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Military spy agency bugged journalists
28 Nov 2011 Beata Balogová Politics & Society
THE INTERCEPTION of journalists’ telephone calls by the Defence Ministry’s counterintelligence arm has cost the defence minister his job. However, as the wiretapping scandal, which involved the Military Defence Intelligence (VOS), has unfolded the public has learned that one of the journalists monitored on Galko’s watch was also wiretapped when the ministry was controlled by a nominee of the Smer party back in 2007. It has also emerged that the recent VOS operation involved wiretapping of the head of TV news channel TA3 and two senior Defence Ministry employees, according to leaked documents obtained by Slovak media outlets.
“The whole story of wiretapping which is being uncovered today was also going on under previous governments,” said Prime Minister Iveta Radičová, who on November 22 asked President Ivan Gašparovič to dismiss Galko. “It is high time to reach an agreement and an initiative over control mechanisms for the intelligence services.”
Radičová in her response also said it is now obvious that the “intelligence services have been doing everything possible – except what they were originally intended to do and what is their main role”, according to the SITA newswire.
The Pravda and Nový Čas dailies reported on November 21 that three reporters from Pravda’s domestic politics department – head Patrícia Poprocká and reporters Peter Kováč and Vanda Vavrová – as well as the head of TV news channel TA3, Michal Gučík, had been wiretapped by the VOS. The alleged wiretapping ended after the fall of the government in October, according to Pravda.
Galko’s Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party has continued to back him. He argues that the wiretaps were performed legally and were intended to uncover criminal activity. SaS has also alleged that Galko’s sacking and other aspects of the scandal were actually political attacks on the party.
Radičová said that wiretapping journalists, whether it happens legally or illegally, is not compatible with the basic principles of democracy and the rule of law on which her government is based.
In Slovakia, military intelligence activities are performed by two organisations operating under the Defence Ministry: the Military Intelligence Service (VSS) and the Military Defence Intelligence (VOS), which conducts counterintelligence.
The request to apply what are known as information technical devices (ITP) to bug journalists was signed by the head of the VOS, Pavol Brychta, and the wiretapping, which was reportedly intended to monitor the so-called “contact base” of the three journalists, was approved by a judge. Brychta confirmed these details to the parliamentary committee for the oversight of military intelligence on November 22, according to SITA.
Brychta told the committee that the journalists in question had participated in the leaking of sensitive information from the Ministry of Defence, according to Peter Žiga, the Smer MP who chairs the committee.
After the scandal broke, Galko refused to sack Brychta, arguing that he had 30 years’ experience in the army and had been with the VOS for 15 years. Nevertheless, Brychta’s dismissal is still being considered, according to a report in the Sme daily on November 24.
Smer former minister confirms previous wiretapping
Opposition Smer party leader and former prime minister Robert Fico called the wiretapping scandal an assault on democracy and the foundations of the state and suggested that Galko had confirmed in live coverage that the information published by the media was genuine.
“It is one of the most serious abuses of power, to an extent that we don’t dare to dream of,” Fico said, as quoted by the TASR newswire, adding that in his opinion Galko was capable of anything and that Smer’s nominees would do their utmost to make sure that the complete truth about the matter was revealed.
However, only a day later Smer-nominated former defence minister Jaroslav Baška admitted that the VOS also monitored at least one journalist during Fico’s government. In a media statement, Baška objected to comparisons being made between the present affair and the wiretapping of Patrícia Poprocká by the VOS in 2007, when the department was led by František Kašický, another Smer nominee, and Baška, who at the time was the deputy minister. Poprocká, one of the Pravda reporters monitored by the VOS this year, was bugged in 2007 under Kašický when she worked as editor of the Žurnál weekly.
Baška argued that she was bugged because of the publication of parts of documents which included information about the operation of foreign intelligence services in Slovakia and thus represented what he called a threat to state security.
The VOS under Galko also used suspected leaks of classified information from the ministry as its justification for wiretapping journalists.
Galko alleges corruption
Galko responded to the wiretapping scandal on November 21 by claiming that only a few days before the story emerged the Ministry of Defence had filed a criminal complaint over suspicions that fraud had occurred during the government’s conclusion of a contract to buy a mobile communication system, MOKYS, which had cost Slovakia several billion Slovak crowns [€1 = Sk30.126].
A couple of days after filing the complaint, Slovak newspaper editorial offices received anonymous information about the purchase of military trucks and military emergency vehicles, then “today two periodicals have published stories about alleged illegal wiretapping of journalists by the military counter-intelligence,” Galko said, as quoted by the SITA newswire.
Galko also said that on the one hand he understands the emotions and outrage of journalists but “on the other hand if there is a suspicion of a crime having been committed I am personally convinced that there is no difference between a politician – or a minister for that reason – an employee, a businessman, a regular person or a journalist”.
He also suggested that the media will perhaps be surprised by how the case turns out, but said that he could not reveal any information in advance.
Under VOS’ magnifying glass
VOS boss Brychta also told the parliamentary intelligence oversight committee that in the case of Gučík “economic criminal activities” were involved, Žiga told SITA. Nový Čas reported on November 21 that VOS was collecting information about Gučík’s private life as well as his bank account, including sums of money he had received.
Gučík responded on November 22 by filing a criminal complaint over his wiretapping by the VOS. He denied that he or his firm, Enter AD, was involved in any deals with the ministry, as was suggested by reports based on the alleged wiretapping, adding that he would be willing to undergo a lie detector test. Gučík also confirmed that he had recorded a phone conversation with Galko, whom he had called to inquire about the reasons for the wiretapping. He played the phone conversation to journalists at a press conference, prompting an angry response from Galko, who called the act “an abuse of trust”. In the phone conversation Galko assured Gučík that he was not organising anything against him and that it is only a “dirty political game”.
Radičová: Additional steps will be taken
“In the operation of the intelligence services, and in particular the military ones, the main goal is protection of Slovakia’s security,” Radičová said, according to the TASR newswire, in response to reports that she may also have been the subject of VOS bugging. “Any other wiretapping has no justification. That is all I can add to the issue.”
Radičová said that sacking Galko was just one of the steps she intended to take because she viewed the wiretapping as significant on three different levels. First, she said, the wiretapping of journalists is incompatible with democratic principles, adding that it was irrelevant whether the wiretapping happened legally or illegally, since if there was any suspicion that journalists were involved in criminal activities then normal prosecuting bodies should have investigated, SITA reported.
The second aspect of the case is the legalisation of the wiretapping and thus the Ministry of Justice will review the decisions of the judges who approved the wiretaps. The third aspect is the fact that the media published confidential information, violating the law by doing so. The National Security Office is already taking action because it is the duty of each person to submit classified information to the authorities if they come by it, Radičová said.
On November 23, Radičová announced that former general prosecutor Dobroslav Trnka is leading the team at the General Prosecutor’s Office which will deal with the case of the wiretapping of the Pravda journalists and the head of TA3. The team was formed by acting general prosecutor Ladislav Tichý, said Radičová, adding that the police will also continue investigating the affair.
“The state has its units such as the intelligence services and the police which, based on the law, can limit personal freedoms in order to prevent crime, prevent the operation of foreign intelligence organisations and prevent the disintegration of the constitutional regime in Slovakia,” Rastislav Káčer, a former Slovak ambassador to the USA who is now a security expert and president of the Slovak Atlantic Commission, said on November 21. “We citizens accept this limitation on our freedoms only when it is unavoidable and defined by the law.”
He argued that if a government abuses these powers then its actions constitute a serious violation that goes against the foundations of democracy, adding that he did not wish to pass judgement based only on news reports and was talking hypothetically.
Michaela Terenzani contributed to the report
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