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Opinion

Opinion: Keeping tabs on covert spy activities

Intelligence agencies have - according to the Panama Papers - set up shell companies to hide and finance their activities. It’s the dark side of covert operations, says DW’s Alexander Andreev.

The foreign intelligence services of democratic countries have a fundamental problem: Sometimes they have to break the law to protect the greater good. Not just the laws of the countries where they're carrying out operations, but the laws of their own countries as well.

Usually, that happens while working on covert operations, where it's common for both the goals and methods to run contrary to the rule of law. When details of such operations become public, that's often the reason for the negative reactions in the media.

We're talking about things like politically motivated sabotage, contract killings or coups - all unsavory activities that have little to do with classic espionage in order to obtain and evaluate information. Intelligence services that aren't subject to democratic countries have no problems, either with the law, or the media. When it comes to their covert operations, they've never had to bother with the silk gloves.

Famous covert ops

Stalin's 1940 assassination of his rival, Leo Trotsky, who was living in exile in Mexico, is legendary. Covert ops really came into their own during the Cold War, as the Soviet KGB and its fellow Eastern European intelligence services sought to repress civil opposition in various countries.

Andreev Alexander Kommentarbild App

DW's Alexander Andreev

In later years, governments loyal to Moscow were installed in various places around the world, and inconvenient contemporaries, such as Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov (the umbrella poison murder of 1978 in London) or Russian double agent Alexander Litvinenko (polonium poisoning in 2006, also in London) were assassinated.

The CIA - which, unlike the KGB, is subject to the rule of law - is also known to have carried out covert operations such as the coups against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in 1954, or the assassination of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967. The number of assassination attempts on Fidel Castro have already led to discussions about whether he ought to have an entry in the Guinness book of world records.

Now, of course, the Panama Papers have once again called to mind the Iran-Contra affair: In 1986, the CIA secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran, despite an embargo. In return, Iran was to secure the release of American prisoners in Lebanon and fund anti-Sandinista and anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

It was this affair that made clear the consequences of the fundamental problem facing spy services in democratic countries. When they break the law with their covert operations, they can't be found to have acted on official orders or been financed with public funds.

But intelligence services know a thing or two about skirting regulations; thus they find other ways to finance their operations. In the much-praised new BBC mini-series "The Night Manager" based on a John Le Carré novel, the CIA and MI6 engage in secret arms trading solely to boost their budgets. That might just be literature and entertainment, but the Iran-Contra affair and claims by Panama Papers researchers pointing to an Icelandic businessman who used shell companies to enable CIA arms deliveries to crisis regions are based on facts and documents.

No self-financing secret services

Spy services that operate beyond the rule of law don't bat an eyelash when it comes to engaging in profitable activities such as the sale of arms and drugs, subverting embargoes, stealing technology. They're all part of the repertoire of the KGB, the Stasi, and similar intelligence service organizations worldwide.

And it's these experiences from recent history that provide an important lesson for the future: Foreign intelligence services should never be motivated by money. Especially today, when they are supposed to be fighting international money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Because given the resources at their disposal, their work can very quickly turn from the common good to total self-interest. And no democratic society needs spies working for their own profit and beyond government control.

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