Link to my article on CNSNews.com today:
Dusseldorf, Germany (CNSNews.com) – A senior Estonian government official is under arrest and being investigated for allegedly passing NATO and European Union secrets to Russia.
A spokesman for Estonia’s Defense Ministry confirmed to CNSNews.com on Wednesday that the man had been “caught for having revealed classified information” and said Estonia had given a “firm commitment to cooperate” with a NATO investigation.
Herman Simm, 61, who was responsible for handling classified and top secret material in the Baltic state’s capital, Tallinn, reportedly had access to “nearly all” documents circulated within NATO and the E.U., the German magazine Spiegel reported.
Simm headed government discussions in bilateral talks on protecting secret data flow.
He was also central to negotiations aimed at protecting the E.U. and NATO’s handling of sensitive information and was in charge of granting security clearances.
Intelligence that may have been compromised includes information relating to the controversial U.S. missile shield plans, a cyber protection program, the response to Russia’s actions in Georgia, and all NATO operations, from Kosovo to Afghanistan.
Simm was allegedly approached to become a Russian “mole” or “sleeper” at the end of the 1980s, Estonian politician Jaanus Rahumaegi, who leads the oversight committee for the government security agency, told Spiegel. At that time Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union.
Later, when the issue of Estonia’s NATO membership came onto the agenda, Simm in the mid-1990s “was officially recruited by the Russian government,” Rahumaegi said.
Estonia joined both NATO and the E.U. in 2004.
As European and NATO investigations proceed, the case is proving a major international embarrassment. The security breach is feared to be the worst since CIA counter-intelligence expert Aldrich Ames was exposed as a Russian spy in the early 1990s.
As of Tuesday, neither NATO nor the E.U. has commented on the case. Neither has a defense lawyer acting on behalf of Simm.
Estonian Ministry of Defense spokesman Martin Jasko said Wednesday that “no country is honoured by the fact that its citizen has been caught for having revealed classified information.”
Speaking on behalf of the government, he said its “firm commitment to co-operate in investigating Simm’s treason proves to NATO that it can be considered a responsible and trustworthy member state. Accordingly, we believe that Estonia’s reputation as a NATO partner is even stronger.”
Simm is said to have used a primitive converted radio transmitter to set up secret meetings with his contact man, known as “The Spaniard” because he posed as a Spanish businessman.
In a throwback to Cold War working practices, Simm operated together with his wife, Heete. A former lawyer in the national police headquarters, she has also been detained, charged with being an accessory to treason.
The Simms were originally detained on Sept. 21, but the case has been kept low-key. They will likely be arraigned early next year.
Herman Simm was a senior figure in the Estonian government. In 1994 he worked as Estonia’s chief of police, and later, he became a department head in the Defense Ministry.
He was in charge of secret coordination between NATO and the E.U.
When Estonia joined the E.U. and NATO, Simm’s value to Russia dramatically increased, as he was on the circulation list for highly sensitive NATO and European material.
An official quoted by Spiegel described Simm as a “big fish” who “gave the Russians practically everything NATO and the E.U. passed between them.”
Simm apparently made a fortune selling military secrets to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service SVR, the successor to the KGB.
He first drew suspicion to himself when he bought a portfolio of expensive property, including an opulent villa outside Tallinn and a farmhouse on the Baltic Sea.
His contact man then became careless in trying to recruit a second Estonian spy, who promptly reported it to Estonian intelligence. Following the trail of “The Spaniard” led investigators to Simm and his access to sensitive material within NATO.
Russian media reports on the case say it highlights the lack of security of Estonia’s handling of intelligence and sensitive information.
Estonia, described by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as “NATO’s most IT-savvy nation,” is a country of just 1.3 million people. Much government and commercial business is conducted online. People vote and pay taxes on the Internet, and government meetings involve virtually no paperwork.
When Estonia infuriated Russia by removing a Soviet war memorial in 2007, the country faced a vicious wave of Web-based attacks. Estonia has been lobbying hard to put cyber-defense on NATO’s agenda and set up a Cyber Defense Center in Tallinn, which is meant to help the alliance as a whole – a project that may now be compromised.
The ongoing NATO/E.U. investigation is being conducted by NATO’s Office for Security, headed by Michael Evanoff, an American.