At Times of Intensified Enemy Espionage, Czech President Attacks Counterintelligence Service

  • Tomáš Hošek
  • 27.12.2018 10:46

The 2017 report by the Czech Security Information Service unequivocally characterized the activities by both Russian and Chinese espionage as one of the most severe security threats currently faced by the Czech Republic. While applauded by many, the Service’s unexpected frankness wasn’t met with much elation from Czechia’s top proponents of Moscow's and Beijing's policies, including the President Miloš Zeman. With his verbal attacks against the primary counterintelligence service in the country, this time Zeman crossed the red line between casual political proclamations and hazarding with Czechia’s key security interests.

One would say a head of state publicly denouncing his own country’s intelligence service, calling its agents “bunglers” and their work “gibberish”, is the kind of scandal usually occurring in third-world countries, not that worthy of western media’s attention. Make no mistake, this is exactly what the Czech President Miloš Zeman did three weeks ago in his regularly broadcasted interview for the privately owned tabloid Barrandov TV. While many barely blinked at the reality of Zeman’s “another provocative public stunt”, the outrageous statements may very well be one of the times when the President simply went too far, putting in question the vital security interests of his country.

What Zeman referred to was the latest annual report by the civil counterintelligence Security Information Service (BIS), which surprisingly set quite an uncompromising tone in its description of Russian and Chinese spying activities on the Czech soil. Compared to the more reserved documents from previous years, the 2017 BIS report candidly described the activities of the Russian and Chinese state powers as a threat to Czechia’s security and other key interests, also highlighting the extensive use of undeclared Russian spies under a diplomatic cover. Indeed, the disproportionately large Russian diplomatic mission in Prague is believed to systematically use its human resources to access internal non-public information from numerous reckless Czech state employees and politicians.

 

“The BIS called the pro-Russian disinformation websites a smoke screen preventing the Czech public to see the true aim of the Russian hybrid strategy, which is to undermine NATO and the EU.”

 

Furthermore, the BIS put forward a fresh approach to deal with the Russian hybrid warfare strategy, rebuking the Czech problem of “not seeing the forest for the trees”. Specifically, the agency called the often-demonised pro-Russian disinformation websites a smoke screen intended to draw attention and fuel chaos, preventing the Czech public to see the true aim of the Russian hybrid strategy, which is to undermine NATO and the EU through weakening their individual member states. Another part of this strategy in Czechia could be the practice of Russian investors hiding behind puppet Czech nationals and offshore companies in order to gain control over Czech companies that can then seek to acquire lucrative state contracts, often of a vital strategic nature.

In a similar manner, intelligence activities of Chinese spies under a diplomatic cover against Czech targets have grown more intense throughout 2017. The BIS described the development of Chinese operations in the political, intelligence, legislative and economic sphere as “unsettling”, pointing out the power industry, telecommunications, finances, logistics, healthcare and modern technology to be the primary strategic sectors of Chinese interest. Overall, the Chinese efforts to undermine the EU as a cohesive unit is said to bear a clear resemblance to the disruptive hybrid strategy used by the Russian Federation.

 

“During the year-long cyber campaign, Russian hackers managed to compromise loads of sensitive internal data reaching to the highest-ranking Foreign Ministry representatives.”

 

Besides addressing the spy activities of Russian intelligence services outside of the virtual world, the report also informed about the series of long-term cyber attacks on the Foreign Ministry employees’ emails. During the year-long cyber campaign, the attackers managed to access more than 150 email inboxes and compromise loads of sensitive internal data reaching to the highest-ranking Ministry representatives. Likewise, another attack on the Foreign Ministry emails occurred in December 2016, utilizing the so-called “brute force attack” technique to access the inboxes. Taking all its intel into account, the BIS is convinced the attacks were carried out as parts of the cyber espionage campaigns called Turla and APT28/Sofacy, ascribed to the Russian intelligence services FSB and GRU, respectively.

In his aforementioned bid to disregard the 2017 BIS report, President Zeman accused the agency of not being able to provide evidence exposing a single Russian or Chinese spy, while failing to expose the Islamic extremists operating in Czechia. In a swift statement by the BIS chief Michal Koudelka, however, the agency defended its work and attempted to prove Zeman’s claims wrong. In the last five years, the BIS, in fact, prevented dozens of Russian and Chinese intelligence officers from their spy activities by stripping them of their accreditation, and in early 2018 managed to disrupt one of the active Russian intelligence networks. Regarding the fight against terrorism, the BIS played a major role in monitoring the controversial Prague imam Samer Shehadeh, who got arrested in November 2018 on charges of supporting terrorism.

 

“The completion of the Dukovany Nuclear Power Plant has Russia and China among the hottest applicants for the contract, enjoying the support of the Czech President and his team.”

 

Although claiming that Zeman’s interview stunt was more of a strive for gaining publicity, rather than direct political favour to Moscow or Beijing, the former foreign intelligence chief Karel Randák said he would go as far as denying the President any further access to a single classified intel or a counter-intelligence report. Randák also reminded Zeman’s earlier gaffe with publicly disclosing secret information about an Islamic State affiliate’s movement on the Czech soil, once again proving the President’s unacceptable treatment of sensitive intel as a tool for boosting his self-representation in the media.

Zeman’s publicly expressed blatant disdain for one of the fundamental security services in Czechia came in times of increasingly intense foreign intelligence campaigns aiming to weaken the Czech affiliation with the Western liberal democratic order, which is still performing relatively strong compared to the likes of V4’s Hungary and Poland. The attempt to paralyze the BIS also occurred in the deciding times for the multi-billion contract on the completion of the Dukovany Nuclear Power Plant, with Russia and China among the hottest applicants, enjoying the support of the Czech President and his team of unscrupulous advisers. Although Zeman’s words were this time denounced even by his most valuable political ally, the Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, the fact that the biggest Czech counter-intelligence service came under a direct attack of its own head of state should definitely not get brushed aside by a simple shoulder shrug.

About author: Tomáš Hošek

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