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17 Nov, 2008 08:11

I Spy: Estonian official accused of KGB connections

It is a spy intrigue at the heart of NATO's state-of-the-art cyber-defense technology. On September 21 it emerged that Herman Simm, 61, an Estonian defense ministry official, was arrested on suspicion of being a Russian

Several officials, representing the EU and NATO are currently continuing the investigation under the supervision of a US officer. The general consensus is that Simm had access to every document with the label of ‘Top Secret’ which passed between NATO countries. This makes Simm's espionage case potentially the most serious one for NATO since the end of the Cold War, according to The Times, London.

The Estonian daily “Postimees” has already reported that the former chief of the Estonian Defence Ministry's security department had already confessed and provided the investigation with details of his espionage activities. At first sight, these may appear to be rather outdated and in the best traditions of the Cold War – despite being on officially-recruited Russian agent in the mid-1990's, Simm still used a converted radio transmitter to set up covert meetings. His contact posed as a Spanish businessman.

In 2001 Simm was appointed head of the newly-formed state-secret protection department. This position meant that the spy was tasked with coordinating the protection of state secrets. According to “Postimees”, Simm has already admitted that he used his position to pass on secret Estonian, EU and UN documents to the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service.

Estonia, being a highly electronically-progressive nation, has digitalised most of its governmental information. People vote and conduct business online. Government meetings involve practically no paperwork. The Cyber Defense centre in Tallinn, an institution set up to protect all this information flow, and a NATO flagship project, has now been compromised. 

Another issue of major concern is that information regarding the the US’s proposed Missile Defense Shield for Europe might have been passed on to Russia. As the primary security official of the Baltic State, Simm would have had access to this information, despite it not being widely released.

German magazine Der Spiegel writes that the longer the investigation goes on, “the more obvious it becomes how big the impact of the suspected treachery really is”.

As things stand, Simm is likely to be brought to court early next year. If he is found guilty, he is expected to face from three to 15 years in prison. 

Not every man's greed.

Simm was unmasked because he made so-called “classical” errors. The agent began by buying up several expensive properties around the Tallinn area, including several houses, country cottages and a spectacular white-washed villa on the seashore outside Tallinn.

Simm’s second mistake was in attempting to recruit another agent to facilitate his work. This unnamed individual refused the spy's proposal and reported the incidents he was aware of to the Estonian authorities.

This led to the revelation of the ersatz-Spaniard's movements into NATO security circles.

Taken together, these details have led the “Postimees” newspaper to conclude that the motives for Simm's espionage was a desire for power and money.

Family affair

The alleged spy's wife, Heete Simms, is accused of being an accomplice in her husband's affairs. She had previously worked as a lawyer at the national police headquarters, putting her in close contact with classified government information as well.

It remains unclear at this point in the investigation whether the couple had other collaborators. Details have emerged that a senior Estonian police officer sought political asylum in the UK in the 1990's in order to escape pressure to sell classified information.

Neither the Simms' lawyers nor the accused have commented on the charges. NATO has also refused to make any official statements on the subject.

However, the Estonian media suggests that the damage which Simm has done to the integrity of NATO security greatly exceeds the damage that Russian intelligence has sustained through losing an agent.

Furthermore, it questions the credibility of a US-Estonia union which was cultivated for so long by both sides. Despite the graveness of the events, no Russian diplomats have been removed or expelled from Estonia.