Information for this column is derived from an article by Fidelius Schmid and Andreas Ulrich in Der Spiegel, 2010, and Edward Lucas’ „Deception: Spies, lies and how Russia dupes the West”.
Arrested in 2008, convicted of treason in 2009, sentenced to over 12 years in prison and ordered to pay damages of $1.7 mil (US) and refund the government about 85,000 EUR in salary payments, Herman Simm, according to a NATO report, was one of the “most damaging” spies in the history of the alliance.
At the time of his arrest, Simm, as head of the Defence ministry’s security department was privy to all the classified information from NATO and the European Union to which Estonian had access. This included material available only to the President, Prime Minister, the commander of the Defence Forces and the Foreign Minister. It also included the decisions of the Estonian government, the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Forces’ commander. It’s highly likely that Simm may have also passed on information on the US missile shield and cyber defence to Russian intelligence.
NATO investigators have concluded that Simm’s Russian handlers had a special interest in encryption technology. As a result NATO was convinced that Simm passed on such a significant amount of information about this arcane subject that the alliance had become weaker in defending against cyber threats and attacks. NATO’s vulnerablities in cyber defence had become known to the Russians. Some are convinced that the three weeks of cyber attacks that Estonia sustained after the relocation of a Soviet monument in 2007, were dramatic evidence of the paralyzing strenght of the threat.
Estonian officials have said that Simm might have supplied Russia with classified information for nearly ten years having worked at the defence ministry under six different ministers.
When was he recruited? Perhaps as early as the 1970s when he studied at the Soviet police academy in Moscow. In fact some have stressed that it would have been unlikely that the KGB at the time didn’t make some type of overture to him, given the fact that Simm was pursuing a career in Estonia, where the authorities were anxious about the growth of dissent driven by swelling Estonian nationalism. The KGB also placed moles within the ranks of departments such as the police, to monitor the loyalties of an agent’s colleagues.
Simm enjoyed success in his career. By 1990, before the re-establishment of Estonian independence in 1991, he was promoted within the ranks of the police service to head up a newly created security department. Thereafter he became the director of the Estonian police and eventualy the head of the security department, the National Security Authority of the Ministry of Defence.
Being in charge of the system for handling all classified information, Simm’s last job at the defence ministry was obviously ultra-sensitive. His responsibilities included the handling of security clearances for military, security and intelligence personnel.
Simm was not only tasked with supplying Russia with NATO secrets but also with another prime goal of Russian intelligence services – identifying potential foreign agent recruits, “talent spotting”. He was instructed to find answers to 60 questions about candidates, about their proclivities to alcohol, women, gambling, cars etc.
NATO investigators were particulalry concerned about Simm’s attendance at the annual security conferences at NATO’s military headquarters in Mons, Belgium, including the two counterintelligence conferences in 2006 and 2007.
The damage that Simm’s espionage efforts for Moscow could do is well illustrated by the type of strictly secret information to which Simm was privy. At an inteligence conference in the Dutch town of Brunssum in 2006, a CD with the names of all known and suspected Russian spies targetting NATO, including details about double agents, was distributed to the conference participants. The CD was considered so valuable by the Kremlin that Putin was given a copy, causing a discreet sensation, with Simm being referred to as the “master spy”. Special thanks for Simm? Apparently a promotion to the rank of major-general and a 5,000 (EUR) bonus.
Laas Leivat (To be continued.)
Portrait of a well placed mole, Herman Simm revisited Estonian Life