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Lithuania’s proposed preventive intelligence conversations under scrutiny and fire

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Lithuania, State Security Department, inteligence, Gitanas Nausėda,

Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN

Citing geopolitical tensions, Lithuania’s State Security Department (SSD) is seeking new powers through amending the Law on Intelligence.

Contentious proposals

Some of the tabled proposals, like that envisioning «preventive conversations» are particularly contentious, as they would entitle intelligence officials to summon to the department headquarters for an «preventive conversation» anybody who voices a different opinion than that of state authorities on many susceptible issues – be it somebody’s discontent with policies of the President, indignation over actions of US, Lithuania’s key ally, in international conflicts or resentment of a head of a trade-union over the Government’s decisions. Likewise, a journalist who has travelled to Russia and interviewed a Russian official, could also possibly be asked to come to see intelligence officers and give explanations.

Under the amendment, such a conversation would «aim at understanding the reasons for a person’s actions and warning the person about the possible consequences of involvement in such an activity». The amendments would also give the SSD the right to receive information amounting to banking secret without a court sanction. Also, the amendments would introduce a ban on filming and photographing the territories owned and used by intelligence institutions, including buildings situated in those territories, as well as the operation of drones above them and at a radius of 200 meters around them.

The new law would also change the provisions on intelligence officers’ social guarantees, their protection and the protection of their families, official ranks, transfers to other positions, etc.

More regulation is needed

It was Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda who proposed to amend the law to expand the powers of intelligence services, including allowing them to summon people for «preventive conversations».

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 pre-emptive measures to prevent such threats.

Ainis Razma, a former State Security Department official who is now on the president’s national security team, argues such conversations, so far, are not legally regulated now and may not be accepted as evidence in court, because a prosecuted person may deny having had them.

«This is about a certain legal obligation. If I, as an intelligence officer, meet with you over a cup of coffee and tell you that you are in danger, you’ll say «thank you» and will continue your contacts. You can tell the investigator or the court that you weren’t warned, because there’s no evidence,» the presidential advisor told the Žinių Radijas station this week. «When there is a preventive conversation, the person is informed about the situation he is in and he should sign (a document). A certain obligation arises and the fact (of the conversation) is recorded,» he added.

Razma said such conversations would be used to warn people about hostile intelligence activities. Critics maintain, however, that the wording of the bill is too abstract and might be broadly interpreted.

How much should SSD be visible?

Speaking to BNN, Gediminas Grina, former director of the Lithuanian State Security Department, said he was «surprised» by the initiative from the President, adding that the Lithuanian intelligence is already empowered with rights now envisioned in the presidential amendments to the Law on Intelligence.

«The problem is not the wish to upload all the possibilities (the SSD has now) into the law, but that, by doing so, the intelligence turns very public. Does the state need another public police?» Grina asked rhetorically.

According to him, if the amendments are adopted, every person summoned to the SSD for a «preventive conversation» will however be entitled to ask courts to revert the decision or contest the techniques of the conversation.

«Any complaint of the kind would just put SSD into broad daylight. Do we really want our intelligence be visible daily?» he added.

But Mečys Laurinkus, also former director of Lithuania’s State Security Department, counter-argued that «preventive conversations» can «save» a person from many «very unpleasant situations».

«Such conversation would allow person to acquaint with available information about him, especially if the person is in contact with persons working for hostile foreign intelligences in Lithuania,» he said.

Initiatives draw criticism

The majority of Lithuanian analysts and public life commentators, however, castigated the President’s initiative to amend the Intelligence law.

«It seems we are behaving like in a totalitarian state. We simply leave our intelligence services out of bounds of any discussion or criticism. This is a sign of an unfree society,» Darius Kuolys, professor of Vilnius University, lambasted the initiative.

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

«Preventive conversations and the right to check ID – it’s absurd. A preventive conversation, if you catch some enemy and have a preventive conversation with him, it might be wise but, on the other hand, officers who would hold and be involved in that conversation would disclose themselves. Do they think there will be some official public intelligence officers who would hold such conversations?» the lawyer told Lithuanian media.

Agne Širinskienė, chair of the parliamentary Committee on Legal Affairs, representing the ruling Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, says some of the proposed amendments would solve practical problems the SSD is facing, including the drone ban and the secrecy of officers’ identity. But, she added, «there are proposals that are sensitive in terms of human rights».

Meanwhile, Gabrielius Landsbergis, leader of the opposition conservative Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (HU-LCD), says that «with ever-growing all sorts of threats from Russia and Belarus as well as China’s growing activity», Lithuania’s intelligence needs to be bolstered but additional safeguards need to be introduced when expanding intelligence powers by, for example, establishing the institution of an intelligence ombudsman. The HU-LCD will vote for the amendments if only such capacity is established.

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