Meelis Oidsalu: The real reason for the intelligence chief quitting

Meelis Oidsalu.
Meelis Oidsalu. Source: Ken Mürk

Former Ministry of Defense Undersecretary Meelis Oidsalu takes a look at the performance as a top state official of Mikk Marran set to quit as head of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) to go and run state forest manager RMK.

The unexpected and premature resignation and decision to go into a completely different field – forestry – of Estonia's foreign intelligence chief Mikk Marran took the public by surprise last week.

No one was willing to publicly comment on the reasons for Marran's departure. This kind of tongue-tie is referred to as tact in social vocabulary, and were we dealing with a merely social decision, accepting the involved parties' tight-lipped stance would be in good taste.

However, when it comes to security agencies, another word applies: "civil control." This oft abused phrase means, among other things, that representatives of the people and their employers, that is the public, have enough information regarding staffing decisions of security agency heads, even when those choices are seemingly made by said heads themselves.

The article at hand makes no attempt to contest the director's given reason of needing a professional change. The courage to undertake such change is admirable, and I sincerely hope it will bear fruit for both Estonia's new number one forester and the forests.

However, it would be a poor precedent, in terms of civil control and administrative culture in general, if the backgrounds of such decisions went completely without comment. Which is exactly what happened in interviews given last week by Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur and Mikk Marran himself. Their answers were so vague and general as to include no information whatsoever. The questions went virtually unanswered.

Marran's departure caused by so-called operational circumstances

It is very rare for premature resignations to occur following other than "operational" reasons during wartime. There has been one other unexpected change of intelligence chief in NATO countries during the Ukraine war. France's head of military intelligence left after losing the trust of a part of his clients in the crisis. The intelligence reports simply weren't credible enough. The French intelligence had denied the possibility of the Ukraine war erupting until the last minute, even though its U.S. counterpart had been considering it a virtual certainty for weeks. My claim is that something similar happened in Estonia.

Last year, during the Belarusian migration attack, Marran's agency found itself in a crisis of trust in the Ministry of Defense's administrative area that makes up an important part of EFIS' client base. In truth, it is the intelligence service's only so-called paying customer as the foreign intelligence budget (unlike in many other countries) is part of defense spending. The [agency's] budget is colossal, enough money for Estonia to arm and maintain an additional infantry brigade.

Securing resources is part of a top executive's competency. Mikk Marran brought a lot of money to foreign intelligence, which can be considered an important achievement. As a former undersecretary of the ministry, he had the necessary contacts. It is probable that his experience as deputy secretary general encouraged Marran to at times go over the ministry's head and surprise the minister and secretary general with additional funding requests.

An agency head pursuing solos during government sittings is generally held to be a sign of suicidal tendencies in ministries. An executive who makes it a habit cannot look forward to a long career.

Therefore, tensions between the ministry and EFIS had been building for some time, caused by Marran's domineering manner. Just like a Roman general, Marran entered into loyalty pacts ignoring chains of command with persons standing above the ministry to achieve his goals. The agency head was in the habit of demonstrating his power to the incumbent secretary general, mainly during budget negotiations.

Million-euro view

In the public sector, growing budgets are a virtue only so long as the taxpayer also gets a proportionally improved service. The perception at the ministry was that Marran's priorities lied elsewhere. A good example of this is the million-euro skylight adorning the atrium of the intelligence service's new building.

The agency's new building was constructed during a time the Estonian Defense Forces' (EDF) building norms had been severely dialed back due to rising construction prices and future maintenance expenses. You don't fight buildings, and the age of castles is long behind us, meaning that infrastructure is little else than an administrative expense when it comes to national defense. Marran wrangled the extra million once construction was already underway and in spite of opposition from the project manager, his crafty backroom maneuvering leaving ministry officials little choice in the matter.

This seemingly ridiculous struggle for a skylight became something of an obsession for the intelligence chief. A jokester suggested Marran was building an observatory as a likely first step in EFIS' new and top secret space intelligence program.

No other agency chief in the ministry's administrative area would have dreamed of asking for an extra million to build an atrium skylight during a time costs were being cut. However, for Marran, it became yet another opportunity to demonstrate his authority that prompted him to do what he had done in the past regarding funding requests that failed to penetrate the chain of command. The luxurious skylight of the Rahumäe building complex became a peculiar monument to the power wielded by the agency director.

The million-euro skylight of the Rahumäe tee headquarters should not serve as a basis for broader conclusions about national defense. The rest of the administrative area had been living in a saving regime initialized after Marran left the ministry for over five years. Even conscripts' equipment was dialed back so that Estonia could afford new weapons systems during a time defense spending was firmly capped at 2 percent of GDP. That historical limit is what is forcing the government to pursue major additional national defense investments at this time.

Director General Marran built a beautiful sparkly shell around his agency but neglected the main process. Whenever someone from the ministry tried to – figuratively speaking – take a peek through EFIS' skylight to see how processes were being managed, they were shown "classified" stamps or offered candy.

Belarus [migrant] crisis only fanned the flames

Growing dissatisfaction with EFIS intelligence reports could be seen among other executives in the administrative area even before the Belarusian migrant crisis erupted. While it is impossible go into detail, intelligence estimates presented at weekly briefings often caused visible frustration among clients.

The outgoing intelligence chief denied such claims in interviews last week. Marran has parried public criticism before by saying members of the government have been satisfied with EFIS briefs.

The ability to impress during ten minutes spent in front of ministers is a valuable skill for every agency head. However, the true quality of intelligence is revealed in the course of longer meetings attended also by generals and other top executives who will need to make real-life decisions based on the information. And Marran and his employees tended to melt down when asked rather sensible follow-up questions. Too much second-hand information, too little elaboration that would help decision-making.

By the way, when Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) publicly rushed to EFIS' defense in January, she broke an unwritten rule of civilian administration of security agencies: the incumbent government never directly comments on the work of security agencies.

This rule exists for one simple reason: to avoid a system of frankpledge developing between the premier and security agencies.

The unexpected end of Jüri Ratas' government would never have happened had the director of the Internal Security Service (ISS) and the PM not kept a respectable distance. Kaja Kallas broke that rule and landed in Marran's lap out of ignorance.

That said, I see no reason to criticize Kallas' praise from the time as members of the government only see the tip of the iceberg both in terms of the fruits and quality of intelligence, while the latter is truly reflected in what's hidden by the water and for which members of the government simply didn't have time.

Director Marran expressed his domineering attitude in other ways than bypassing the chain of command during budget talks or engaging the PM as his agency's PR representative.

Things really soured between EFIS and the ministry during last summer's Belarusian migrant crisis.

There are heightened expectations for intelligence during crises, the accompanying tensions both anticipated and commonplace. The client's anxiety and need for information grow. The brass at the Foreign Intelligence Service made the mistake of going on holiday in the middle of an extensive security crisis that summer, leaving not even the first deputy director, but the service's administrative director in charge.

When then Defense Minister Kalle Laanet called Marran, who was vacationing somewhere in Saaremaa, to refresh his sense of duty during a crisis, the intelligence chief treated the minister to a lecture on how not to "overreact."

Marran's arrogance had reached a new level as it occurred in the middle of a major crisis and targeted the minister who had called the intelligence chief to let him know just how inappropriate his continued vacation would be. Marran only came out of holiday once I had promised, at the following day's intelligence briefing, to literally treat the director general to a beating if he does not return to work.

A security official should not be afraid, also of criticism

For a security service chief, Marran is characterized by an overdeveloped sensitivity when it comes to his reputation. "Overdeveloped" in the sense that it is reflected not just in standoffish media presence accompanied by operatic sputters and trying to construct an observatory in Rahumäe but directly affecting the rest of his professional conduct and the performance of the agency he runs.

When meeting privately, the intelligence chief was willing to admit shortcomings in his service's work at the height of the row last year ("You know, we thought we were doing better") but once the conversation was no longer one-on-one, he immediately lost the ability to own up to any criticism.

This can be considered a negotiating tactic, to an extent. Programmatic childishness or attempts to feign simplicity can also occur in international diplomacy, sometimes exercised by well-known politicians. However, there are certain limits of decency when it comes to use of such a tactic by a security service chief for the aforementioned reason of ensuring the credibility of security agencies.

Security agency chief Marran has in various situations shown himself to confuse reputation and credibility, which are not one and the same. Sometimes, it is necessary to allow ones reputation to shatter in order to maintain credibility. That is something Marran is incapable of doing, and after a long time working together, I would hazard a guess that it is a deeply rooted personal trait the underlying reasons for which I have no capacity whatsoever to analyze but that could be treatable, at least in theory.

We have seen similarly infantile reactions following criticism in the case of a few other public executives: assuming the role of victim and losing all agency. That said, it is hardly a common trick, or if it is, it is usually expressed with some bravado.

However, Marran is likely to ask the client for a hug instead of feedback at critical junctions, which is a rather unusual and unexpected reaction from a security official. This often manifested in service provider Marran asking clients for detailed instructions for how to improve his work. Instead of proposing solutions, he resigned himself to offendedly wait for them in the form of feedback.

Strangely enough, the tactic even worked for a time, especially once alleged "persecution of intelligence" stuck with the Government Office and, with help from the state secretary, the prime minister. It is to be guessed that top-ranking officials and politicians revel in the knowledge of having a protege and the intelligence chief glamorously owing them a favor.

However, an intelligence chief who clings to the client complicates solving crises instead of helping resolve them. Whereas this in no way suggests Mikk Marran is a person without influence or authority. Definitely not. This clinging has been a technique in the latter's service.

Why talk about the professional conduct of a top official?

Estonia is a small country and top officials and the way they validate themselves has a far greater impact on some walks of life than in other countries. Public standards for a top executive's behavior are not a personal matter. A top official's pattern of behavior has a far greater effect on administration and quality of public service in Estonia than, for example, in the United Kingdom the defense ministry of which employs 60,000 civilian officials and the authority of which is therefore more scattered.

The Estonian Ministry of Defense has 150 employees and the ministry's entire administrative area a little over 2,000 civilians. Therefore, it is more likely for a single public sector executive's attitudes and behavior to reflect in a pattern of how public authority is executed.

Critically portraying a top public service official is, therefore, also criticism of public authority itself. Of course, things can be taken to the extreme here, too (we can take the example of [Finnish PM] Sanna Marin's party videos scandal), but we are not criticizing a person's dance skills and partying here but rather their professional conduct. And I have personally found that, sometimes, the only thing that can cause a top official to break out of stagnation is for someone to get thoroughly mad at them.

Getting mad at Marran is worth trying as we are dealing with a person firmly lodged in the inner circle of Estonian officials. Every power structure develops an inner circle. This is no paranoid theory but an inevitable aspect of power dynamics. Exclusive benefits are handed out among top officials – well-paid jobs. When Erkki Koort, former undersecretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, once wrote that competitions to find top officials are mostly a facade, with actual decisions made behind the scenes by considerably fewer people, the public service got mad at Koort, while everyone knew he was telling the truth.

I have served as undersecretary on three separate occasions, while I have never won a "competition" without knowing I would win in advance. That is just how the remaining around one hundred top public servants are appointed (not found as a result of competitions). Quasi-national formations, such as Enterprise Estonia or RMK, are the crown jewels of this "power pool."

The last days of meritocracy

The state secretary has the biggest say in appointing top officials. The previous state secretary Heiki Loot kept more of a distance from decisions and tried to at least make it look like the Public Service Act, that prescribes (actual) competitions and meritocratic principles, was being followed.

State Secretary Taimar Peterkop has headed a student fraternity in the past, meaning his leadership traits, including staff choices, are more interfering and sectarian.

In interviews from last week, Mikk Marran considered his main strength the fact he knows nothing about the field he is to take over. Marran's promotion to head the RMK after he fell out with his clients to a point where he had to change not just his job but the entire field comes as a clear sign of Estonian public service moving away from the principles of meritocracy.

The new head of RMK knows nothing about forestry, having taken no interest in it even as a hobby. So, what can Marran's future colleagues expect from him, based on the behavior patterns in his last job?

They will surely get a leader who cares about his staff, while I would urge the state forest manager's supervisory board to make sure that too much care is not taken at the expense of public interests. Mikk Marran likes to be liked by his employees. Comparing him to Michael Scott from the American hit sitcom "The Office" would be a clear exaggeration, while the two executives' trigger mechanisms seem to share some similarities: inability to reform the service under their charge due to the need to be liked (as it requires falling out with colleagues) and a public reputation fetish. The latter could leave the new RMK head open to political manipulation.

We can be quite certain that RMK will get a new and relatively expensive headquarters, salaries will go up, and perhaps the agency will get a new name, logo or website.

Mr. Maurus' door always open

Universal executives who have no knowledge of the field before taking over as leaders make for a legitimate phenomenon. Marran has been a team builder as opposed to a specialist also at the Foreign Intelligence Service and steered clear of the nitty-gritty. This is also due to his prior experience as undersecretary.

A widespread understanding of the role of ministry secretaries general is that they are like Mr. Maurus from the second volume of "Truth and Justice" who sometimes received visitors in his apartment-office wearing a robe, perfume and house slippers. But did not penetrate to the heart of things.

That is precisely how Marran was when serving as secretary general of the defense ministry. His door was always open to employees, while he did not immerse himself in national defense processes and lacked a vision.

Marran's role changed at EFIS where it was impossible to lack a vision. While his performance improved, his ability to navigate the field never got to a point where he could offer solutions to cater to clients' altered needs in crises. The director general said last week that he has not understood criticism aimed at EFIS, and I believe he was telling the truth.

Marran's success at the helm of RMK will depend on whether forestry currently requires a leader or a team-builder. If the field needs change and a leader capable of provoking it, it needs someone invested in getting to the heart of problems and with a keen interest in forests, as opposed to so much managerial smooth-talking. Managing change also requires one to have a measure of immunity against damage to reputation.

In addition to the need to concentrate on substance, Marran's main touchstone will be his ability to consider feedback from clients and take criticism. Marran will be stepping into a new information environment and corresponding logic from November 1, one where not everything can be as easily classified.

To make sure the RMK is successful during the time of its next director, his oath of office must include a clear shift in attitudes and role. We do not want a person in charge of our forestry who reacts to criticism (from former and current clients) like a kolkhoz chairman: "Criticism has been unclear for me and for the entire service and is rather coming from a few bitter individuals." (Maaleht) or: "Everyone (clients – author) needs to take responsibility for their words." (Postimees). We expect modern crisis communication from public service executives and probably also the RMK.

Head of EFIS Mikk Marran clearly got tired of client feedback in his current role. Perhaps it would be sensible to take some time off before November 1 rolls around as forestry needs a new outlook and ideas.

National defense tensions eased

In summary, Marran's departure is a smart move. A long-time source of tension in national defense has been removed. We cannot afford any slack or a hotbed of tension in our national defense today.

Neither national defense nor other public services currently require corporate glitter or superficial modernization but actual and stark innovation. The need to shake up the public service is clear, looking at demographic and other trends, which has been repeatedly pointed out by the press.

Extensive change can only happen once the public service career model becomes more open. Greater openness inside public service cannot hurt either.

Innovation in the public sector is held back by formalist execution of the Public Service Act when choosing executives, including moving away from meritocratic considerations, excessive classification, widespread inability to admit mistakes, lack of interest in developing public services and a reputation fetish. There has been much ado about the public service's closeness and inability to change in recent years. So far, with modest results.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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