Thursday, March 29, 2007

Infighting Delays Secret Service Reform in Romania

29 03 2007 Rival reform packages of president and prime minister threaten to leave current bad practices in place.

By Marian Chiriac in Bucharest (Balkan Insight, 29 Mar 07)

The power struggle between Romania’s president, Traian Basescu, and his prime minister, Calin Popescu Tariceanu, is threatening to derail urgently needed reform to the intelligence services.

Some observers say the struggle confirms the Romanian adage that “when two people fight, it is someone else who wins”, as neither man is benefiting politically from the current impasse.

No one disputes that reform in this sector is needed. Almost two decades after the fall of the communist regime, regulations from the early 1990s remain in place that grant wide powers to the country’s four secret services and allegedly encourage corruption and human rights violations.

“Under current legislation, if a secret agent puts his boots on a man’s neck and kills him, nothing will happen to him if he says he was ‘on a mission’,” said Marius Oprea, the prime minister's adviser on national security issues.

Oprea was a key supporter of a government-backed package of laws aimed at trimming the powers of the secret services. The proposals include merging some agencies and putting officials and the control of government ministries. Agents would have to obtain a court order before carrying out most activities, except those related to fighting terrorism. They would also be banned from infiltrating the media, the courts, state institutions, political parties, unions or religious groups.

The new laws would also ban the secret services from engaging in economic activity. At present, agents can set up businesses to help fund operations, and the media have been awash with allegations that some companies are fronts for the services.

The legislative package has still to be discussed in parliament but already an important opponent to the new laws has emerged in the form of President Basescu.

He is pushing his own package of legislation, drawn up by his political and military advisors and presented to the Supreme Council of National Defence, CSAT, the authority responsible for coordinating national security.

This week, CSAT is expected to give its final approval to the president’s proposals after which they will be put before parliament.

Analysts note important differences between the two competing sets of laws.

“The legislation promoted by the prime minister would introduce tougher parliamentary controls over the secret services and agents, making them accountable for any rights infringements,” Mircea Marian, a journalist from the Adevarul daily, told Balkan Insight. “The laws promoted by the president give much more power to the services.”

Marian characterised the struggle as a turf war. “The dispute between the country’s highest officials over future security laws is a sign that each seeks control over the intelligence services,” he said.

Relations between Tariceanu and Basescu have deteriorated in recent months owing to disagreements over policies to combat corruption.

The bickering has brought parliamentary work on key anti-corruption legislation to a virtual standstill. The logjam between the head of state and the executive has also delayed Romania's elections to the European parliament.

Military analyst Radu Tudor contends that the fights are bad for the country’s democracy and detrimental to its security agenda.

“Unfortunately, foolish political ambitions and a battle of personalities are affecting Romania’s interests, which still lack proper legislation on security,” he said. “We need laws to improve efficiency and boost state control over the services and reduce costs but the politicians don’t seem interested.”

Muddles over the interpretation of current security laws last week forced the chief of foreign intelligence, SIE, Claudiu Saftoiu, to resign.

Saftoiu, appointed last September by the president, handed in his notice after revealing to a parliamentary committee that the SIE had been tapping the phones of people suspected of violating national security.

Saftoiu blundered when he told deputies that the SIE was tapping phones using warrants issued by the country’s prosecutor-general, even though under the law a judge must issue a warrant for tapping people’s phones.

Saftoiu apologised, accepting that such operations needed to be carried out with the authorisation of a judge.

But Mircea Marian says Saftoiu fell victim to fuzzy security law regulations. “When the SIE wants to tap telephone conversations, it has to connect its equipment to that of the internal secret service, SRI, acting on a warrant filed by the general prosecutor,” he explained.

“After that, it is the SRI that seeks authorisation from a judge,” Marian went on. “Saftoiu was wrong only for not fully describing the taping and authorisation process.”

Saftoiu’s sudden departure appeared a new blow for President Basescu who has also been accused by his opponents of using the secret services to spy on politicians.

A parliamentary commission recently recommended suspending and impeaching him for violating the constitution and interfering in the work of government.

But to most people, the political infighting at the top and the rows over future security laws only offer further proof of the inability of politicians and public institutions to counteract the influence of the former agents of the communist-era Securitate secret police.

Polls show many people believe secret service corrupt practices are a legacy of the Securitate, which recruited tens of thousands of people to work as spies.

“Those guys are still in power in Romania, and they are not under proper legal and political control,” said Bucharest resident Matei Popescu, 62.

“The power of the former secret service officers is just the same under the new system - they just re-labelled themselves.”

Marian Chiriac is the director of BIRN Romania. Balkan Insight is BIRN’s online publication.

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