Government's 'Need to Know' About Covert Ops Debated (1)
The fact that top government officials were blindsided by Friday's revelations that Estonian counterintelligence official Eston Kohver had been captured by Russia, probably on the Estonian side of the border, has sparked discussion about how much Estonian cabinet members need to know about what security institutions are doing at any given moment.
Compared to some of its fellow EU member states, Estonia gives its security police and other national security agencies more leeway for conducting covert operations. On an ETV panel on the "Foorum" program, security and intelligence analysts debated the country's current practices.
Kalle Klandorf, a former police official and a Tallinn deputy mayor, said at least the interior minister should know about any major operation in his ministry's jurisdiction. "Otherwise a silly situation could arise where two agencies know but the state's political leaders don't."
Justice Minister Andres Anvelt agreed, saying that such operations could be coordinated and political and civilian higher-ups briefed on what was going on.
But Interior Minister Hanno Pevkur disagreed, saying politicians would ultimately be criticized for sticking their noses in the secret services' business. "We have built our state on definite principles and one of them is that criminal proceedings and security where special information gathering is used takes place by court permission. Courts are sufficiently independent to give permission for intelligence gathering."
Security analyst and politician Eerik-Niiles Kross agreed with Pevkur, saying the need to coordinate everything with the administration would bog down the practical value of covert activity. And, both he and Pevkur said, the operation in question involved a foreign citizen, a supposed informant, and such meetings are more complicated to arrange.
Kohver was involved in an operation - probably meeting a Russian informant at the border - when he was ambushed on Friday.
On Friday evening, top officials, like Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas who was attending the Wales summit, did not initially have the background on what Kohver was involved with. Officials scrambled on Friday to find out more about the situation before information about the apparent abduction was shared with the public.