Clearly, No-one Was Thinking (part 4: Spies Like Us)

A corollary to one of the Murphy’s Laws states that if multiple things can go wrong, they will go wrong in the worst possible order. Additionally, Murphy’s Fourteenth Law states that if anything can’t go wrong on its own, someone will make it go wrong.

With apologies to Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd (source)

This, in a nutshell, is the unnecessary, avoidable and wholly manufactured spook-scandal that is engulfing Muddy Hollows in the last few days. To put it simply, the turf war between SOVA (Slovenian intelligence service), KNOVS (parliamentary oversight committee) and PM Marjan Šarec (to whom SOVA reports directly) makes the plot of Spies Like Us look like a fucking John Le Carre thriller.

Days ago, KNOVS chairman Matej Tonin published the unclassified part of the committee investigation into the incident during the arbitration on Slovenia-Croatia border dispute where Slovenian liaison officer was caught coordinating with the Slovenian appointed arbitration judge (one of five judges on the panel).

The committee concluded that a breach of protocol indeed occurred and that the Slovenian liaison officer did not follow proper security procedures when communicating with the Slovenian judge.

The report (at least, the part of it that was made public) basically throws the liaison officer under the bus, inasmuch as she wasn’t there already. But if KNOVS chairman Matej Tonin (NSi) thought that he could do some grandstanding by milking the issue, he was sorely mistaken.

Namely, almost immediately after the report was published, Večernji list, a Croatian daily close to the government spun the story as if the report is tantamount to admitting that Slovenian government at the time was directing the communication between the liaison officer and the Slovenian judge. This, Croatia claims, proves they had every right to pull out of the proceedings and that the arbitration ruling is null and void.

Slovenia obviously denies that and in any case the Arbitration Tribunal ruled that the breach was not serious enough to taint the proceedings. Furthermore, the mere fact that the case is now in front of the EU court of justice shows that the ruling, such as it is, stands.

Be that as it may, instead of doing the victory lap in the media for investigating one the worst embarrassments in the history of Slovenian foreign policy and intelligence services, Matej Tonin was left with an ugly egg on his face.

Suddenly he was defending himself from accusations of undermining Slovenian national interests, abusing the committee for his own political agenda and scoring an own goal of re-opening a can of worms that was barely sealed.

All of the above seems to be true. At the very least Tonin managed to create a talking point in Zagreb’s favour when one really wasn’t needed. Unless you are a Croatian politician in the middle of a presidential campaign and you sorely need a foreign policy diversion.

President Kolinda Grabar – Kitarović, running for a second term, better send Tonin some flowers and a thank-you note.

You may think the story stops there. You could have been more wrong.

Because after Tonin published the report and shit hit the fan, SOVA filed charges against unnamed KNOVS members for disclosing classified information. Initially, various outlets even reported that SOVA filed charges against Tonin, but that was later denied. Be that as it may, seeing as he is the committee chairperson, Tonin definitely is in the line of fire.


But let us backtrack here for a bit and take a look at this in slow motion.

An intelligence service filed charges against (presumably) a member of the parliamentary committee performing oversight over the said service.

This is wrong six ways to Sunday.

KNOVS is obviously fully empowered to investigate SOVA almost any way it sees fit. That is the whole fucking point of parliamentary (=civilian) control over security services. And even if classified information was leaked (which is by no means certain), it is not for SOVA – the subject of the oversight – to make the call.

This same thing, although with much lower stakes played out about a month ago when KNOVS made a surprise inspection of SOVA after claims were made that the agency employed a woman roumoured to be the PM’s paramour.

Now, the PM is a (presumably happily) married man and denied both knowing the woman as well as interceding on her behalf. But that didn’t stop KNOVS member Žan Mahnič, a young and ambitions SDS MP with a permanent residence somewhere south of the Glourious Leader’s sphincter, to run over to SOVA and do some digging in personnel files.

The rumours surrounding the PM died soon thereafter, but information leaked that SOVA is a bit of a black hole when it comes to finding public sector employment of politicians’ family members and such.

Back then, too, SOVA filed charges against unnamed KNOVS members. Basically it’s déjà vu all over again.

Only somehow, this is a lot worse.

You see, in the mean time, another curious thing had happened: Rajko Kozmelj, director of SOVA, gave a wide-ranging interview which was mostly aimed at containing the story on the alleged paramour. But the chief spook also found the time to point out that certain unnamed Slovenians were in Croatia’s pocket and were actively working against Slovenian interests.

Now, as a rule, directors of intelligence services don’t give interviews. And when they do, it is for a reason. The question here is whether the PM knew the interview was going to happen and whether he knew what Kozmelj was going to say. Because if he didn’t, there’s a valid question about to whom exactly SOVA reports. And if he did, there’s an argument to be made that SOVA was influencing domestic politics, which by law it is not allowed to do.

Incidentally, the irony of the spook bwana giving an interview to the magaizne which made its name back in the 80’s by being in constant conflict with the spooks back then was not lost on anyone. But while it was fun read, the interview was in fact an unfortunate development, yet by far not the only one, in what was to become serious omnishambles.

You see, just he did as back in October, when he was accusing KNOVS members of manufacturing evidence and fishing expeditions when trawling trawling through personnel records, prime minister Šarec got in on the act over the arbitration issue as well.

Namely, President Pahor, himself looking for ways to come across all statecraft-y and shit, sent a letter to PM Šarec yesterday, asking him to convene an expanded session of the National Security Council which would include him (Pahor) and the leader of the largest opposition party (Janez Janša of SDS, in case you forgot).

The point of the exercise, as per Pahor, would be to take stock of the situation and assess the political and diplomatic fallout with relation to Croatia and the arbitration (“national interest”, as he put it) as well as the question of democratic control of the security services.

The point of this excercise as per pengovsky, however, was to grandstand, show off and, for some unfathomable reason, do Janša a solid.

Šarec responded today and basically told Pahor to fuck off.

However, Šarec went even further than just telling the president there will be no grandstanding on this.

In a lengthy letter (above) Šarec wrote there is no “civilian oversight” over the security services, that there is only “political oversight”, and that it not all that it is claimed to be. At the same time, Šarec continues, the “democratic control” that Pahor writes of, is working just fine. And that at any rate, the public has the right to know of any misdeeds, but the overall situation is far from dramatic and that by prioritising it leads only to further escalation, hence there will be no expanded session of the NSC.

Talk about a kick in the ‘taters.

For what it’s worth, Pahor’s office replied by publishing a statement saying that the “president accepts and respects the PM’s decision” which is probably the first adult and responsible move anyone has made in this whole sordid saga.

As for Šarec, while he is right in saying that this matter does not warrant such high-level attention, he is once again conflating concepts and laying the groundwork for some future political and legal disaster.

By making the unnecessary distinction between civilian and political oversight (is there such a thing as military political oversight, and if it is, do we really want to go there?), the PM is making the latest in a series of small steps that slowly but surely erode the firewall between civilian and military (or more broadly, security) spheres of the society.

Parliamentary (that is to say, civilian) oversight of the repressive organs is paramount. There can be no ifs or buts about it. But lately Šarec has seen it fit on more than one occasion to debate the “freedom vs. security” issue and has as a rule sided with the security aspect of the debate (case in point last week’s epic interview with the PM on the LD;GD podcast where pengovsky played a small part).

But while bending over backwards to draw a distinction between civilian and political oversight and claiming that the latter is flawed, the PM then shut down the president by saying that the “democratic oversight” is just peachy. How does that work?

The more one looks at this whole clusterfuck the more one is reminded of the epic scene from Spies Like Us where in a room full of spooks everyone comes across as completely idiotic.

If there ever was a case where everyone involved did precisely the opposite of what they should have done. at precisely the worst time to do it, in a precisely the most damaging way, this is it.

Clearly, no-one was thinking.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.