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Estonia: The Little Spycatcher Who Could
16 Apr 2017 EWR Online
Every year the Estonians come out with an unvarnished and all too accurate assessment of Russian skullduggery. The latest is very interesting indeed.

Michael Weiss, The Daily Beast 04.15.17
Nobody does it better, but sometimes I wish someone would.

Every year for the past 18 years, the Kaitsepolitseiamet, Estonia’s domestic security service, the unfortunately acronym-ed KAPO, publishes its annual review of the country’s most attention-grabbing incidents in counterintelligence, terrorism, and corruption, categories that very often overlap.

And most of the 45-page document is devoted to a subject with which this small but formidable Baltic power has had ample experience: Russian operatives and disinformation campaigns, now better known as “fake news.”

Estonia is Europe’s leading catcher of Vladimir Putin’s spies as well as Europe’s leading unmasker of his manifold agents of influence. It is uncharacteristically unafraid to advertise its own national security threats by naming and shaming its yearly haul of enemy operatives, at least in comparison to other Western NATO democracies, which tend to hush up such bilateral embarrassments, preferring the discreet expulsion of spooks or “PNGing” of diplomats who glad-hand by day and engage in dead-letter drops by night.

In the American example, at least before the hacking of the Democratic Party’s correspondence and Rachel Maddow’s late conversion into Whitaker Chambers, the M.O. was to downplay Russian penetration and sabotage efforts. The Obama administration famously spun the FBI’s 2010 bust-up of a dangerous 11-person ring of Russian “illegals” into a bumbling Leslie Nielsen spoof, complete with a pouty and buxom pinup in the shape of Anna Chapman. To do otherwise risked rattling the easily upset “reset” with the Kremlin, then headed by Putin’s placeholder president Dmitry Medvedev. (U.S. intelligence officials with intimate knowledge of Operation Ghost Stories, as the years-long FBI investigation was known, had a different assessment of the danger posed by this well-established spy network.)

KAPO has had to learn by necessity.

Estonia regained its independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and had no time at all to reconstitute its security services from scratch; it took a calculated gamble that grandfathering in many old hands from the ancien régime, the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, wouldn’t result in Swiss cheesing its service with loyalists to the former occupying superpower.

One such transitional figure, a former KGB colonel named Herman Simm, who reinvented himself as a champion of Estonian self-determination, worked his way up to the head of security at the Estonian Defense Ministry. In 2004, when the country joined NATO, Simm established the National Security Authority, a department in the Defense Ministry which gave him access to whatever classified intelligence was shared among the 26 allied countries. Two years later, Simm was awarded two medals: one from Estonia’s president for “service to the Estonian nation,” and the other from his Russian handler announcing Simm’s promotion to the rank of major-general in the SVR, the branch of Moscow’s own reconstituted KGB in charge of foreign intelligence.

Simm had been a spy who fed reams of sensitive NATO secrets back to Moscow Center. Funnily enough, the one secret that he kept being asked to uncover was the one he was unable to because it didn’t exist: NATO’s invasion plan for Russia.

He was finally arrested in 2008, a year after Russian cyber hackers shut down Estonia’s e-government and digital banking sector for the better part of 24 hours in retaliation for the relocation of a Red Army World War II monument, which precipitated drunken riots in central Tallinn.

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