Interior minsiter says security authorities cannot and must not monitor everything

Risto Berendson
, reporter
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Having been in contact with French security authorities, Estonia's interior minister Hanno Pevkur tells Postimees in interview what our relevant bodies may do to maintain safety. 

- It’s three days from the act of terror. On Saturday, the interior ministry was busy. Was Sunday like that as well, and what happens on Monday?

We are trying to stay current: have we gotten additional information, and what it contains. On Monday we will have a larger meeting.

- And who have been invited to the table?

All who are needed i.e. the ministers related to the domain plus all security authorities and Police and Border Guard.

- How did Estonia’s interior minister learn of the terror attack in Paris?

Just like the rest of the world. When the initial international messages appeared in the media.

- Why did you have to talk this over, Saturday morning, with security police and the police?

This is logical when an event of this calibre happens in the world. Then, the initial contact id over the phone, and from there we decided it would make sense to meet and look the information in the eye. Everything cannot be spoken about over the phone.

- It was decided on Saturday that more would need to be invested in domestic security. That perhaps somebody should be handed more weapons. What were these other thoughts about?

The main and most urgent [item on agenda] was security of the French embassy in Tallinn, and the related decision was taken before the police before we ever met. Then we looked at the overall picture of the danger. In security police’s opinion, this has not changed in Estonia specifically, but considering the decisions of our partners to engage in stricter border control, we thought it right to pay more attention to what is happening at the border. And, as a measure of deterrence, we will use increased presence.

- On the airport, police patrols may already be seen among other things equipped with automatic weapons. Will they appear elsewhere also?

They already have. Primarily on the «green» border (border line outside the checkpoints – edit).

- Closely linked to the French terrorist attacks is the refugees topic as at least one attacker had freshly gotten into Europe as a refugee. To assume this was the one and only ISIS terrorist among the hundreds of thousands of refugees would be stupid. In a sleeping state, they may also be in Finland, Sweden, Estonia, and this puts Europe in a totally new security situation, multiple times more complex.  

Obviously the events in Paris will be utilised by various political powers in order to link the war refugees topic with terrorism, but these things should be kept separate. There are people who need help and who are specifically fleeing such terror and war.

Estonia’s position is that the people who do not need protection in Europe should be quickly expelled. Therefore, border control and identification and registration of people is extremely vital. Even if these people will be moving inside the European Union, it is possible to identify them and obtain as much advance information on them as possible.

- These past six-seven years there has been this talk in Europe about something called smart borders. That when one enters Europe from some and, this will afterwards be possible to monitor. Why such lack of success with the project?

There has been a measure of success also, these past few years. In connection with the work of European IT-agency, the smart border systems have also been tested. At that, one of those to test it was Estonia. And the summary will be published pretty soon. But this is more important regarding legal travelling, and traveller comfort.  

When it comes to terrorism, it is inevitable that when people who have never been here before enter the European Union, their fingerprints will be taken and the person is identified. This is of critical importance.

- The scale is so large at the moment that it is not sure at all how effectively it is managed to process that information before another terrorist attack takes place.

I agree, the mass is large. However, this should in no way discount our procedures. We begin with the simplest thing: reading the fingerprints will not take long and this already serves as the first means of identifying the people.

- Due to the events this past year, there is the talk of failure of Schengen system. Hungary, initially railed a lot because of the fence they built, Hungary is already being praised.

A basic value of the European Union is the free movement of people. Due to that, the existence of the Schengen area is extremely vital. Not just for the free movement of people, but also for the sake of the economy. Giving up Schengen would not only mean waiting lines at borders for people, but for goods. That would affect the European economy and the economic growth. Estonia will do everything to the Schengen area to remain.

- In Europe, police cooperation and information exchange are on an excellent level even now. Here, the security authorities are on a level altogether different, and not in the good sense at all. Will the attacks in Paris turn it around?

Actually, security authorities are in quite good cooperation across Europe. Even now, we have received information from colleagues in France and elsewhere. But the fact remains that with attacks like these, it will be discussed what could be done better and what are the data to be mutually exchanged. What could have avoided the attacks. These questions always arise.

In my assessment, the task most critical and urgent is to obtain as much clarity as possible regarding the background of these attackers: when they came into Europe, whether they had lived here for a longer while etc. It is not prudent to begin drawing final conclusions without knowing the background.

- In all likelihood, the only one identified in Paris by Sunday – an ISIS combatant – was not the only such specimen among the masses of refugees which have arrived in Europe these past months. And if we take the French who have, if not the best security authority in Europe but surely the second best …

The French definitely have very good Middle East capability.

- And knowing that, it feels like the electronic intelligence which plays a large role in the work of security authorities did not work at all this time. And this makes one assume that the terrorists have totally swapped to the strategy to only give orders face to face. If so, that would bring back into intelligence the old standards with work with the agency at the forefront.

And well for that reason it is very important to take it all apart, thoroughly. In order to learn what the communication channels were, how information was exchanged, how it was coordinated. The greater the capability of the intelligence bodies, the greater the chance to avoid such things. In Europe, there have been plenty of announcements about groups being arrested who were busy planning an attack.

But the fact also remains that we do not desire a situation where everybody is being monitored. A prerequisite for a democracy based on the rule of law is that people have a right for private life and privacy. And indeed the security authorities cannot monitor everybody. The aim is to primarily deal with risks.