Erkki Bahovski: Estonian and US reputations on the line

Erkki Bahovski

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Understandably, an US Embassy has specific security requirements to stick to. On the other hand, it is not permissible to snoop after innocent people. Between these two, a compromise needs to be sought, writes columnist Erkki Bahovski.

Last week, Postimees published the news that US Embassy is surveying suspicious people in central Tallinn who, «with luck», may end up under visa ban. A media snowball was set a-rolling – some said this was a boost to Kremlin propaganda, others suggested the article would have been better not written. Etc.

As for Kremlin propaganda, they will find something anyway. The opposite is true: for Postimees to cover secret activities by US Embassy, Estonian media proved no to be pawn in White House hands as often insinuated by Kremlin propagandists. Even in social media, one finds the ever present hints at Estonian media fawning before USA.

For media, any writing about security is a challenge. As pointedly observed by Edward Lucas in his pamphlet «The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster», use of classified documents at a newspaper is always risky, as such documents require a firm hand. They cannot be left in a desk drawer or laptop computer. When documents are classified, it’s not just that the information may be of vital interest to other nations; also, it’s because leaking of the info may damage many people. On the other hand, we have the question of the source – media needs to be able to protect its sources. Hopefully, Postimees has managed both – the sensitive documents and protection of sources.

I would have liked it even better if Estonia’s Russian-speaking journalists had published the US Embassy news. Naturally, they would have encountered even meaner accusations of acting as Kremlin agents. Even so, on the other hand, again we would have been able to show – which is of greater importance – that Estonia is a free country where no journalist needs to fear for his actions. In the latest Freedom House report, Estonia stands 16th in the world for media freedom. Russia ranks 83rd. Thereat, Estonia’s category is «free», Russia’s «non-free». According to Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, the gap is wider yet: Estonia is 10th, Russia 152nd.

Russia has attempted to justify its villainies with what USA has done. Under US leadership, the West bombed Libya and took Kosovo from Serbia, thus they are okay to bomb Eastern Ukraine and grab Crimea. The Americans started the war in Iraq, so they are also free to trigger one – the way the Kremlin logic goes. To parallel anti-Americanism, Moscow ideologists use Russophobia – whatever you write about Russia’s government, you qualify for that. And, doubtless, the recent US Embassy news comes handy to justify Russia’s own surveillance.

Every embassy has its security protocol. Nothing strange about that. With US Embassy, one needs to remember this is the most global one there is. Meaning: once Washington gets signals about attacks prepared against some embassy in some country, security measures may be boosted in all US embassies globally. That, for instance, was what happened when in 1998 US embassies came under attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. After that, embassy security rules were toughened. Due to recent turbulence in the Middle-East, again US embassies have had reason to be concerned and this may have touched all embassies of theirs.

Pursuant to Vienna Convention, any nation of location is under obligation to protect foreign embassies but, as evidenced by the attacks against US ones, some states have not succeeded to do that. By what the media is saying at the moment, the main issue is whether the US Embassy acted according to powers granted by Estonia or went beyond that. Meanwhile, the Estonian side knew of the surveillance, thus a scandal – if we could call it that – of the Wikileaks/Snowden calibre is rather out of the question.

But as such topics come (intelligence, embassy security, international security cooperation) there’s a lot we do not know and whatever turn the outcome of the news may take. For instance, we can only guess if the Postimees news made US Embassy to alter its security protocol, what the correspondence with Washington has been like, and which information the Department of State allows to distribute to Estonian public. And what kinds of reports are being sent to capitals by other embassies.

I really do hope that Estonia and USA will manage to settle the issue between themselves. Understandably, an US Embassy has specific security requirements to stick to. On the other hand, it is not permissible to snoop after innocent people. Between these two, a compromise needs to be sought. Neither is it in US interests to damage its reputation right in Russia’s neighbourhood.

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