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Detoxifying intelligence

OPPONENTS of the communist regime learned to live with the reality that an amorphous institution with an army of anonymous agents and informers, among whom could easily have been the family’s warm-hearted uncle, had invaded their lives and was influencing the way they acted and spoke in public.

OPPONENTS of the communist regime learned to live with the reality that an amorphous institution with an army of anonymous agents and informers, among whom could easily have been the family’s warm-hearted uncle, had invaded their lives and was influencing the way they acted and spoke in public.

The era of Vladimír Mečiar in the mid nineties and the activities of the SIS, Slovakia’s main intelligence service, whose agents are suspected of abducting the son of former president Michal Kováč to Austria in 1995, stripped most Slovaks of any illusion that the country’s spies were subject to any significant clean-up following the 1989 Velvet Revolution. It is clear that those in power since 1989 have not stopped using the services of the intelligence corps to try to defeat their political enemies – rather than to protect the interests of the state.

Any new scandal involving surveillance of political opponents or journalists reminds the Slovak public how easily these omnipresent eyes and ears of the state can be abused, and how vague the definition of state interests and threats to it can become.

Slovakia’s defence minister, Ľubomír Galko, has been sacked because the Military Defence Intelligence (VOS), operating under his ministry, wiretapped three reporters from the Pravda daily as well as the chief of the TA3 television channel based on what the VOS called a suspicion of leaking sensitive classified information.

Perhaps nothing is more secret in Slovakia than the military intelligence service, with its unknown budget and unspecified army of agents that is supposed to shield the country from a number of specific threats. Many Slovaks, who thought that the SIS does all of the country’s spying, eavesdropping and wiretapping, probably had no clue that the VOS even existed before the current scandal broke.

What people now know is that along with the three reporters and the head of TA3, the Defence Ministry’s spooks monitored several of their own colleagues, while the local media has spread unconfirmed rumours that even the prime minister may have been under their eagle eyes.

Galko and his political party, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), have kept repeating their mantra that everything was done in line with the law and all the wiretaps were approved by judges. This is feeble comfort in the light of information published by the Sme daily that VOS had requested 67 wiretaps in the first six months of 2011 and judges had rejected only nine.

Before anyone thinks that wiretapping of journalists is somehow a passion of SaS, which likes to be known as a liberal party, it turns out that one of the same journalists was also tapped when the Defence Ministry was under the control of a minister from the Smer party.

Perhaps people who like to think they are important enough for VOS to ask a judge for an approval signature might now start lowering their voices when speaking in cafes or begin using strange, coded language when talking to their families, evoking concerns that they might be losing their minds.

But there is a more serious aspect to all of this: 22 years after the fall of the communist regime the prime minister publicly stated that “the whole story of wiretapping which is being uncovered today was going on also under previous governments”.

Wiretapping devices and all the toys that intelligence services use to scrutinise those suspected of being enemies of the state are a temptation that certain politicians – who cannot properly control their feelings of self-importance – simply cannot resist when they are too readily available.

The public should now demand that its politicians fully address oversight of all of Slovakia’s intelligence services and require much more from them than just delivering a report to parliament once a year.

The leaked transcripts of tapped phone calls published by the media, which include one between a high-ranking Smer official and a Pravda reporter discussing news stories, show that the journalist did not keep a proper distance from her news source, particularly given that that source was a politician. It is obvious even to people without training in intelligence techniques that none of the issues discussed by the two represented a threat to the state, other than unease about journalistic integrity. But media ethics do not fall under the remit of the VOS, do they?

Intelligence services will always inspire legends and myths about their true operations. But citizen watchdogs and the nation itself must make sure that these tales do not become terrifyingly close to the truth.

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