two uncompromising notions: to have security guaranteed, and to have basic rights never infringed at all. Impossible, you know! This is like they used to say: want an omelette, need to crush some eggs.

Even now, the Chancellor of Justice has the option, in certain cases and in case a complaint has been filed, to verify why a person’s basic rights have been infringed or what has actually happened. How to do that, is already stated in State Secrets Act and Classified Foreign Information Act.

Security authorities like to say that traitors getting caught show the strength of an organisation. In reality, over the 20 years, we haven’t any cases of traitors caught, except in defence ministry and Kapo. Nothing in such a vast organisation as Defence Forces, for instance. Worried about that?

Good question. This definitely is food for thought. Defence Forces is like any other structure – there’s always the danger of someone being a traitor.

A while ago, when our forces were not too strong as yet, it may not been of great interest for the enemies. In the second half of the 1990iees, state secrets came under stronger protection. For a long while, counter-intelligence in Defence Forces was not out job – they did intelligence and counter-intelligence by themselves.

As Vladimir Veitman was caught as traitor, you said old KGB cadre had no access to vital investigations. Still Mr Veitman managed to warn Russian counter-intelligence that Herman Simm has been traced down and the whole operation was close to coming off rails. How did Mr Veitman learn that you were after Mr Simm? Was anybody punished, at Kapo, for leaking the information?

Even though we have disclosed that Mr Veitman betrayed the Mr Simm case, we still succeeded in arresting and suing Mr Simm. Regarding Mr Veitman, there was not enough information regarding things that he’d have done wrong; so we went by the principle of trust till proven otherwise.

Secondly, Mr Veitman indeed gained access to some information, but not all of it. The Simm treason case was a first for us; maybe we could not foresee everything. Third persons got access to information who perhaps shouldn’t have. But that’s the hindsight wisdom. I would not like to criticise the people who finished the case.

Why is it that, in several circles, it was known that Kapo policeman Indrek Põder was a crook, but Kapo tackled the issue quite late? Did Mr Põder cross the pain threshold when starting to do business with residence permits with organised criminals in Russia?

This is the very typical situation where somebody gets caught and the some fellows jump up and say they knew it long ago. At times, our staff has to also communicate with criminals and to the outside observer, this may seem suspicious. If anyone has information, be so kind as to come tell us.

The latest Annual Reviews have all underlined Islamic terror threat in Estonia. You’ve personally said hat here, especially among ladies, we have committed converts to Islam who favour its harsh and radical side. Is enough being done to tackle the danger?

That’s not Kapo’s business alone. We are trying to prevent criminal behaviour, but it is not up to us to change anybody’s religious convictions. The issue is not Islam, rather its extreme forms. We have our share of Estonians who have lived in Islamic countries for longer periods of time, or have converted to Islam here. A psychological aspect comes into play: figuratively saying, at times people want to be more Pope-like than the Pope. To show to persons from Islamic countries that I’m a real follower of Islam, getting into the extreme ditch. Islam being rare here, they do not know what to do and how to be. At times, people do act plain stupid.

The danger is not a matter of two-three generations; the danger is in this very generation – the one that is coming up. As they go to school, how will the classmates relate to some dressed drastically «Islam»? Will the kid be accepted or teased? Should a vociferous minority emerge and start to demand its rights and enforce these on everyone – like in Western Europe – then conflict is up.

Secondly, whatever is happening in Syria, Iraq, and North-Africa has had an impact on converts. Those that have fought there are returning, and having some kinds of plans. The seeds of conflict are there, but it’s difficult to say whether they will reach here.

In this Annual Review, you predicted activation of Russian foreign intelligence service SVR during the EU elections. What did SRV try to do and how did they do?

This I cannot comment in details. No remarkable success for them, we think. No radical was elected. They have always wished for a unified party and a vociferous carrier of the Russian idea, but no changes here.

What, to the Kapo knowledge, lies behind the VEB Fund affair? According to Riigikogu member Aivar Riisalu, part of the solution is hidden in Kapo documents, classified for 70 years.

The case is sadly overblown. I can’t explain what our classified document contained, the one we forwarded to Riigikogu VEB Fund committee. Kapo came in touch with it, back then, as we just wanted to have a look at the broader background: whether or not there was a danger of organised crime or Russian special services to abuse the situation. We never launched an investigation, meaning there were no data pointing to a crime.

Now they are saying that Kapo has a secret paper and in 70 years we will know. That would be disappointment indeed: nothing world-changing in the document, and the time isn’t 70 years, rather it’s 25.

A high state official told Postimees, at the height of the Ukrainian crisis, that on a scale one to ten, threat to Estonian state security was eight. Was he being overly afraid?

I think out security and safety was guaranteed. There’s never a 100 percent guarantee, but things are good enough. Russia managed to surprise part of the world, but not us – really.

When troubled for security and safety of the state, people ought to see that they do right. Surely, the opponent is trying to impact processes so that we ourselves would make wrong decisions, based on emotions. It is Kapo’s job to make sure such attempts come to nothing.

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