Alternatives & Analyses: The Spy scandal in Bulgaria’s political autotomy

The claim of an unqualified and unprecedented success of the Bulgarian counterintelligence communicated to the public as a significant pre-elections stunt by the Prosecutor General requires a credible context, which could blur the thin line between genuine success and real failure and add to the dubious record of the Bulgarian government and its law-enforcing institutions in protecting its own and NATO’s secrets.

To start with, expelling Russian diplomats has recently become routine. Still, in most instances, the odd silence and the delayed reaction from Moscow elicit a pre-agreed staged performance to help the Bulgarian authorities buy time (to complete the Turk Stream) or buy credibility (to offset the effect of the US senators’ sharp criticism of GERB’s rule).

Unravelling a network of Bulgarian agents is a first for this government. Yet, its impressive history of accommodating Russia’s interests warrants a critical look into the latest PR show, including the warning from Russia’s ambassador to Bulgaria not to cross red lines in propaganda.

Some 20 years ago, during the UDF government, a similar counterintelligence operation shed light on a group of Russian agents working at the Defense Ministry. Yet, no one challenged the sincerity of this effort by the Bulgarian secret services. As ambassador to Moscow, I was privy to some details, but I do not recall anyone bragging with evidence presented in public.

Not only is boasting unprofessional and might compromise sensitive information and critical evidence, but it could allow GRU to finetune subsequent operations, understanding how the system works, and also allow the alleged agents’ defence team to explore loopholes in the potential indictment and advise the defendants against cooperating with the investigation. That is why, when foreign intelligence agents are caught in the US, in the EU and in Russia, the information provided to the public is scarce and most of it, cleared for sensitivity, breaks into the open after the trial.

Russia’s intelligence activities present less danger at the level of 1000 euro agents than at the senior government officials or political level, where tens of millions come into play.

The General Prosecutor’s role in the process is minor, yet he Is doing most of the pre-electioneering. SANS (the counterintelligence unit) and SATO (State Agency for Technical Operations) are in the lead. If history serves as guide, making excerpts from intercepted mobile communications public in the past has not helped the prosecutors’ win their case in court. The whole bravado aims to conceal a far more essential and troubling gaffe – the degree of the Russian secret services infiltration at the top of Bulgaria’s institutions – legislative, executive and judicial power, the Presidency and the Bulgarian security apparatus.

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The fact that counterintelligence was asleep at the wheel over a network of 6 Russian agents in the Holy Grail of National Security – the Ministry of Defense, with pronounced Soviet addicts and GRU academy alumni in charge, is scandalous?

The political responsibility rests squarely with Vice Premier Karakachanov, PM Borisov and the last two General Prosecutors.

There are two types of protected information – NATO and national level. The SCIS (the State Commission on Information Security) oversees the whole process of issuing permits, but SANS has the veto right. These permits are regularly reviewed and confirmed, and the spy ring of six alleged Russian agents did not seem to have problems getting security clearances.

Denials and revocation of permits for access to classified information need no explanations; no appeal, decisions are final. This permit review process has been used to disallow potentially high-risk individuals from the right to read classified docs, resulting in their quick dismissal or inability to take their jobs. Ministers, deputy ministers, state secretaries, state officials, magistrates have been removed from office due to lack of permits. The first Head of Office of President Radev fell under the risk category and was denied access to NATO classified information. This exclusive right to verify the trustworthiness of political appointees has been abused by parties with control over SANS – allowing them to eliminate political opponents while conveniently ignoring genuine threats.

One wonders how SANS and SAIS missed detecting these low-paid Russian moles who count cash received for their services in their office at the MOD, using open lines for communication. Sounds like a mockery of an agent.

The group’s resident in charge would not pass a company security check with his biography and record, yet he has passed SCIS review process and received access to top-secret NATO classified docs.

You may believe this is an innocent coincidence. From my personal experience, I don’t. For a military intelligence chief to operate, investigations of his loyalty should have been draconian before being authorized to access documents with the highest clearance level.

It is plausible that on orders from their political peers, SCIS and SANS top guns have been instructed to cast a blind eye. This tactic perfectly fits Borisov’s notion of balancing between NATO and Russia, allowing a free ride of GRU agents in Bulgaria.

The General Prosecutor intentionally shielded GRU operations using Bulgarian assets in the unsuccessful coup in Montenegro and dragged his feet in the investigation on the use of novichok in the attempted murder of three Bulgarian nationals.

One wonders about the value of these agents’ network for GRU when the minister of defence signs contracts for hundreds of millions for repairs of obsolete Soviet hardware, benefitting Russia’s military-industrial complex with the sole purpose of balancing the purchase of F-16s.

The prime minister delivered on a 1,5 billion euro Bulgarian segment of the Turk Stream to guarantee energy resource proceeds that fund Russian intelligence services.

The same goes for the ‘honorary’ chairman of MRF, Ahmed Dogan, with his long-time ties to Russian secret services, who secured a 180 million euro funding, without any competitive tender, for Russian dredging ships in Varna West port, an operation coordinated with the Russian military intelligence.

The head of SCIS, a graduate of the Academy of the Ministry of Interior, is a personal appointee of PM Borisov. He signs classified information access permits and issues certificates, which legitimize Bulgarian officials security clearance before our partners.

The actual high-level investigation of the role of the PM, the Prosecutor General, the Minister of Defence, the head of SANS and SCIS, in allowing a free ride for Russian secret services , compromising Bulgaria’s defence potential against Russia, should top the tasks list of a future government.

Worth reminding, since 2008, Dogan and Peevski have done everything possible to control both civil and military counterintelligence services by incorporating them into the State Agency for National Security, crippling their potential to investigate foreign intelligence operations independently from SANS’ political peers.

Instead of bragging, resignations should be flying at the  highest level of Bulgarian government’s, the secret services, and the General Prosecutor. But we won’t see such resignations.

In the current case of Bulgaria’s political autotomy, the multibillion Borisov-Dogan Lizard sheds its tail – the entourage of agents worth only thousands of leva.

Ilian Vassilev

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