Whether or not the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) will be granted additional authority for conducting military intelligence will be established in court, Eerik Heldna, deputy director of the Military Intelligence Centre of the EDF, said earlier this week.
Intelligence officials rarely speak publicly about their jobs. Heldna, however, gave an interview to Raadio Kuku on Friday about the work being done at the Military Intelligence Centre.
The former deputy director of the Estonian Internal Security Service and chief official of the Central Criminal Police said for the first time in his interview that he currently works as deputy director of the EDF's Military Intelligence Centre.
According to Heldna, the center's main task is to collect information required for the military defense of Estonia, which includes military activities near the state border, such as tracking Russia's fighter aircraft, as well as identifying and preventing possible risks imposed on EDF personnel serving on international missions.
"Our methods encompass various intelligence disciplines, such as signals, human and imagery intelligence," he explained. "The specific opportunities and capacities for the implementation of these disciplines constitute a state secret."
The Military Intelligence Centre's authority for gathering intelligence on the territory of the Republic of Estonia differs significantly from its powers for collecting information abroad.
"Within the state, our rights are limited to the security of the EDF," Heldna responded when asked about the mandate the center has in terms of electronic intelligence, particularly when it comes to accessing the content of emails and phone conversations. "We cannot breach civilians' confidentiality of messages — that would require an authorization by the court. We don't have that power on Estonian territory, and I don't think the EDF should have that right either."
Outside Estonia, however, the center has much more freedom.
"The Estonian Defence Forces Organisation Act provides that the EDF's Military Intelligence Centre is authorized to gather signals transmitted via the aforementioned channels," the deputy director said, adding that information publicly available online and accessible via Google, for example, plays an important role in the center's activities.
Everyone leaves a mark in cyberspace, he stressed — the trick is finding high quality information.
"We use all of the options for gathering information outside of Estonian territory that we have been authorized by law to use," Heldna said. "Otherwise there would be no point to our intelligence center."
EDF needs efficient background checks
The Military Intelligence Centre is seeking to expand its rights for conducting background checks on Estonian territory; these rights would be strictly limited to EDF personnel or people working on its territory. President Kersti Kaljulaid, however, decided not to proclaim a bill of amendments that would have granted the EDF said expanded surveillance rights.
The matter will now be solved in the Supreme Court, Heldna said.
"We perform so many functions that without efficient background checks, we cannot provide security in national defense in the sense that [we could ensure that] the people with whom we are defending you are indeed trustworthy," he explained. "Background checks most certainly do not serve the purpose of building an internal apparatus for snooping."
Asked about the cooperation of Estonian intelligence officers with partner intelligence organizations in other NATO member states and whether Estonia's officials are trusted by the country's allies, Heldna said that Estonia is an equal partner in this field. Cooperation is the only way to operate in a shared defense space, he added.
Estonia is more than a consumer in terms of both intelligence as well as in other EDF disciplines, the deputy director noted.
"We are getting a lot of what we're asking for, and for those who know how to ask, we can give a lot in return," he said. "Our intelligence officers are highly regarded, that much I can say. That doesn't apply to just the EDF's intelligence officers — the power structures of Estonia's state apparatus as a whole are highly regarded as well. This is not us patting ourselves on the back; that's just the way it is."
Editor: Aili Vahtla