“There’s too much paranoia over phone call snooping”

  • 2013-04-03
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

Darius Petrosius wants more clarity in snooping by Lithuania’s Secret Services.

Regardless of the democratic country you live in, intelligence does what it is supposed to do- snoops and eavesdrops for the sake of state security, justice and public interest. Unfortunately, sometimes intelligence power abuse cannot be ruled out. However, things might be a bit too twisted and clandestine in Lithuania, where the number of personal phones being snooped on by the national secret agencies have been a state secret until recently. But Darius Petrosius, MP and the new chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament’s Commission for Parliamentary Scrutiny of Operative Activities (CPSOA) is determined to bring more clarity to this sensitive matter.
“I’m trying to explain to the Lithuanian secret services that by hiding the information, they first make harm to themselves. So I insist that the shroud of secrecy has to be unbiased, reasonable and in compliance with the law,” admitted Petrosius, who kindly agreed to answer The Baltic Times questions.

Can you tell us how many people in Lithuania are in the focus of the national secret service agencies - the Financial Crime Investigation Service (FCIS), Special Investigation Service (SIS), State Security Department (SSD) and some others? In other words, how many people’s phone calls and e-mails are snooped?
Operative measures in Lithuania last year were applied in respect of 7,147 persons. It also included phone conversation tapping and e-mail interception. Perhaps the number is higher as the commission report has not included the number of all those suspects in thousands of pre-trial investigations. Therefore the number could go well beyond the CPSOA’s.
   I also want to stress that the number includes only persons whose surveillance has been approved by regional courts. Before, the numbers on the subject included only tapped phones, our Commission’s report counts persons instead of phones.

So the number may be well over 10,000, but nevertheless, far less than that in 2009 provided by Lithuania to the European Commission’s Communication Service, a staggering 80,000 people.  Last year, the former FCIS director and now MP Vitalijus Gailius came up with quite another number of people under surveillance, of 30,000. How do you explain the different estimations?
I believe we tend to go too far with the numbers. Indeed, the EC’s Communication Service was given that number in 2008 or 2009, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that as many people were tapped. Besides your mentioned sources, some other ones have come up with other numbers. But I believe the CPSOA I head has provided the most unbiased estimation. Our report is part of the Commission’s function to execute parliamentary control over the secret services.

Was the surveillance always justified? Did your investigation turn up any cases of intelligence power abuse?
Indeed, there are single cases of such abuse. But speaking on the whole, the investigation revealed that the operative measures have mostly been applied in accordance to the law. Can you specify the most common cases of abuse?

Well, most boil down to this: a secret service official investigating a suspect’s activity wire-tapped not only his but also his girlfriend’s phone.
Although the Criminal Surveillance Law that went into effect from this year sets out very clearly legal cause for application of special operative measures, I have to admit there are certain problems in that regard.
For example, some special services, when asking the court for permission to apply the special measures, too often use the same standardized phrases, literally stamping them out for everyone in their focus. This needs to be changed. And virtually speaking, such special operative measures as phone call eavesdropping or e-mail interception should be used only in exceptional cases, when there are no other ways and measures to gather information. No way in every case.
The CPSOA approach is very distinct: make sure the intelligence services do not abuse law and that the prosecutor’s office and court are more demanding to the services in asking them to clearly lay out their arguments for the necessity of the special operative measures.

How do we make sure that they aren’t applied excessively and malevolently? For example, against politically unsuitable politicians or editors, perhaps a most common fear in Lithuania?
That is an important question. Although the Criminal Intelligence Law is valid from the beginning of this year, for me as the CPSOA chairman, sometimes it is not fully clear how the secret services apply the law and the special measures. Let’s say, speaking of the issue of the state’s energy security, one of the chief priorities of the national security, I have no doubt that the special operative measures according to the law are applied to some persons. But you’d get me confused if you asked me what exact provisions of the law are being applied in the cases, or what criteria are used in picking up whose phone calls, for example, must be tapped.
So, once again, we still have some questions unanswered, and the commission will have to work harder to have them answered. To answer your question on, as you said, a mayors’ or editor’s snooping, I cannot reject the possibility that these things happen. However, I’m sure the scope of the things is not universal, or excessive.
By the way, speaking of the media, the State Security Law envisions, among other things, monitoring of media outlets; therefore you can make some conclusions on your own. However, the fact itself that a person is a mayor or editor cannot serve as a reason to snoop on these people. Speaking in a broader sense, it is no secret that some financial structures use the media to satisfy their interests, therefore, such outlet editor’s conversation eavesdropping can be reasonable.

The UK has been shaken up by the phone and e-mail hacking scandal in some Rupert Murdoch-owned newspapers. As you know it turned out that the media bribed British police in obtaining necessary information. Are you convinced that this is not happening in Lithuania?
I do not possess any facts proving it. But I do believe there are single cases of private life abuse out there. And the violations are not necessarily always related to the special services. Nowadays, most private security companies possess technical capabilities of phone call tapping or e-mail hacking. As a rule, the companies advertise themselves as providers of detective services. In fact, the other day I did a little of browsing on the Internet, looking up availability of spying equipment. I was astonished at the variety of them. Evidently, a lot more entities in the country than those representing state intelligence services are capable of snooping.

Do you believe the parliamentary control of the secret services is sufficient? There’s a strong notion that they are often out of reach. Are you going to work on their bigger accountability?
Indeed, there’re certain issues with the control. And they become very obvious when there’s a need to take on specific complaints of a possible interception. For example, the commission, before my appointment, had received an inquiry from a group of journalists on whether special operative measures had been used against them. In other words, they wanted to find out whether at some point of their professional careers they had been snooped on by the intelligence.
But frankly, when it comes to such individual requests, there’s a core question that needs to be answered, i.e. how the CPSOA is supposed to view them from the point of view of state interests? Dismiss? Start scrutiny? When and upon what cases? My stance on that is quite clear: the commission cannot be a tool for anyone to check those things, regardless of professions.
But imperfections of the legislation have allowed certain profession representatives to check such things.
It is a bad thing. If this became a common practice, I’d risk having a line of parliamentarians at my door tomorrow seeking to find out whether their phones are wire-tapped. I am not saying the CPSOA cannot start investigating concrete cases in the future, but those procedures have to be very clearly defined and set out.

Do you agree that the State Security Department is the least accountable to Parliament? Do the functions it carries out justify the secrecy?
Well, perhaps I agree that the Department is the least “reachable.” On the other hand, there are objective reasons for that, the main of which is the intelligence function it executes. Other than criminal intelligence services, the SSD’s activity is not focused on completing an investigation in any way as its primary task is collecting necessary information and providing it to the Lithuanian president or government.
Perhaps I could make a joke here…If there’s a foreign intelligence spy caught by Lithuanian secret services, it would be the biggest mistake to put him behind bars without trying to make any use of him… Nevertheless, I do think that there should be a more defined parliamentary control of the institutions.

So when a person suspects that his or her phone is tapped, do you believe there’s a reason for the concern?
As I said, there’s too much paranoia regarding the subject. Also, as I said before, there’re more than enough technical equipments available out there for those who want to snoop on somebody.
But when it comes to a state secret institution, surveillance has to be professional, i.e. undetected. When speaking over the phone and it starts cracking, or third-parties’ voices could be heard in the background, is the worst example of special services’ work.
The fears and mistrust over the services will linger as long as they remain clandestine. There are plenty of things the public shouldn’t be aware of for state security reasons, but the number of persons under surveillance has to be made public regularly. That is something the Parliament Commission for Parliamentary Scrutiny of Operative Activities strives for.