November 19, 2008
A spy dragged in from the cold. NATO secrets pipelined to Moscow. Warnings of “catastrophic damage” to Western security.
News of the arrest of a senior Estonian defence ministry official on treason charges has set old alarm bells ringing, and revived Cold War fears of Russian penetration of the West’s closely held secrets.
The accused official, Herman Simm, 61, has been under investigation for months, and was seized by Estonian officials in September, after an alleged contact man aroused suspicions and questions were raised about several lavish properties Simm bought while on a modest government salary. But word of the charges has only just surfaced.
In a setup worthy of a 1960s spy novel, Simm is accused of using a radio transmitter to send classified information to Russia, including NATO plans for Kosovo’s independence, U.S. missile defence and last summer’s war between Russia and Georgia. His wife, Heete, was also arrested.
According to the Estonian daily Postimees, Simm had years of control over Estonia’s computerized state secrets – including NATO, United Nations and European Union documents – as former chief of the defence ministry’s security department. He was also responsible for handling security clearances for Estonian officials in sensitive national security roles.
Janus Rahumagi, who heads the Estonian parliament’s oversight committee for government security, told reporters Simm may have made contact with Russian intelligence back in the late 1980s, when Estonia was still under Soviet rule. Simm became a chief of police in 1994 then moved to the defence ministry as a department head responsible for co-ordination with NATO and the EU.
Officials in Germany and Estonia have described the potential damage of his actions as “catastrophic” and “historic.”
But in an interview yesterday from Brussels, NATO spokesperson James Appathurai said that while the charges are “an issue of concern,” it was “too early to characterize the level of damage. That is now being investigated.”
NATO has publicly played down the incident, but its investigators, along with EU and American officials, are at work in the Estonian capital, Tallinn. Details of the charges emerged shortly after a two-day meeting of the alliance took place there.
Tensions between Russia and Estonia have escalated since last year when Tallinn removed a bronze statue commemorating Soviet war dead and became the target of a disastrous cyber attack it blamed on Moscow.
But says Juri Kivimae, chair of Estonian studies at University of Toronto, the spy case is one in a long line of espionage manoeuvres in this territory at the interface of East and West.
“All the Baltics were really spy nests for various countries,” he said, adding “I can’t believe this case will cause more damage to Russian-Estonian relations.”
The harm to NATO may be more immediate.
According to Postimees, Simm had confessed after his arrest and provided details of his activities.
While the methods are primitive by 21st-century standards, he had wider access to secrets than any Cold War spy: Estonia, one of the world’s most electronically wired countries, has reportedly digitized its government information, eliminating old-fashioned paperwork, but potentially exposing vast amounts of data to hackers.
Some of the information Simms viewed was relatively short-term and would eventually be made public. But the U.S. missile shield remains a volatile issue among Russia, its former Soviet possessions and the West.
Moscow has opposed Washington’s plans for installing missile interceptors in Poland, and countered with its own plan to move short range ballistic missiles to Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.
“It makes a lot of sense for Russia to continue its espionage activities,” says Olga Oliker, a senior international policy analyst for the Rand corporation. “It’s different from the Cold War, much less of a zero-sum game. But it’s very much in Russia’s interest to know what other countries are planning and thinking.”
She added, “the real problem for NATO is that Simm was such a high-level spy – he set up the system for protecting information. The broader question is how long has he supplied information, and how much was transferred in the last 10 to 20 years?”
It’s a question that may be answered when the case comes to trial, possibly sometime next year. Meanwhile, NATO will be quietly digging for other moles among its European members.
“It isn’t just the eastern countries,” said a Western official. “A German spy nicknamed Topaz worked at NATO headquarters.” Rainer Rupp was convicted of passing thousands of documents from Brussels to the East German security service for 12 years, starting in 1977.
With files from the Star’s wire services