Estonia: The little spycatcher who could

Michael Weiss writes: Estonia regained its independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and had no time at all to reconstitute its security services from scratch; it took a calculated gamble that grandfathering in many old hands from the ancien régime, the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, wouldn’t result in Swiss cheesing its service with loyalists to the former occupying superpower.

One such transitional figure, a former KGB colonel named Herman Simm, who reinvented himself as a champion of Estonian self-determination, worked his way up to the head of security at the Estonian Defense Ministry. In 2004, when the country joined NATO, Simm established the National Security Authority, a department in the Defense Ministry which gave him access to whatever classified intelligence was shared among the then 26 allied countries. Two years later, Simm was awarded two medals: one from Estonia’s president for “service to the Estonian nation,” and the other from his Russian handler announcing Simm’s promotion to the rank of major-general in the SVR, the branch of Moscow’s own reconstituted KGB in charge of foreign intelligence.

Simm had been a spy who fed reams of sensitive NATO secrets back to Moscow Center. Funnily enough, the one secret that he kept being asked to uncover was the one he was unable to because it didn’t exist: NATO’s invasion plan for Russia.

He was finally arrested in 2008, a year after Russian cyber hackers shut down Estonia’s e-government and digital banking sector for the better part of 24 hours in retaliation for the relocation of a Red Army World War II monument, which precipitated drunken riots in central Tallinn.

NATO subsequently named Simm the “most damaging” foreign operative in Alliance history. It was a grave national embarrassment for a new member-state that had sought membership to protect itself from exactly this type of Kremlin subversion and interference but which had hitherto spent the bulk of the ’90s and early aughts trying to root out the seemingly more urgent threats of gangsterism and organized crime—much of that also emanating from its eastern neighbor. [Continue reading…]

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