Estonian intelligence operative: Our special tool is our brain

The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) has allowed an active intelligence officer to give an interview for the first time since Estonia regained its independence. Illustrative photo. PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) has allowed an active intelligence officer to give an interview for the first time since Estonia regained its independence. The interview took place following strict secrecy rules and Postimees did not learn the agent’s identity.

The journalist was not given the chance to meet with the operative face to face. The intelligence service did not say where to call and when until the morning of the interview. Around 20 minutes before the interview was scheduled to start, an EFIS employee delivered a push button phone that had a single number in its phonebook. When the journalist called the number at the prescribed time, the interviewee answered.

The agent was accommodating and willing to talk about everything his job permits. “Call me Mart,” he said at the start of the interview, adding that it is not his real name. The agreed upon half-hour interview ended up stretching to 50 minutes.

How should one refer to you? Are you a spy, an intelligence agent or someone else?

The correct term is “foreign intelligence service employee.” Whether someone is a spy depends on which side you’re on. A foreign country’s intelligence operative active in Estonia is a spy. As EFIS employees, we consider ourselves intelligence operatives.

When and how did you end up working for EFIS?

There are three ways one ends up working for the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, broadly speaking. First, it is possible that you know someone who recommends you and you receive an invitation. You can also run for a position yourself. And thirdly, you can respond to a job ad.

I have been active in the intelligence world for over 20 years. In my case, someone knew someone who was recruiting back in university and I was asked whether I was interested. I said yes. EFIS contacted me an conducted an interview. They were in touch again several times until finally we were filling out forms. That is how it happened.

How old are you?

I’m roughly 45.

Tell us about career progression? I’m sure you were not sent on a mission on your first day.

First came training. You need to be clear on how things work and regulations first. Next come simpler tasks that gradually become more challenging and so on. Of course, I was not thrown in the deep end on day one. I learned from others. These things happen much as they do elsewhere.

What qualities does an intelligence operative need?

That depends on which structural unit you are working for. Their tasks are different, meaning that different qualities are needed. However, all our employees need a quick wit. Our number one special tool is our mind. You won’t get anywhere without it. Next come more specific skills. For example, some people need perfect language proficiency, whereas I’m not just talking about Russian and English, but also Chinese and Arabic for example. There are jobs where you need to take an interest in people as such. To break into people so to speak.

How much of your work takes place abroad?

Most of it happens in other countries. To try and put it in simple terms, let us look at human intelligence or attempts to secure information directly from persons. It’s like solving a puzzle and the person is at the heart of that puzzle. The trick is to find that person first and then solve them. Not like in the movies, where one person tells the other that they have money to exchange for information and suggests a friendly rapport. It is that simple sometimes but usually isn’t. It usually requires a lot of planning and analytical work. So-called fieldwork is just a part of what we do.

Does EFIS take advantage of people’s weaknesses when trying to recruit them? Someone who is in debt or has less than strictly legal hobbies that can be used to motivate them to cooperate?

The first thing is to try and determine a person’s character traits, needs and potential weaknesses. Trying to recruit someone and determine what works with them and what definitely doesn’t is a time-consuming process. It is not as easy as in the movies.

You also need to consider the risk of counterintelligence catching you.

That risk is always there. You need to come up with different ways to avoid that. But yes, there is always some risk operating abroad. As said before, you are an intelligence officer for your own country, while you are spy that needs to be caught for the other side.

Have your colleagues been caught?

There is no way I can answer that. All kinds of things happen in life.

Intelligence operatives work both disguised as diplomats and on their own. Which method does EFIS use more often?

This is what is known as traditional and non-traditional cover. Traditional cover came with agreements of diplomatic immunity. Countries engage in intelligence activity using diplomatic cover. Non-traditional cover is lacking diplomatic immunity and comes with greater risks. Both have pros and cons. As concerns Estonia’s modus operandi, that information is a little too specific. I cannot answer that as it falls under the category of state secrets.

I’m sure we can say Estonian intelligence operatives use non-traditional cover?

Yes, of course. All manner of cover is used to hide one’s identity. Cover is not a goal in itself. The goal is to complete a specific intelligence mission that requires cover etc. Sometimes it is not necessary to use cover. There are times when simply making contact under your own name works best. But that is not always possible, which is when you need to use a different identity and flag so to speak.

Talking about Estonian intelligence, one first thinks of Russia. In what other countries are Estonian intelligence agents active? You mentioned the need to speak Chinese and Arabic for example.

A lot of countries is all I can say. It depends on the mission, task and needs. Places where intelligence activities are easier to pursue, where there is a greater chance of success and better security are preferred. It is determined by what the task prescribes and where it can be performed. I would refrain from pointing out specific countries. We might as well just read out a list of them.

Is Estonian intelligence only active in so-called unfriendly states or do you also stage operations in allied countries?

It has happened. We have strong allied relations and we’ve carried out quite a few joint operations. I dare say we are valued among our allies.

Are allied intelligence services always aware of your operations in their territory or are there exceptions?

They are for the most part.

When did you last work abroad?

A few weeks ago.

How often do you need to leave the country for work?

It happens. It is different at different times as certain things need a lot of preparation. That also requires traveling. You might not have to go anywhere for weeks, while a period of traveling might then follow. And then you return.

How long can these missions take?

Not very long, it’s usually a few weeks. We do get to come home before we have to leave again.

The coronavirus has introduced major travel restrictions. Do they affect intelligence work?

Of course. The entire world is affected by the coronavirus, including our traveling. Some things take more time today, while the job still needs to get done. Sometimes you have to take a detour etc. Travel restrictions affect everyone. But we cannot say there are only negative consequences. There are useful aspects as well.

Does an intelligence agent need to be in top physical form? Have you ever had to use physical strength or fight in your work?

My tasks have never required me to fight someone. As concerns physical preparation, our most developed muscle needs to be our brain, everything else comes second. We need to be fit simply because sometimes you need to take a very long walk. We need to stay in shape to maintain mobility and the ability to perform certain technical tasks, ensure our own safety and make sure we’re not being monitored. That requires a physical base.

But physical form is not the most important thing in intelligence. A person who is in a wheelchair but has a well-developed sense for other people, ability to read people and convince them would make for a brilliant EFIS employee candidate in my book. Others can take them where they need to go.

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