Funding for mobile phone tapping approved

  • 2000-11-16
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - The Latvian Parliament on Nov. 2 granted the country's intelligence agency, the Constitution Protection Office, 819,000 lats ($1.32 million) for the purchase of mobile telephone tapping equipment, essential, the agency says, for fighting crime.

But critics argue that the Constitution Protection Office is insufficiently accountable for its actions and is infringing on the territory of the police.

While the Constitution Protection Office will be responsible for the equipment, it will also be used by the criminal police and other security services, said Uldis Dzenitis, deputy director of the Constitution Protection Office. Such equipment is essential in the fight against crime, he said.

Dzenitis downplayed fears that such equipment may be misused. Officers will still have to apply to a court for permission to eavesdrop on specific suspects, he said.

The funding was part of amendments to this year's national budget passed by Parliament that also included $3.2 million for a new embassy in Washington.

While accepting that eavesdropping equipment is necessary for fighting organized crime, Inese Voika, president of corruption watchdog Transparency International's Latvia office criticized the running of the Constitution Protection Office.

"The Constitution Protection Office should become a more accountable institution," she said. "It is not at all open about how it uses its budget or by what rules it works. Parliament has no real control over it."

The Constitution Protection Office's supervision of other departments when they use the phone tapping equipment will exacerbate an existing problem, unnecessary interference in the work of other agencies, particularly the police, says Janis Domburs, head of the journalists' cooperative the Independent Information and Research Bureau.

"The division of powers between security agencies has been questionable," said Domburs. "The Constitution Protection Office can't carry out all the functions expected of it. Its involvement in investigations which should be the responsibility of the police distract it from the core task of intelligence gathering."

Domburs backs Voika's view that the office's funding should be more transparent.

"More details about the Constitution Protection Office's spending should be available, in the same way as the Defense Ministry's spending on helicopters, planes and weapons is specified in its budget," he said.