Scandals Prompt Overhaul of Bulgarian Security Services

Be careful what you say.

Wiretaps. Spies. A disgraced general. Dark plots for revenge. Allegations that the minister of justice was an informer for the State Security Service under communist rule…Since an interrelated web of scandals first broke in the press late in 2002, Bulgarian newspapers have read like scripts for a classic film noir.

Each scandal has afforded a new view into the country’s backbiting, paranoid political culture. In the process, Bulgaria’s National Security Service (NSS) has come under fire for leaking too much confidential information, a particularly worrisome charge for a new member of NATO. The country’s second-largest opposition party, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), further charges that the ruling National Movement Simeon II party is using the NSS to discredit political opponents.

The first scandal began on Nov. 5, when Edvin Sugarev—formerly an anti-communist dissident and poet, then Ambassador to Mongolia and India, now a self-styled “public denouncer”—circulated an open letter to Justice Minister Anton Stankov. The letter alleged that Bulgarian Prosecutor-General Nikola Filchev was unable to do his job properly and that he had abused his office by blackmailing magistrates, politicians, and journalists, and by covering up the alleged crimes of his brother Angel Filchev.

The Prosecutor-General’s office dismissed the accusations, saying elite criminal groups were manipulating Sugarev by feeding him false information. The left-leaning press seemed inclined to agree, dubbing him a “mailbox,” because he rarely questioned the authenticity of his tips. Other commentators, caught up in the cloak-and-dagger mood that has settled on Bulgarian politics, suspected that former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, whose deputies Filchev is investigating for questionable privatization deals, is behind Sugarev’s allegations.

In any case, Sugarev’s letter has taken on a life of its own, as Cabinet ministers, judges, and special police officers have found themselves ensnared in the resulting battle. Over the course of December, the Bulgarian press published new leaks and recriminations, followed by counter-leaks and rebuttals, almost daily.

As the din in the media became deafening, Nickolay Kolev, 53, a prosecutor at the Supreme Administrative Prosecution Office, was assassinated in front of his home in Sofia on Dec. 28, 2002, drawing speculation that he might have been fingered as one of Sugarev’s sources. Kolev was Filchev’s archenemy, but was also known for his ties with the criminal underground.

Justice Minister Anton Stankov was drawn into the affair after it came out that he had spoken with special police officer Zhivko Georgiev, suspected to be Sugarev’s source for dirt on Filchev, over the phone. Georgiev’s phone was tapped, since his employers suspected he was distributing counterfeit currency. In another of Georgiev’s tapped conversations, this time with Plamen Simov, head of the Sailor’s Labor Union, the two discussed their desire to “strike Filchev,” but said that, since the prime minister “is Filchev’s hostage,” they would not be able to do so without harming the prime minister as well.

Filchev’s office saw an opportunity. Georgiev, a Justice Ministry source told Sega on Dec. 13, had blackmailed Stankov into publicizing incriminating documents against Filchev by threatening to make the latter’s alleged past as a Communist State Security Service informer public. Bulgarian law bars former Communist agents and informers from office.

Bulgarian law also requires that the tape of Stankov’s conversation with Georgiev should have been destroyed, since it did not directly relate to the investigation into Georgiev.

“We should ask ourselves whether we are living in a police state, now that even Cabinet members are being spied on,” Stankov told reporters. “I am a victim of a scheme only cops could contrive.”

Stankov went on to accuse Interior Minister Georgi Petkanov of letting classified information become public, and asked how Bulgaria was to prove to NATO that it was capable of safeguarding the alliance’s secrets if it was unable to protect its own.

The dust had not settled on “Stankovgate”, when Yordan Bakalov, an MP for the UDF, raised further questions about the reliability of the Interior Ministry and the security service. On Dec. 20, 2002, the bespectacled politician circulated documents about the “illegal” tapping of former NSS chief Gen. Atanas Atanassov’s cell phone conversations with a host of public figures, including former President Petar Stoyanov.

Apparently, according to Sofia’s liberal Sega, the NSS had been monitoring Atanassov since May 2002 on suspicion of spying for Great Britain and the United States. The operation, code-named “Gnome” (apparently by someone poking fun at Atanassov’s small stature), was prompted by “unauthorized contacts” between the retired general and U.S. and British intelligence. According to the documents, the phone of Atanassov’s wife, a lawyer, was also tapped under surveillance operation “Gnome 1.” Atanassov told Sega that the espionage charges must have been nothing more than a formal pretext for the wiretapping, since the conversations concerned the planning of UDF political moves against the government. “I am ready to face espionage charges in court,” he said defiantly. Later, in an interview with reporters from the privately owned daily Novinar (Jan.6), the former spymaster denied further allegations that 43 politicians’ phones were tapped during his tenure.

But Atanassov, who owes his meteoric rise from an obscure regional police officer to Interior Ministry Chief Secretary and head of the NSS to his friends with the UDF, failed to convince the Bulgarian press. “Atanassov knew perfectly well that he was being tapped,” the independent weekly Tema scoffed in its Jan. 6-12 edition. “But that was precisely his aim. The interception of his conversations with prominent UDF leaders, magistrates, and journalists would broaden the base of the public outcry…. In the course of just a few weeks, Gen. Atanassov managed to nearly destroy the image of Bulgarian counterintelligence,” Tema’s editors wrote.

An hastily convened probe found that the Interior Ministry had not violated the law by using special surveillance means in the “Gnome” operation. The probe established that all the surveillance data had been destroyed in the required 10-day span after the termination of the operation on Nov. 20, 2002. Though this cleared the ministry on the question of whether it had broken the law, it also meant only the presence of a mole in the NSS could account for the leak.

The Bulgarian press honed in on this as another example of the government’s mishandling of confidential information. Writing in Sofia’s mass-circulation Trud (Jan.15), Mincho Hristov urged Justice Minister Stankov to explain frankly why he had conferred with “persons of criminal leaning” [Georgiev], instead of complaining about the “police state.” Hristov also encouraged Stankov to address a rumor that he had been an informer of the Communist Secret Service.

“Why have politicians of all hues jumped to attack the Ministry of the Interior at once? Why have they all of a sudden become aware of the rights of the ‘ordinary citizen’ who ‘should not be eavesdropped upon?’ Any psychologist would note that the hysterical reaction of the Bulgarian political class betrays a guilty conscience and justifiable embarrassment…. Why can the FBI investigate politicians, but the NSS may not?” Hristov asked.

“Instead of finding and punishing the corrupt NSS ‘moles,’ the government is closing down two main departments of the NSS—‘Internal Security’ and ‘Economic Security.’ Does this action serve the interests of the state or of the criminals?” Hristov continued.

But the press wasn’t through with the service. On Jan. 21, the left-leaning daily Duma reported that evidence of “under-the-counter privatization” deals were being destroyed in the NSS archives. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many state-owned Bulgarian enterprises went bankrupt and were then—conveniently—bought for next to nothing by their former CEOs through “parallel” private companies or, under the second UDF government, by Workers-Managers Associations.

NATO and the European Union, two international bodies that may come to depend on Bulgaria more in the future, have recommended that the NSS create three new departments—with mandates to protect industrial secrets and classified information, combat terrorism, and curb illegal migration. The NSS, despite its woes, recently announced it had complied with the NATO and E.U. recommendations. A fourth department will monitor the legal arms trade and the export of goods that could be used to make weapons.

Bulgarian journalists have expressed dismay at the scandals’ potential to tarnish the Bulgarian security service’s credibility when it can least afford it. “It is high time the NSS stopped serving party headquarters and started working in defense of national interests,” crime reporter Anna Zarkova, who lost an eye in 1998 after an assailant splashed acid in her face, urged in a Dec. 28 commentary for Trud. “NSS must not be weakened … when wily economic groups are draining the E.U. pre-accession funds… It needs a strategy to determine its long-term goals in tune with the new global challenges.”