ISS chief on Kohver: regrettably, we must learn from our mistakes ({{commentsTotal}})

Arnold Sinisalu
Arnold Sinisalu Source: Photo: Internal Security Service

A week after abducted Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS or KaPo in Estonia) official Eston Kohver was exchanged for a former ISS employee who was sentenced for spying for Russia, ETV sat down with ISS chief Arnold Sinisalu.

Eston Kohver has been home for a week. How is he doing?

Slowly. He has to adapt with the new situation after a year in prison.

The week has certainly brought much new knowledge to the ISS. Can you talk about what you have learned about what happened in the past year, and what happened on September 5 [2014, when Kohver was abducted]?

It is too early to say – he just returned. What we can say is that procedural acts with Eston Kohver have not yet been done, as the process began without him. When the process is complete, then we will weigh whether we can write anything in the annual review or not. It is possible that the criminal investigation can not be closed without a procedural decision, it is possible that some people will be put on the wanted list and that the investigation will go on.

Secondly, the prosecution also plays a role, and we are yet to discuss such details with the prosecution. First, we will get an extensive testimony from Eston Kohver, and then decide.

Do you have a clearer picture why Russia needed to kidnap Eston Kohver?

I think speculation is pointless. We can only offer various possibilities, but we have not debated this with the Russian side, on why and how. Both sides concentrated on how to solve the situation.

ISS has come under criticism in Estonia, and some have said ISS lost 2:0 to FSB [Russian Federal Security Service]. How seriously do you take this criticism?

Criticism must always be taken seriously. The other factor is that one must look at the criticism separately from those certain people who criticize. That football score can be viewed on how one wants – if we look at 2008, then we can say the score was somewhat different. There is little substance in comparing Herman Simm, who was a SVR [Russian Foreign Intelligence Service] agent, Aleksei Dressen, a FSB agent, Vladimir Veitmann, again an SVR agent. How does one weigh and measure this? Maybe some critics just need to display themselves and talk for talk itself, while knowing little about it.

It would be just as odd, if I were to diagnose Eston Kohver's mental state – I do not have the knowledge or the qualification. What they really know and how significant the opinion is, will be on the conscience of every opinion speaker.

But certainly we are responsive to criticism. We review what has been said, why people think so, which questions are raised, as external criticism is always useful. The other thing about criticism is to ask whether it is sincere or whether there are other motives behind it.

The ISS has not made mistakes, which should be apologized for?

Apologize to whom? This is our job and I can bring a comparison. I am not sure it is 100 percent suitable, but there is an analogy – if we imagine the Estonian Defense Forces, which have taken part in battles in Iraq and Afghanistan – if we say that every injury or death of a soldier is a failure by the Estonian Defense Forces, then there is no point of sending anyone into battle, because it is inevitable that there are casualties in military conflicts, despite how well combat units do.

Our job is similar – if ISS were to imitate doing work, then probably nothing would take place, there would only be a facade. But we do work, and unavoidably risks and dangers accompany the job. This regrettable event was one of those moments, where the risks became reality and of course it is highly regrettable that this happened to Kohver. We have talked to him about it, and Eston understands those risks.

But to say that now a colossal mission to apologize to everyone must be launched – where would this lead to? We do this job, we have given an oath to the Estonian state, and we know the risks. That is all I care to say on the subject.

Maybe this is difficult to say, but it was a good lesson, on how to improve your work, as the other side showed its cards, to some extent, showing what it is capable of? Has this helped to understand how the other side behaves, or is capable is behaving?

Certainly. This is the moment, regrettably, where we must learn from our mistakes. This is the situation, about which we could not learn from the mistakes of others – as espionage historians say, these types of events took place during the Cold War and in the 1950s. The events after the year 2000 – Alexander Litvinenko, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, both murdered – these were different cases.

I would return to looking at the concrete event, we did not think this kind of solution was possible, that one would kidnap other people. This is not part of our professional code of honor. That is all I can say. Hindsight is a precise science and counts for nothing in the current case.

Let us return to September 26 this year – presidents had given a pardon, one to Dressen, the other to Kohver, then you sent Dressen to the bridge on Piusa river, did you also talk to Dressen?

Personally, I didn't.

But one of your colleagues did, what was the topic?

My colleagues talked to him. There were topics, such as practical concerns – there were a great many practical details. As you noticed, Kohver crossed over from Russia with two heavy bags while Dressen walked across with his hands in his pockets. He left a few things in prison and we agreed on details on how to return them to him.

As far as I know there was nothing in the conversation which should be made public to the Estonian people. There was nothing interesting or romantic or negative or anything which can be described by more than one adjective.

Your first meeting with Eston Kohver – what was the topic, when he was back home?

I did not have much time to talk one-on-one with Kohver. There were others close by and of course, it was a little tense – both sides, after a lengthy period apart, met for the first time, looking at how the other party behaves, maybe Kohver hesitates, maybe we hesitated. Doubts about whether he felt fine, if he is able to do all the procedures, which were planned for the day. We examined whether Kohver would meet the public, or not. It was a complicated moment – a person, who has been away from Estonia for a year, and in prison, in a difficult environment – does he understand our wish, with the minister, to address the public?

There was not much time to think and the most important thing was to have Kohver meet his family. This was primary for us. Under no circumstances did we want to make it a media show. His own well-being and a reunion with his family were the top priority.

You just mentioned a media show. Russia made this into a decent and lengthy mass media show. Did it surprise you that Russian television cameras recorded it form different angles with four cameras, with reporters present – the fact that the other side would set up such a show?

How would have that been a surprise? Russia has always been apt at propaganda and organizing media bubbles, there was nothing unusual. But there were no Russian television channels present. Yes, there were pre-positioned cameras and all the interviews, which were taken at the spot, by Russian media people, were edited. If you look at the clips closely, you can see they were not made online.

The other thing is that the other side, which feels it might have made a mistake, must justify itself more. We did not want to create a media storm and we decided to give everyone an equal opportunity to meet Kohver after he had a chance to talk to his family first. We decided that this is enough for Estonian media, that no one was preferred at the border.

We wanted to be 100 percent sure that the exchange of people would be final, that there were no misunderstandings or miss-communication. How would we imagine, if say, both sides would have cameras ready and for some technical reason, the swap would have been called off. No one wanted to be in such a situation, and what consequences would that have had for Kohver's family? There was more than one reason.

The presidential pardons were signed by Saturday morning, the time of the swap agreed, the people were ready, one on one side, the other on the other side. Were there any possibility of things going wrong? If so, then what?

As I said, this is difficult to answer. This might be speculative, but maybe the Russian side would not have accepted documents in Estonia and demanded a translated and confirmed document by a translator, or something like that. Bureaucracy is often a complex thing...

Even if they had their man on the other side and it would have been solved moments later, you reckon – even if speculating – that bureaucracy could have ended it?

Of course. In that sense, it is a fairly sensitive procedure for both sides and neither side wants to make mistakes, and for that reason one needed to rule out so called third possibilities, that at the last moment the bus is turned around and drives away in the opposite direction. So yes, we had to be prepared for this, but it all went smoothly.

It was known that three traitors are serving prison sentences in Estonia, why did Russia need Dressen?

It would be wise to ask Russia that question. That is their interest and their option. How they arrived there, you have to ask them.

I know this was asked at the press conference on Saturday, but I will ask again – does the fact that Dressen is on the other side, somehow affect the work ISS does? Even if Martin Arpo [deputy director at ISS] said at the press conference that it has been three years [since Dressen was arrested in Estonia] and he had not much to report from prison.

Three years and seven months, to be precise. But of course, the impact is equal to how much Dressen knew about our staff and certain technological solutions and methods, which we had until his capture in 2012. We must, of course, take into account certain circumstances, but in general, it was not very fatal, as we assessed our risks which were taken at the arrest of Dressen and since then, we have had to change our procedures, technical solutions and all sorts of methods.

So, on the whole, no, but we must always take into account certain circumstances. Dressen worked for us for a long time, knows many people and of course, we must consider that some risks remain, but these are not risks which cannot be foreseen or avoided.

As said, Eston Kohver was combating cross-border crime on September 5. Stopping cross-border crime will remain a job for ISS. Has this work been improved, as you have more information on how the other side may break all rules and act as it wants?

What we have here are processes, events, which are taking place now, and I can not elaborate on them. If results are achieved, they will be part of criminal proceedings and something will be made public. I cannot say anything else on this.

The entire process – as you said, you cannot talk about everything which is taking place – will it be classified for ever, or will it declassified, so that we can read about it in 75 years?

There are two sides. One is the criminal investigation, which focuses on the kidnapping of Eston Kohver. This has certain personal information, which is not public. The other side is classified information, which is in different categories, and could be secret for 25, 50, 75 years. It will depend on the situation, if we will make any part public. It would be irresponsible to give out any details right now.

I cannot rule out making everything public at some point, but this is unlikely. This is very unlikely. We have certain rights given by legislation, to go about documents and if something needs to be made public, then that is what we will do, but currently I do not see it as necessary or helpful.

Do you have an agreement with Kohver, that no books or memoirs will be written?

I have not talked to him about from that angle. Eston Kohver is a free man outside working hours. But I cannot imagine how he could write that book, as it takes into account his work and secondly, the life he had to live in prison. I have not done anything like that and I am not sure he would enjoy it. As I have understood it, Kohver wants to continue in our service and a few cases aside, our staff do not speak with the media in such a way, and publishing such a book would be akin to taking a job in another field.

Editor: J.M. Laats

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