Police uncovered a trove of information collected by a spy ring that allegedly sold classified documents and collected information to blackmail public officials.
By Biljana Lajmanovska for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 27/09/2013
Police confiscated 81 computers and 147 audio and videotapes and other materials as part of its investigation into a four-year espionage ring. [Macedonia Ministry of Internal Affairs]
An espionage plot in Macedonia that reached as high as the parliament speaker's office funnelled sensitive state information to a neighbouring country and exposed problems in several agencies charged with gathering sensitive information, an expert said.
Authorities brought charges against 20 people this month including five current and former high-level intelligence officials, a former head of the state agency for preventing money laundering, an employee of the state archives and the chief of staff of the parliament speaker. Charges against two were dismissed for lack of evidence.
The neighbouring country was not identified.
The case raises questions about the proper checks of personnel who hold security clearance certificates that allow them access to classified information in their daily work.
"The problem extends much deeper -- how and in what way were they engaged to work with such information and have access to it," Colonel Blagoja Markovski, head of the Balkan Security Forum in Skopje, told SETimes.
Markovski said he expects the scope of the investigation to widen as the interior ministry continues to evaluate the extent of the espionage network.
Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska said the network provided the information to Marjan Efremov, an intelligence official who was fired in 2009 in another scandal, who then allegedly sold it to foreign services via special satellite-based operating systems and technologies as well as through personal contacts.
"Most often [the information] has to do with the security services of one neighbouring state," Jankulovska said.
Police said the group also collected compromising information on Macedonian officials, businessmen and other public figures and extorted them with threats to publish the information in the news website Burevesnik, which has been critical of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.
Police issued an arrest warrant for the website's owner, Zoran Bozinovski, and two other suspects who are still at large.
"It is good that after 22 years they uncovered such crime," Vladimir Pivovarov, professor at FON University and former chief of the military intelligence, told SETimes.
Pivovarov cautioned the authorities need to ensure a system is in place to better guard classified information given the possibility for abuse.
The investigation will likely deter the abuse of sensitive and classified information and strengthen overall security, former Interior Minister Pavle Trajanov said.
"The [investigations] act as a form of prevention by discouraging potential collaborators of foreign secret services," Trajanov told SETimes.
In her statement to parliament, Jankulovska said the police confiscated 81 computers, 532 CDs and DVDs, 147 audio and videotapes, 67 SIM cards, 56 mobile telephones, 57 memory cards, boxes of classified materials and 22 firearms and ammunition.
Trajanov said despite the incriminating information captured in this case, it is usually very difficult to prove espionage in court.
"That is why we should mainly work on preventing such activities," Trajanov said.
What can Macedonia do to better guard classified information? Share your opinion in the comments space.