News2020.02.06 14:51

Report calls for tighter oversight of Lithuania's intelligence agency

Vaidotas Beniušis, BNS 2020.02.06 14:51

The Seimas ombudsman has proposed to tighten the control of the State Security Department (VSD), noting that it can surveil people for unreasonably long stretches and there is no way to challenge its actions in court.

Augustinas Normantas made the recommendations after examining a complaint by Raimondas Kurlianskis, a former vice-president at MG Baltic. One of the country's biggest business groups, it was part of a political corruption investigation that took a year and a half to complete.

Read more: MG Baltic owner calls Lithuania's biggest corruption trial 'political reprisal'

Normantas issued his report last December, but parts of the report were declassified and published on the Seimas ombudsman's official website last week.

While the VSD did not violate the law while collecting and using evidence on Kurlianskis, the probe revealed certain flaws in regulations, according to the report.

Government officials say they will consider amending the Law on Intelligence in light of the recommendations.

Maximum time limits

According to Normantas, the VSD had a court warrant to listen on Kurlianskis' phone conversations and otherwise control his communications.

The agency had the right to collect information on Kurlianskis “for a very long period of time”, the report says, without giving any further details.

“The legal regulation does not set a clear maximum time limit” for using intelligence methods that do not require prior authorisation from a court. Privacy breaches can therefore “last for an unreasonably long period of time,” the report states.

“It is necessary to establish by law the maximum time limit for the application of intelligence methods.”

Under the existing law, the time limits and conditions for using intelligence methods without a court authorisation are set in government resolutions which are classified.

Read more: Intelligence data can be used in corruption probes, Lithuania's top court rules

Internal and external controls

In the ombudsman's opinion, the law should allow appealing against VSD officials' actions in court.

The existing law allows filing such appeals with the parliament's Committee on National Security and Defence (NSGK) and the Seimas ombudsman, but they may only make recommendations.

“It is advisable for the government to draft an amendment/supplement to the Law on Intelligence to allow individuals to effectively defend their rights in court,” the report says.

The ombudsman also points to a lack of clear rules for destroying information gathered by intelligence officers. “Investigation files were handled without observing [...] the requirements,” the report claims. Details about these files in the report remain classified.

Normantas also says in the report that the VSD neglected to assess its officers' actions in terms of human rights. He recommends setting up “an effective external mechanism for controlling the VSD's activities”, without elaborating on what measures could be taken.

Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis will set up a task group to put forward proposals on how to amend the Law on Intelligence in line with the recommendations, his advisor Arnoldas Pikžirnis, told BNS.

Kurlianskis welcomes the findings

The Seimas ombudsman dismissed Kurlianskis' complaints that the VSD's methods against him were unlawful or that it should not have submitted the collected evidence to the parliament's NSGK. In both cases, the intelligence agency acted within the law, the report states.

Kurlianskis says the ombudsman’s findings confirmed his suspicions that he had been followed by the VSD for 13 years, although he was the head of various media organizations at the time.

“These findings will have no effect on my situation, but the recommendations to responsible officials call for putting in place at least some order when it comes to the protection of human rights in the VSD's activities,” he told BNS.

Based on the VSD report that included information on Kurlianskis' activities, the Seimas launched a parliamentary investigation. It concluded that MG Baltic's activities posed a threat to Lithuanian national security. The business group called the probe “a political farce”.

Kurlianskis is currently standing trial on charges of bribing politicians in exchange of decisions favourable to MG Baltic. He denies any wrongdoing.

Stronger internal controls

VSD spokeswoman Aurelija Katkuvienė said on Thursday that the intelligence agency appreciated the recommendations and would follow them.

“The Seimas ombudsman [...] made valuable recommendations in some areas of VSD activities, which will undoubtedly be followed. Improving the law is an ongoing process in all areas of activity,” she told BNS.

According to the spokeswoman, the agency cannot publicly comment on what measures it plans to take in the wake of the recommendations.

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