Why Czech premiers, past and present, avoid the hot seat over BIS

Mechanisms for controlling the Czech secret services are ineffective, says security expert Jan Schneider

Ředitel Jiří Lang novinářům 24. dubna po jednání komise řekl, že mohou věřit, že existují indicie o tom, že odposlechy mohly uniknout i odněkud jinud než z BIS. | na serveru Lidovky.cz | aktuální zprávy foto: © ČTKČeská pozice
Ředitel Jiří Lang novinářům 24. dubna po jednání komise řekl, že mohou věřit, že existují indicie o tom, že odposlechy mohly uniknout i odněkud jinud než z BIS. | na serveru Lidovky.cz | aktuální zprávy

COMMENTARY by Jan Schneider / The lower house of parliament committee that oversees the Czech domestic spy service (BIS) convened again last week to discuss an ongoing investigation into a high-profile scandal that has rocked the Civic Democrats (ODS) to the core: the release of incriminating taped phone conversations from 2007 between the controversial Prague “ODS godfather” lobbyist Roman Janoušek and then mayor Pavel Bém.

The commission met on April 24 with BIS director Jiří Lang; Mirek Topolánek, the former prime minister at the time the wiretaps were made, conspicuously (and arrogantly) excused himself from appearing and neither did his successor, Petr Nečas, turn up. So the session convened briefly, MPs listened to some classified information that cannot be made public, and disbanded.

The leak of the Janoušek–Bém tapes in March, followed by other tapes suggesting the infamous lobbyist was also in contact with two current ODS ministers, Agriculture Ministr Petr Bendl and Environment Minister Tomáš Chalupa, caused an uproar largely because it confirmed the widespread suspicions of shady “godfather” contacts between Prague business interests and politicians.

The initial tapes between were made public by the Czech daily Mladá fronta Dnes, which reported that they were made five years ago by the BIS and two years later landed up in the hands of ABL, the security service company being run by the de-facto head of the Public Affairs (VV) party, Vít Bárta, who last year was forced to resign as transport minister and earlier this month convicted of trying to bribe MPs from his party for their “silence and loyalty.” Truth be told, if the Czech public ever learns how the wiretappings came to be disseminated it will be still be the least interesting aspect of the whole story.

The Czech general public learned last week that the investigation into the affair would continue due to the instructions given by the supervising state prosecutor. Lang, the BIS director, told reporters there were indications the incriminating taped recordings could have come from a source other than the secret service. There are rumors that a complicated search of electronic traces (supposed to distinguish one receiver of the tapping from another) are underway.  Let’s wish the electronic experts luck.

The gov’t is responsible for BIS’s activities 

Truth be told, if the Czech public ever learns how the wiretappings came to be disseminated it will be still be the least interesting aspect of the whole story. It served a purpose, however, in bringing us to this important crossroads, namely to the question of whether and how the government acted as receivers of the intelligence (the Janoušek–Bém tapes suggested the lobbyist wielded enormous influence over the Prague mayor — even to the extent of helping decide his daily program — and was involved in key real estate transactions involving land held by Prague City Hall and decisions concerning its many municipal companies.

Here, it is necessary to state that this shift in accentuation of the oversight (of the intelligence services to the government as the centerpiece of the intelligence system) is a hugely important step. Until now, the Czech government had been the whipping boy of the intelligence service. In reality, and according to the law, the government is responsible for the intelligence services: for what it does, doesn’t do, and its coordination. The government is supposed to task the the secret services within the scope of the law and demands results from them. That is the most effective control of the intelligence services.

And MPs, to whom the executive power is responsible in accordance with the Constitution, must above all control the functionality and efficiency of the reporting system — the informational output and the way the government reacted to it. And so here there is probably no need to explain why neither the former nor current prime minister feel like going to the examination of the commission.

But how can the MPs check what the intelligence services produced and how the government dealt with the information? Not easily. And nobody asks who watches the traditional agony of the control body over the BIS. They know that MPs themselves approved worthless control powers — and that it is difficult to do anything. The Czech intelligence services are growing without cultivated controls and the public can only pray it ends well.

On the other hand, those who warned against MPs getting greater powers were right. MPs would obtain more knowledge and therefore the risk of the leak of information would likewise increase. If the parliamentary powers increased notably, the intelligence services could switch to a defensive strategy (he who does nothing, spoils nothing), which would really not suit them. Indeed, this general tendency is not by chance says “danger uncontrolled until death.” 

Second control of the grémium

These repeatedly failed parliamentary checks have a very negative impact on the public, which naturally is not acquainted with the particulars of the intelligence services’ activities. The public entrusts its elected officials to take care of security matters, though it knows they can not give anything away: only a look of consternation (and leaks in the press) may let the citizens know if there is something amiss.

The expressions of the current members of the commission are very difficult to decipher. There is ill humor, but maybe not because they learnt something bad about the BIS. Their faces are not so wrinkled with worry that would give rise to false optimism. The clear satisfaction in their faces is not at all related to their oversight activities. It may be simply be a primal expression of relief that the coalition government one way or another has averted the immediate threat of early elections. Czech MPs are not leaving these putrid by familar waters. And they will continue to pretend they control the intelligence services.

One possible way forward would be a referendum. It could, moreover, be a handy tool for dealing with MPs — perhaps as regards their salaries or method of control of the intelligence services. The question is whether the Czech intelligence services should be controlled only by MPs or whether parliamentary control should be supplemented by a second control panel comprised of non-MPs. It’s obvious that MPs do not want to lose this toy and instead of real control of the intelligence services are trying to play soft-headed party games, without comprehending that the fun had long ceased.

On the other hand, the opposition parties are aware that they want to backtrack and increase the powers of inspection, the time will come when they win the election and these increased powers will turn against them. Therefore, the situation is a mess, to put it politely, and not only in this country.