Kęstutis Girnius. How reliable is the VSD report?

Kęstutis Girnius
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

For a few weeks now, the main attention of Lithuanian politicians and news media has been focused on the State Security Department (VSD) report on the illegal efforts by the MG Baltic group to influence politicians, law enforcement and news media.

The report should not have been the final say on these questions. It was more of a single source, which the Seimas National Security and Defence Committee (NSGK) would have had to review and analysed, compared to materials from other services, questioned certain figures, who appear in the report and only then reaching conclusions and perhaps releasing it.

But the report was released to the public and a thrilling scandal arose.

But does the report reliably prove that actions, which threatened national security were done?

Firstly, I would like to share some impressions raised by the report. The state and the courts do not respect our privacy or at least those of us, who catch the eye of law enforcement or secret services. Some individuals’ conversations were listened to for perhaps even ten years though it is unclear whether it was constant or with pauses. This should not be the case.

If after a year or two of wiretapping and monitoring there is insufficient data to start a case or at least a pre-trial investigation, the monitoring must be halted, especially when monitoring involves third parties, the target’s acquaintances, neighbours and such.

These individual’s right to privacy is even greater than the suspect’s.

It has long been known that judges give wiretapping permits lightly. According to the National Court Administration, in 2014 courts reviewed 12,332 requests from prosecutors over information transferred via electronic networks. Prosecutors were only denied 154 times – 1.2%.

This statistic reflects only the cases when the Penal Process Code was applied. In the same year in Lithuania, criminal intelligence actions were performed against almost 4.5 thousand individuals and in 2017 the VSD performed court sanctioned actions against 2001 individuals, a good number of them – not Lithuanian citizens.

Complaints that Lithuanian citizens’ right to privacy is being breached are typically rebuked with comments that those, who perform crime, cannot expect privacy.

But Lithuanian law allows wiretapping of not only suspects’ phone calls, but also any individual’s if law enforcement believes this way it could obtain data on a crime.

Based on the European Court of Human Rights, wiretapping is “a serious breach of a person’s rights and only very serious reasons, based on justified suspicion that the individual may be engaged in serious criminal activity could be a basis to sanction it.”

The ECHR opinion is disregarded in Lithuania. It can be added that in 2014 the BNS news agency complained regarding wiretapping seven times and each time it was conceded that it was done illegally.

Our prosecutors and detectives diligently sit at monitoring equipment, but what are the fruits of their labours? It is stated that MG Baltic activities were a threat to national security, that many individuals were included in the machinations, many institutions influenced, but so far very few cases have been started. Let’s say that there is insufficient proof to start cases on efforts to eliminate chief competition in the construction business in the capital.

But were there efforts to warn relevant organisations about these pursuits and urge them to transparently and in detail review the public procurements?

Or ask them, why MG Baltic is so fortunate? It appears that there were no such conversations even if a discrete expression of suspicion would likely have had an influence. On November 2014, there were already suspicions that the head of the Competition Council E. Šatas supports MG Baltic, but in 2017 the president appointed him to a new six year term. It can thus be believed that the suspicions were not relayed to the presidential palace. So what point was there to have the information and gather it?

And if Šatas “especially pressured and make remarks against the group’s competitions” is this enough to reach the conclusion that he favoured Mockus and worked for him?

MG Baltic is D. Mockus‘ domain, he is no grey cardinal, but instead an obvious sole ruling emperor. No case has been raised against him, though it is unbelievable that his squire R. Kurlianskis gathered those 105 thousand euro passed on to E. Masiulis from his own pocket.

One can hope that everything will be uncovered in the long run. After all, the US President D. Trump’s lawyer claimed for a time that he paid 135 thousand dollars to the porn star himself, so that she would not speak to the press about her one night stand with Trump.

Though the report is a transitory document, the VSD’s traditional lack of professionalism, careless statements (for example that Dapkus influenced the then Constitutional Court chairman Kęstutis Urbaitis) and an inclination to “poetry.” The Liberal Movement‘s management is correct in complaining to the courts over the VSD tarnishing the party’s formal reputation. Whatever the influence MG Baltic may have had, Mockus and his team did not found the party, nor control it completely. The VSD itself realises this or would realise if it took a moment to think more seriously.

The publication of the reports has granted an excellent opportunity for “punish and prohibit” school of politics politicians to take the stage. NSGK chairman V. Bakas mused on whether licenses should not be stripped from certain news media outlets.

He did not explain on what basis this could be justified and how it interacts with the freedom of press. LRTK chairman E. Vaitiekūnas says that the commission’s lawyers are considering the publically released VSD information about the influence of MG Baltic on LNK.

Though there is no mechanism on how to strip a previously granted license, the commission is prepared to consider the question if there appears a basis to believe there was harm done to the state.

Vaitiekūnas is a punisher with experience, having penalised Russian television channels a number of times. In this case one could doubt his earnesty. He must have noticed that in the report he is accused of granting MG Baltic representatives undisclosed information about competitors’ requests to the commission, thus he hurried to publically distance himself from the suspect patron.

After involving herself essentially for the first time, the president urged all MPs involved with businesses to think well regarding their continued parliamentary work.

It is a populist statement, but it is also a reminder to MPs, who claimed that they will investigate her activities or even will organise impeachment that she will respond in kind, mentioning potential breaches of oath.

Conservative leader Gabrielius Landsbergis also criticised the role of business in politics. If business is a poor match for politics, then consistency demands that Landsbergis himself withdraws from politics or would convince his wife to relinquish her successful business.

I do not view businessmen, those self-proclaimed creators of workplaces as being saints. But they should not be besmirched.

If it were necessary to vote on either a businessman or a school teacher in the Seimas elections without prior knowledge of their personality traits, I would vote for the businessman. Many laws are linked to the economy and a regular businessman knows much more about it than a regular teacher.

There are many businessmen in the US Congress and major bank and company CEOs are often invited to become ministers or take other influential offices. They often agree and are effective in their offices.

We know what the VSD thinks about MG Baltic, but we certainly do not know to what extent their imagination matches reality and whether Mockus’ actions are a threat to Lithuania, whether the VSD once more over exaggerated.

We do not know under what context the most attention gathering statements were made, what else was said at the time. Did the VSD correctly interpret Šatas’ actions as hostile to MG Baltic competitors and if LNK obediently enacted MG Baltic orders, why did most viewers and politicians fail to notice it?

It is important to find out all of this, but it is clear we will not, if the NSGK will rush to conclude their investigation and release their conclusions. In this case the VSD narrative will be complemented by Bakas’ tale, but will this bring us closer to the truth?

Rushed conclusions will not be reliable because they will lack justification. Nevertheless, publishing the report will also have positive repercussions. For the near future, no officer or politician, even E. Vaitiekūnas, will not ask any television to show their daughter on TV or advertise their friends’ concerts.

And they won’t hurry to lunch with business group leaders.

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