AIM: start

WED, 25 APR 2001 01:16:03 GMT

Intelligence Agencies A Toy of Politics

During a recent encounter between Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek and his Croatian counterpart, Ivica Racan, in a castle near Otocac, the guest presented his host with a wonderful gift he returned to him a van that was involved in a spying scandal in January 1998. Back then, the Croatian police not only confiscated this vehicle, jam packed with costly equipment, on "their territory," but two Slovenian intelligence agents who strayed over the border. They were members of the Slovenian Intelligence Service, which still wields much power in that country -- the SIS, for example, is still in charge of pensions paid to former Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) officers!

AIM Ljubljana, April 16, 2001

The Intelligence and Security Service of the Slovenian Defense Ministry is again at the focus of public attention. During a recent meeting of Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek with his Croatian counterpart, Ivica Racan, in Otocac Castle (near Brezice, that is, the Slovenian-Croatian border), the guest from Zagreb returned to Slovenia a famous spy van seized in January 1998. Between then and the Racan move, fierce debates were waged in the Slovenian army, government, news media, and public whether the clumsy Slovenian agents were apprehended on Slovenian or Croatian soil. The latest theory says the incident occurred on a strip of land both countries claim belongs to them. Croatia, on its part, fueled the flames here and there it did return the arrested agents relatively soon (as opposed to the van), and then put them on trial. The change of government in Croatia brought some hope, especially after the new Croatian president, Stjepan Mesic, shortly after he came to power paid a visit to Milan Kucan and pledged to return the van "within days." He, however, did not make good on his promise. It took more than a year for Racan to do it instead of him.

Although all smiles, Premier Racan could not hide some malice, also reflected in the expression of the proverbially frowning Drnovsek. Despite all effort to show no interest in Zagreb's gift, his face did look quite sour. How could it not have been so when Croatia once more used the stupidity of the Slovenian Secret Service to promote itself during difficult negotiations on disputed issues. The Slovenian service has once more became a toy of haute politics. While all this was taking place inside Slovenia's borders, mistakes (both deliberate, and caused by ignorance) committed by certain agents and officials were tolerated. The problem, however, became graver when mistakes on the international scene became more frequent, as it was the case in the past years.

Thus in the summer of 1991 a major scandal surfaced in Austria, when Slovenian special forces attempted to intercept and abduct a Greek arms dealer in Celovec, a man who knew much, took a lot of money, and failed to deliver. Officials in Slovenia became quite nervous and decided to dispatch their men in a risky action. The adventure ended with the Slovenian agents, on an illegal operation in Austria, winning a race -- they managed to escape the Austrian police in a hot pursuit, ran through a border roadblock and found refuge in Slovenia. For the sake of preserving good relations the government in Vienna hushed up the matter and the same was done by the authorities in Ljubljana: no one was held responsible or punished, and only the Mladina newspaper raised some dust which immediately settled.

Because of that, the problems kept accumulating over the years. As these things usually are, the problems were mostly at the top -- senior officials were the biggest arm smugglers at the time a UN arms embargo on the import of weapons and munitions was in effect for the territory of the former Yugoslavia. At the time, the local papers called the then head of the Service "Mr. Six Percent," because of the commission he allegedly charged for the deals. Since political interference prevented the judiciary from clarifying the circumstances of the arms smuggling operation (even of those seized from the JNA) to "the south," the situation in many government offices also remained shady. Well-informed sources claim there are written documents on everything, and that people, whom top secrecy (and probably fear as well) obliged to remain silent, finally decided to speak up, and the thick file ended up in the Slovenian parliament. Meanwhile, the whole scandal fell under the statute of limitations, because there was no political consensus on establishing political responsibility. This was mostly owed to the current head of the opposition (back then a defense minister), who had found an elegant way of getting rid of his greatest liability -- the head of the Service -- by promoting him into a brigadier and blessing him to become a "successful" businessman.

Still, Janez Jansa could not hide everything, and especially not a scandal involving the beating up of civilians by military special troops in March, 1994. Then, in Ljubljana's suburb of Depela Vas, a civilian, T. Smolnikar, otherwise engaged by the Slovenian police, was arrested on orders by Jansa. The Ljubljana-based Mladina again took care to ensure the proper publicity -- the army is again arresting civilians in a democratic Slovenia! Jansa lost his post, the top brass were purged, including the head of the service involved, a commander of the Slovenian army special brigade... Jelko Kacin was appointed to succeed him, and Slovenian Military Intelligence (OVS) was reorganized and began dealing with its internal problems. But this was all short-lived: a new scandal was in sight. Official Tel Aviv intensified cooperation with Ljubljana (on modernizing arms made in Russia and former Yugoslavia, and on the purchase of Israeli weapons), but conditioned it with the establishing of cooperation between the two countries' military intelligence services. The agreement was signed by the OVS head, to which the opposition responded fiercely, as soon as it learned of the document. The Israelis themselves were also furious when they learned of what had leaked to the public. Maybe the agreement itself would not be disputed at all had it not been for the embarrassment that the head of the Service, sacked when the spy van was seized, leaked the news himself. A fierce parliamentary debate followed, because a document of such importance should have been ratified by the Parliament, and not by the head of military intelligence.

Before the van scandal, the OVS was plagued by the disk incident. In 1996, a mysterious computer disk surfaced in public, containing data on over 200 prominent Slovenians branded as being Kucan people. Once more, the Slovenian administration lacked the determination to discover the authors of this pamphlet. Experts and the nature of the data clearly showed that it was the product of an organized group with lots of power. Many suspected that the authors of the "Octopus," the name given to the disk, obtained information from the Military Intelligence Service. Some are even convinced that the entire thing was written by the Service. The same circles launched a pamphlet against the then Slovenian Parliament speaker, later one of the most successful managers of Slovenia (who was the manager of the Gorenje concern at the time of dissolution of the former Yugoslavia), Herman Rigelnik. The Slovenian public and the media talked about the matter for months, by the authors of the scandal went unscathed.

Although Slovenia cooperated well with Croatia (at the time the war was in progress there), as well as with Bosnia and Herzegovina, after operations Storm and Maestral cooperation was stalled. Namely, the OVS installed listening equipment at Mt. Gorjanca's Trdin summit (or Mt. Sveta Gera, as the Croats call it), in a JNA facility, wherefrom it monitored activities of the Republic of Serb Krajina army and the Republika Srpska army. It is clear that the Croats obtained data, both directly and indirectly. After Croatia's swift operations and the exile of the Serbs, Slovenian intelligence agents probably intended to continue with their operation, this time, however, by monitoring the Croatian army. Then, they suddenly gave up, and the Sveta Gera facility was no longer of any interest to them. Later it was rumored that this came as a result of the fact that the Croats had installed jamming devices on their side of the mountain. Eavesdropping on one's neighbor being a Balkan custom of long standing, Slovenia decided to purchase the van, equipped with state of the art spying devices. After several months the van and two agents "accidentally" found themselves on Croatia's territory, and they were arrested and their van impounded.

This was the turning point and all hell broke loose in Slovenia. The defense minister resigned, followed by the first secretary of state. The head of the Service was sacked, together with a number of his subordinates. Shortly before the van scandal, a list with the names of 180 agents, former JNA officers, who were supposed to be dismissed and after which the Service should have been reorganized circulated in the Service. It was fortunate that the Croats failed to use the scandal to pressurize Ljubljana, choosing instead to ignore it. This author was a member of the first Slovenian military delegation to visit Croatia, only a week after the van was seized. During the meetings with top Defense Ministry and military officials, the van and the incident were not mentioned. Even during entirely private conversations (between former colleagues from the JNA, now serving in the two countries' armies), the incident was completely played down. Everything was done to indicate that the loss of the van was used for internal political showdowns in Slovenia, which the defense minister of the time backed by a statement at a press conference: "If I told you what went on you would laugh."

The OVS's fate was sealed last summer when its boys made another horrible mistake, this time around with their chief partner and ally -- the US. A journalist of the Maribor Vecer daily published an article saying that the OVS was recruiting former JNA and current Yugoslav army officers for intelligence work for the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The Americans were angered by the amateurism shown by the Slovenian Service. The incident was immediately covered up and the reporter placed under police investigation and charged. Finally, after elections held last October another dismissal took place at the Slovenian Defense Ministry. For the first time a person with no political affiliation was appointed to the post of defense minister, a university professor and an internationally known expert on defense and security policy. Radical purges in the Service were also carried out. Now the OVS is run by a man who used to serve as a chief of staff will almost all former defense ministers, who is an associate of the Center for Strategic Studies, and an advisor to the Slovenian prime minister for defense and security matters. The mistakes of the past are no longer expected to occur.

The fact that the former bosses left an unpleasant inheritance, which could not only harm the new head of the Service, but could also ruin Slovenia's image of a democratic state is another matter. Let us quote just one example: the first defense minister of an independent Slovenia was Janez Jansa. Jansa managed to push through the Peterle government a decision that the OVS should be in charge of the pensions of former JNA officers! This decision was later abused, and expanded to include all the officers' other problems. The officers, now civilians, demanded that the Slovenian authorities resolve their status. This means that a former JNA officer, even if he joined Slovenian forces in 1991, cannot be granted citizenship without a written recommendation from the OVS and that he cannot even obtain an ID card without them being consulted. This is why some of them have to live abroad, separated from their families, some were even exiled (temporarily) from Slovenia, many cannot purchase the apartments they live in, and some were even evicted.

It is interesting that the courts and administrative bodies cite the stances of the Defense Ministry, but do not quote their contents or arguments in their decisions. This author, as a member of the Slovenian Helsinki Watch, spoke with a number of government representatives and always questioned the role of the OVS in deciding the status of JNA officers. The interior minister, for example, was shocked to learn that every single officer of the former Yugoslavia's army, even if he retired as an active officer of the Slovenian army, had to approach the OVS when applying for citizenship. A state secretary in the Justice Ministry admitted that the OVS usually replied in a single sentence: "We do not agree," without giving any other explanation.

Meanwhile, many people, many former JNA officers and their families suffered, regardless of whether they are Slovenians or members of some other former Yugoslav ethnic group. Until now we have been convinced that only in "banana republics" -- where generals who rose to power in coups rule with a firm hand -- do secret military services decide the fate of civilians. Can it be that independent Slovenia in fact belongs among such "banana republics?" Freeing itself from such a burden is not only up to intelligence and security circles, or the Defense Ministry. This is a task the government should begin to tackle. After all, this practice is entirely foreign to all European democratic states, and all armies that are part of NATO.

Milan Gorjanc