DANSERS IN THE DARK

DANSERS IN THE DARK

Sat, 11/01/2008 - 14:14

DANS was designed to be the Bulgarian equivalent of the FBI. So far it rather reminds of Communist-era State Security

The "Bulgarian version of the FBI" has existed for less than a year, long enough for everyone to realise that it has little in common with the US service it was designed to emulate.

The idea for DANS, or the State Agency for National Security, originated last year when Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev realised that the EU was highly critical of the work of then Interior Minister Rumen Petkov and his ministry. Although touted as the "Bulgarian FBI," in practice the two agencies' functions have little in common. DANS brings together counterintelligence, military counterintelligence and financial investigations, absorbing part of the compromised Interior Ministry's power. The agency is directly answerable to the prime minister, who appointed his adviser Petko Sertov to be its director. With much pomp and many promises to fight organised crime and corruption at the highest level, DANS started work in 2008.

Since then, however, the agency has generated more scandals than results. DANS officially admitted that it illegally collected information about journalists and MPs in what can readily be described as a witch hunt. This confession followed sustained media and public outrage over the brutal beating of journalist Ognyan Stefanov, who turned out to have been investigated over his alleged disclosure of classified information on his news website, Opasnite novini, or Dangerous News.

The new agency began its work with American blessing. When President Bush visited Sofia last year, he expressed his support for the prime minister, whom he called "Mr Clean," referring to Stanishev's commitment to fight corruption. The very existence of DANS, however, has opened up a new front in the Bulgarian Socialist Party's internecine feud. Rumen Petkov is one of President Georgi Parvanov's most trusted advisers and has held positions of power within the BSP ever since he was put in charge of managing the financing of the party's election campaign.

In the first few months of its existence, DANS appeared to be a sort of magical governmental cure-all. If there was a problem, the powers that be turned to the agency to solve it – all this accompanied by the obligatory media fanfare. The government ordered the agency to investigate football club CSKA's financial collapse and to find out who started two rumours – about radiation leaks at the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant and about the imminent bankruptcy of one of Bulgaria's largest banks.

When a report by OLAF, EU's anti-fraud office, announced that high-level politicians were shielding "businessman" Lyudmil Stoykov – one of the major sponsors of President Parvanov's election campaign and the target of fraud probes – Parvanov ordered DANS to investigate… OLAF.

Sofia Mayor Boyko Borisov also jumped on the DANS bandwagon. He asked the agency to investigate how, why and with what funds 200 employees of a concessionaire responsible for the capital's refuse collection left for the seaside en masse, leaving Sofia to wallow in rubbish.

DANS has yet to announce the results of any of its investigations. What it has announced, however, is that its agents burst into the homes of individuals referred to in the media as "underworld bosses" in the early morning hours to invite them to go to DANS's offices "for coffee." What the police and their guests discussed remains a mystery.

This operation inspired the media to use the phrase the "Bulgarian FBI" tongue-in-cheek for several months. They began to dismiss DANS as just another paper tiger. This was a mistake. DANS bared its claws and fangs. But the ones feeling its bite were not organised crime or corrupt politicians. It was who the agency was bound to serve – civil society.

Things started when Opasnite novini, initially an anonymous website, appeared on the Internet. It described in juicy detail the president's supposed extramarital adventures, as well as DANS's and customs officials' alleged attempts to take over trafficking channels. In early September, DANS discovered that journalist Ognyan Stefanov was behind the website. On 22 September Stefanov was brutally beaten with iron bars and hammers. He was hospitalised in critical condition.

The government denied there was any connection between the two events. It emerged shortly thereafter that Opasnite novini wasn't the only website under investigation. DANS had snooped into almost all media outlets as part of an operation codenamed Gallery. MPs from a parliamentary commission made this discovery when they went to the agency to find out why DANS had requested printouts of their mobile phone records.

Ultimately, DANS admitted it had no reason to investigate either the journalists or the MPs. The agency claimed it was merely tracking internal leaks of classified information. It never specified what that information was, who was storing it and where it was being leaked to.

In fact, information from DANS was leaked to the press, specifically the minutes from the MPs' visit to the agency. They revealed that the agency considered the criticism on Opasnite novini an "attack against the government." They also showed that in Bulgaria "dozens" of requests for telephone surveillance are granted daily on the basis of verbal and not written requests, as the law requires.

DANS admitted that Operation Gallery had got sidetracked from its original goals. Its agents collected information about journalists' and publishers' company registrations and also demanded – in most cases without any grounds – printouts of their phone records. According to DANS's spokeswoman Zoya Dimitrova, chairman Petko Sertov was responsible "in principle" for the agency's actions. However, he had no idea what was going on because no one bothered reporting back to him. The blame fell on Sertov's deputy Ivan Drashkov, who authorised Gallery while Sertov was on vacation, but later forgot to tell his boss about it.

Although DANS admits that Gallery was a major mistake, the prime minister still sees the scandals as a "deliberate attack" against the agency, which has just begun working to impose "European law." "Stanishev's view is that he is being attacked through DANS," says political scientist Tatyana Burudzhieva, a close advisor to the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

When the scandal erupted, Parvanov warned the media not to "dig too deeply" into DANS, and tried to play down the conflicts as "much ado about nothing." Later, however, the president announced that the agency had not "met the high expectations established during its creation." Rumour has it that Drashkov was his inside man at DANS.

The European Commission has warned that it will be following events in Bulgaria closely, and has emphasised the need to protect democratic rights and media freedoms. So far the United States has taken no official position.

Suspicion is growing, however, that DANS acts as a political secret police. "There are indications that something similar to the former State Security is being re-established," says Mihail Ekimdzhiev, a lawyer with the Plovdiv-based Association for European Integration and Human Rights (Eurorights). "At the beginning of the year a regulation allowed the Interior Ministry to directly investigate Internet communications, thus increasing the possibility for control over citizens. Now DANS is collecting printouts of phone records without court orders. This marks a tendency towards indiscriminate control over Bulgarian citizens," Ekimdzhiev believes.

According to human rights lawyer Yonko Grozev, DANS is "a structure that creates a sense of chaos. Under such circumstances, would any victim of organised crime or someone who has reliable information trust them?" Grozev suspects that DANS was not created to fight corruption, but rather to take control of special services, especially counterintelligence. "Until recently such services were under the control of the interior minister, and this resulted in an imbalance between him and the prime minister," Grozev says, adding, "Why should the information that these services possess constitute such huge political resource is quite another matter."

And so Bulgaria is struggling with yet another political paradox – the government body meant to guarantee national security has turned out to be a threat to the taxpayers who support it.

Issue 26

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