In a live studio appearance on Vikerraadio's "Stuudios on peaminister," on Tuesday, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) said that the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS, or KAPO) had not informed her when renewing her state secret clearance this spring that her husband's business was involved in haulage to Russia. Security experts disagree over whether the ISS should have drawn attention to this matter or not.
Erkki Koort, a former undersecretary of internal security policy at the Ministry of the Interior, said that he wouldn't hold anything against the ISS, as the background check process is still based on a specific individual, not their spouse.
"When conducting the background check, the ISS certainly looks at risks arising from nationals, but this is considered primarily based on whether an individual could end up economically or otherwise dependent on someone else," Koort explained. "In the prime minister's case, economic dependence on their spouse clearly isn't a risk."
Former Ministry of Defense undersecretary for defense readiness Meelis Oidsalu said, however, that it seems strange to him that the ISS didn't ask about Kallas' spouse's Russian business ties. He said that he's undergone an ISS background check four or five times, and all relations with hostile states such as China or Russia have always been very closely examined.
"There's a certain handful of countries in whose case any sort of communications by both family members and the individual themselves are carefully reviewed, questions are asked — even if there are no direct violations of the law," Oidsalu recalled.
"If the ISS now didn't do so when renewing Kaja Kallas' background check, then perhaps, I guess, this obligation is approached more formally the second time around when it comes to politicians," he continued. "It seems strange, in any case. If what Kaja Kallas said is true, then that's strange and doesn't meet the standards the ISS has typically implemented regarding the rest of its clients."
The former defense ministry official suggested that the ISS should perhaps review whether they've perhaps been too formal when doing background checks on very important people. The ISS' job, he said, is to protect members of the Estonian government from possible blackmail risks.
Another purpose of the ISS' background check, he continued, is for the individual themselves to become more aware of potential security risks.
"Even if no episodes of blackmailing or wrongdoing have occurred, one of the goals of the background check is to inform [its subject] that 'You have such-and-such ties, and such risks arise from these ties,'" Oidsalu said. "The prime minister is obviously a desirable target for all kinds of hostile intelligence."
Both he and Koort stated that the mere fact alone that the prime minister's spouse partly owns a business that hauls goods to a hostile state already opens the prime minister up as a potential target of blackmail.
"The ISS has repeatedly warned not to go to Russia for no reason, as you may end up the victim of an intelligence attack or blackmail there," Koort recalled. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has likewise issued travel advisories as well. In that respect, there's a chance in any case when going to Russia, and a company's employees going to Russia, of ending up the victim of extortion or an intelligence attack."
MP Jürgen Ligi (Reform), chair of the Riigikogu's Security Authorities Surveillance Select Committee, said Tuesday that the ISS will be providing the committee with an overview of their take on the Russian business activity of the prime minister's spouse.
Ligi noted that while the sitting will be confidential, due to large public interest, the committee will try to produce some sort of summary for the public.
Editor: Aili Vahtla