2020.01.06 17:45

State security eyes more powers under Lithuanian president's proposals

The Lithuanian president has proposed a bill expanding the powers of intelligence services which lawyers and MPs warn could be excessive and violate human rights.

On Christmas Eve, President Gitanas Nausėda registered an amendment which would allow intelligence services to summon a person for a “preventive conversation,” check people's ID and put them in administrative detention.

The amendment to the Law on Intelligence was drafted by intelligence institutions themselves, including the State Security Department and the Second Investigation Department under the Ministry of Defence, the bill's explanatory note states.

The president said his proposals were a response to a rapidly changing security situation and hybrid threats.

However, critics point out that some of the proposed measures are excessive and distort the purpose of intelligence services.

Preventive conversation and banking information without court order

According to the Lithuanian president, intelligence institutions must be capable of acting swiftly and effectively in the face of ever-changing threats. That involves being able to use preemptive measures to prevent such threats.

Preventive conversations, one of the proposed measures, could be used when there is reason to suspect that someone “might be related or linked to activities that may increase the risk or pose a threat to Lithuania's national security or the state's interests”.

The purpose of the conversation would be to “understand the reasons behind a person's actions and warn the person about the possible consequences of being involved in such an activity,” according to the bill.

The amendment would also allow the State Security Department to get hold of personal financial data without going through a court.

The bill also bans filming and photographing territories and buildings used by intelligence institutions or flying drones over them.

The new law also includes changes to intelligence officers' social guarantees, protection, official ranks and transfer rules.

Secret officers carrying out public functions

Some of the proposed provisions are excessive or even absurd, says lawyer Laurynas Pakštaitis, a criminal law lecturer at Mykolas Romeris University.

“If you catch an enemy and have a preventive conversation with him, it might be wise, but [...] officers who would conduct that conversation would expose themselves,” Pakštaitis says. “Do they think there will be [...] public intelligence officers who would conduct such conversations?”

Allowing intelligence officers to check people's ID would expand and distort the nature of intelligence.

“A secret spy has the right to check ID? It gets absurd, since they want to be unnoticed and information about them constitutes a state secret – but they might have the right to check ID or carry out administrative detentions. That can be done by the police,” Pakštaitis told BNS.

The existing legislation gives plenty of functions and instruments for intelligence institutions to work effectively, he says, and the arguments for expanding the powers are “declarative” and “bureaucratic”.

Human rights risks

Agnė Širinskienė, the chair of the parliamentary Committee on Legal Affairs, says some of the proposed changes would solve practical problems, including the drone ban and the secrecy of intelligence officers' identity. However, she adds, some measures may clash with human rights.

“I guess that most questions would arise from the preventive conversation, since there is still too little clarity in the proposed regulation,” the MP says, adding that it is unclear what would happen if a person refused to have the conversation or ignored the “recommendations”.

Širinskienė believes the proposed provisions should be more specific, since “interventions into human rights require the procedures and possible legal consequences to be clearly defined”.

More powers, more safeguards

Gabrielius Landsbergis, the leader of the opposition conservative Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats, says that intelligence services need beefing up in the face of “ever-growing threats from Russia and Belarus as well as China's activity”. However, he adds, additional safeguards are needed, such as an intelligence ombudsperson.

“When backing the president's chosen direction of bolstering national security institutions, we would like the law to also include democratic safeguards like the intelligence ombudsperson so that the public is confident that new instruments will be used strictly for the intended purpose,” says Landsbergis, who is also a member of the parliamentary Committee on National Security and Defence.

President's adviser: the goal is to protect

Ainis Razma, a president's adviser and former State Security Department officer, told BNS that “the aim of preventive conversations would be to protect people from the influence of hostile intelligence agencies”.

The conversations would be used to inform people that foreign intelligence services may be interested in them or already have information about them.

“Such conversations would be a warning for a person that they are a target. When invited to have such a conversation, the person would be obliged to come. And if a person refused, they would face administrative liability,” the president's adviser said in a written comment.

According to Razma, intelligence services in many EU and NATO countries have instruments to “warn people about an arising threat they are facing”.

Commenting on the need to institute an intelligence ombudsperson, Razma said the president would make a decision after “comprehensive discussions”.