A COUNTRY shouldn't be too aware of the existence of its intelligence service or secret police.
But some regimes feel the need to coerce people with an amorphous institution that bears omnipresent ears and eyes.
A couple of decades ago, the communist secret police worked hard to invade people's homes and workplace, making them feel each "inappropriate" political statement might come back to get them when they tried to push ahead in their career or get their children accepted into schools.
The revolutionaries who uttered brave words on the squares in November 1989 had hoped that the nation, half of which had received few benefits for informing on the other half, would be cured by the light of political change.
They hoped the institutions the undemocratic regime had used to conquer political enemies would start protecting people.
Back in 1995, when Vladimír Mečiar ruled the country, Ivan Lexa led the Slovak intelligence service, which claimed to have undergone detoxification and have no relation whatsoever to its grandfather, the communist secret police (ŠtB). Yet people still believed political expression was being monitored.
That SIS agents might be listening in on journalists and business opponents became a running joke, and some people even bragged they were too important not to be monitored.
But it was Ivan Lexa, a close ally of former Prime Minister Mečiar, who dealt the final blow to the institution's credibility. Under his hands, SIS agents were suspected of abducting ex-President Michal Kováč's son to Austria in 1995 and the murder of Robert Remiáš, who was a go-between to the star witness in the kidnapping.
There are of course many legends about the country's intelligence service, some of which come frighteningly close to the truth. But one thing can definitely be said: none of the SIS's directors so far have mustered the strength to redeem its credibility in the eyes of the public.
The SME daily noted that the SIS was also suspected of illegal phone tapping while under Vladimír Mitro, who took over from Lexa.
Back in 2003, the British spy journal Jane's Intelligence Digest (JID) claimed that, even after several directors have come and gone, the SIS continues to operate without accountability.
JID wrote the SIS used an "electronic surveillance system" to monitor opponents, including leading politicians.
The journal also claimed the new director of the SIS, Ladislav Pittner, who replaced Mitro, often hired older people who had worked at the ŠtB.
The SIS responded that the article was nothing more than a "pack of lies" and "half-truths" produced by failed SIS officials and disgruntled former members of the ŠtB.
"I make no secret [of the fact] that, for a long time, there has been a group functioning here that has a shared interest in such scandals," former Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda told journalists.
Pittner's SIS will hardly wash off the so-called "Small group" case directed at a group of political activists allegedly planning to harm national interests.
In 2005, Chairman of the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) Béla Bugár accused the SIS of being at the root of a disinformation campaign against former Agriculture Minister Zsolt Simon. His claims that various SIS reports contain false information only fueled further concern.
Now Smer nominee Jozef Magala is going to take over. PM Robert Fico and his Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák have put a great deal of faith in a man who is unknown to media and intelligence circles, saying he will polish the institution's tarnished image.
However, reports that the HZDS will nominate Igor Urban to head SIS counter-intelligence is rather unsettling. Urban oversaw the SIS during the Mečiar administration and led a parliamentary committee suspected of questioning SIS agents illegally.
Though Urban has not been appointed yet, the fact that his name has even emerged shows the party has not really changed over the years.
Appointing Urban might just be a couple steps away from rehabilitating Lexa, which Mečiar has said he wishes to do.
A rehabilitated Lexa in combination with HZDS and SNS nominees in the SIS is a cocktail that will only further harm the institution's broken credibility.
By Beata Balogová