Estonian foreign intelligence in the spotlight

Joosep Värk
, reporter
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Photo: Kollaaž

A meeting between a member of US president-elect Donald Trump's close circle and a pro-Putin member of the Russian State Duma in a Eastern European country was picked up by the Estonian Information Board, Newsweek wrote yesterday, based on information from several people with ties to the agency.

Provided the information is true, it comes as unprecedented recognition for the Estonian foreign intelligence agency that was allegedly asked to help stage the operation. The Information Board does not confirm the information in keeping with the rules of the intelligence world.

Former Estonian intelligence coordinator Eerik-Niiles Kross said the meeting in question could have taken place in Prague in late August, early September of last year between Trump's lawyer Micheal Cohen and State Duma delegate Konstantin Kosachev. The claim comes from a dossier on Trump published by BuzzFeed yesterday. The latter reads that Cohen and Kosachev met on the premises of Russia's compatriots policy agency Rossotrudnichestvo in Prague.

Cohen said yesterday that he has never been to Prague, while Trump added that the dossier is not worth the paper it is printed on. Specialists consulted by Postimees also said the dossier needs to be used with a measure of skepticism as a part of the information within is questionable at best, while some claims clash with intelligence principles.

However, utterances by Trump during a press conference held yesterday suggest that at least a part of the information in the dossier came from intelligence agencies. The same conclusion is drawn in the Newsweek article that makes mention of the Information Board. The article also mentions that the intelligence service has warned the Estonian government that Russia poses the greatest threat to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which hardly comes as news for the locals.

The mere possibility the Information Board could have conducted such an operation means our partners hold our foreign intelligence service in high regard, as well as the fact our intelligence has operatives where others do not, which is why they are asked to help.

Postimees spoke to several experts who said that the work of the Information Board has been valued much more highly since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. Until then, Estonia and the other Baltic countries had been seen as one-trick ponies that only ever talked about things that lie due east. The attitude of Western intelligence services changed considerably after the annexation of Crimea.

This is why it is no longer rare that foreign heads of state who need up-to-date information on Russia turn to Estonian special services. The reason for this is held to be the fact that Estonia has never lost interest in Russia and has know-how the intelligence agencies of other countries may already have lost.

The latter is reflected if only in that Estonian agents speak brilliant Russian rich in nuances that gives them a clear edge over Western partners – while foreign agents can spend years learning Russians, it may not bring them closer to understanding intelligence lingo. Our agents also have different kinds of know-how others lack – things pertaining to the Russian military or economy.

We can even speculate that Estonia is ahead of its Baltic neighbors in the latter category. Latvia and Lithuania may be more skilled in certain fields of intelligence and remain the preferred partners of Nordic countries and those further away.

It is said that the Information Board has been inspired by recent success and become more diligent in exchanging information itself. It is believed the agency actively cooperates with 15-20 foreign intelligence agencies, including the CIA.

The value attributed to our intelligence was reflected in the August visit of US Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper. Events mentioned in Trump's dossier took place at around the same time, even though the two events have no other connection. Postimees has been told that Clapper praised the work of Estonian special services during the meeting, and even though no concrete cases were mentioned, the look in Clapper's eye had allegedly been telling.

It is probable the Estonian public will never learn of the Information Board's greatest victories as that is the nature of intelligence. However, we can still talk about the top of the iceberg: the agency played an important role in apprehending Herman Simm and other traitors, even though we'll never know the details.