“It is unprecedented” – Report says Zeman requesting details on Russian espionage

Miloš Zeman, photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio

President Miloš Zeman has asked the Czech counter-intelligence service, BIS, to give him detailed information on Russian operations in the country, including the names of specific spies and their Czech collaborators. That’s according to a report published by news site iRozhlas on Monday. Security experts warn that if the request were met some BIS operations could be compromised. I discussed the matter with a former chief of Czech Military Intelligence, Andor Šándor.

“I was rather surprised, because it is unprecedented from a president, any state official in fact, to ask an intelligence agency to provide the names of spies that are being followed in the country.

“Based on our law 153/94, the president is the recipient of intelligence information or any kind of intelligence that is produced by security services. He can task security and intelligence services only with the knowledge of the government, not by himself. However, the law, at least according to my reading, does not allow him to ask for the names of the spies.

Andor Šándor,  photo: Adam Kebrt / Czech Radio

“Frankly, when I was the head of Military Intelligence several years ago, I did not ask for the names myself, because I did not need to know them. There was no reason for me to know the name of the bloke who was being followed, or those who work for our organisation.”

The head of the Security Information Service (BIS), Colonel Michal Koudelka, has requested that the Permanent Commission on Oversight over the work of the Security Information Service in the Chamber of Deputies, evaluate the legality of this alleged presidential request. Do you think there is a chance that President Zeman will not see his wish granted?

“I am not sure whether this is the right approach by the chief of the BIS, because he is subordinate to the government, namely the prime minister. This relationship is not exactly stipulated, but it is understood that way, because the prime minister runs the government.

“[Colonel Koudelka] should talk to the prime minister and ask him to correct this situation, because the prime minister himself is the right person to look into it. Even if the parliamentary oversight committee for BIS says that it is not legal for the president to ask, the president is not bound by that decision.  The only person to do anything in this situation is the prime minister himself. At least that is my perception of the situation having been a member of the intelligence service for 18 years.”

So in other words, the prime minister is crucial in this regard?

“Absolutely. He has been crucial for a long time, because this is not the first time that the president is trying to do something outside the legal framework with the BIS. He has done next to nothing publically, but the prime minister is pivotal in making things right in this regard.”

Just for context, I was wondering how much of a hit this would be for BIS if they were to give out this sort of information and it was then leaked. How difficult is it to construct a web of agents and contacts for operations again after losing them?

“I think there are two sides to this. One is that you give signals to all of your partners within NATO, the European Union and to bilateral partners that the vital information that is exchanged, including names of spies you are following, or the names of your own people, may be given to a third party not entitled to know and that you do not know how the information will be handled. In this respect, we should note that the head of the Office of the President [Vratislav Mynar] has absolutely no security at all. That should be considered carefully.

Michal Koudelka,  photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio

“As far as the internal side of the question is concerned: We know who the spies in the Russian, Chinese, or even American and British embassies are. We know that. It does not take a long time to figure that out. However, an intelligence service should not openly say which embassy employee is a member of the GRU or MI6, because that is outside of the rules. People who set tasks for intelligence agencies such as the president should not know that.”

You were talking about some people not having security clearance at the Castle. President Zeman’s advisor Martin Nejedlý, who also lacks security clearance, has been suspected in the past of maintaining very close ties to Russia. He travelled to Moscow last week. Some people have suggested that the trip might be in connection to the Dukovany power plant tender in which Russia is interested. Do you see any connection there, or do you think this alleged presidential request has more to do with President Zeman’s long-term dislike of Michal Koudelka, whom he sees as unfit to lead the BIS?

“I hope it is not the case. I hope that the foreign trips to Russia have nothing to do with the long-term problems that the president has with the chief of the BIS. I cannot really comment on that, as I am not part of the business and am just watching outside of the system.

“I hope that it has not gone so far that the tender around building new reactors at Dukovany is linked with the bad relations that the president has with the chief of BIS. But who knows? That is more of a question for the president or Mr. Nejedly.”

When asked for comment by Czech Radio, the spokesman for the president, Jiri Ovčáček, said he does not himself know of any such request and cannot further questions directly to the president as that would be “breaking the law”.