Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Romania embroiled in new political controversy

Accusations by a former presidential counsellor have ignited new suspicions of Romanian secret services' involvement in domestic politics.

By Paul Ciocoiu for Southeast European Times in Bucharest -- 10/02/09

A phone call late last month from former Romanian Foreign Intelligence Service (SIE) chief Claudiu Saftoiu to a TV talk show has renewed an ongoing debate about the interference of Romanian secret services in politics. Saftoiu said that, during his term as presidential counsellor, President Traian Basescu disclosed he knew the content of phone conversations between opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD) leader Mircea Geoana and former head of state Ion Iliescu.

"I found out about political interventions from illegal interceptions a year or two ago from the president of Romania, who said that he knew what Iliescu and Geoana were talking about," said the former head of SIE.

Amid the ensuing uproar, Saftoiu tried to modify his statements and said the president did not reveal this information directly to him but that he deduced it from Basescu's statements to the media.

The president's office reacted quickly. Basescu's spokesman, Valeriu Turcan, denied the allegations and said Basescu would sue Saftoiu for his "untrue and irresponsible statements".

"If there are persons who maintain they received information concerning the political or private life of Romanian citizens, the president's position is the following: those persons are guilty of [concealing the commission of a crime]," said the spokesman, underlining that Basescu was the first president to name opposition leaders to head both the SIE and Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). Both agencies also denied bugging such calls.

"Shame on them," commented Iliescu. "I hope Mr. Saftoiu is wrong," said Geoana.

It is not Saftoiu's first statement that intelligence agencies violate citizens' privacy. A year ago, as head of the SIE, he testified to a parliamentary commission that his agency was intercepting phone calls on the basis of a warrant issued by a prosecutor's office.

Laws bar the SIE from tapping phone calls in Romania, except through its domestic counterpart, SRI, and only with a judge's warrant, not a prosecutor's. Though Saftoiu retracted his claim, the ensuing scandal ended his close relationship with Basescu and forced his resignation.

The recent scandal comes amid a public debate on Law 298/2008 concerning telephone calls, text messages and e-mails. According to the law, starting on January 20th, all phone companies must retain the following data for six months: the identities of the caller and recipient of the call, their locations, the time of the phone call and its duration.

Starting on March 15th, internet service providers will have to retain analogous data concerning all e-mails.

Government agencies can access the statistics in investigating a crime. Critics worry the law will undermine civil liberties.

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