Armenia Needs Better Counterintelligence to Deter Foreign and Domestic Spies
By Harut Sassounian
Last week, we were all shocked by the news that Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) arrested 19 members of the Armenian military on spying charges for Azerbaijan.
The NSS accused the arrested 19 Armenian soldiers of having transferred classified military secrets to Azerbaijan in return for money. The NSS explained that Azerbaijani agents had contacted the Armenian soldiers by setting up fake Facebook pages with photos of attractive females who communicated in the Armenian language. There are plenty of Azeris who speak fluent Armenian since they were born in Armenia and attended Armenian schools before they fled to Azerbaijan after the civil unrest over Artsakh in the late 1980’s.
There are several serious security issues that the Armenian government should pay immediate attention to and take special measures to minimize the repetition of such spying cases. But even with improved counterintelligence, such problems may not be eliminated, but simply minimized, since almost all countries fall victim to foreign and domestic spies.
Here are my thoughts and suggestions:
1) The Armenian government should take immediate steps to appoint competent experts who know how to run an intelligent service. This suggestion is made because Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has appointed to almost all positions inexperienced and incompetent officials purely based on their membership in his ruling party. The most recent example of incompetence was the surprising announcement by the NSS that they learned from reading a newspaper article that the President of Armenia is a dual citizen which is a violation of Armenian law. Imagine Armenia’s intelligence services learning about such a critical issue from a newspaper after the President was in office for four years, instead of being the first to uncover it.
2) The National Security Service, besides needing expert personnel, must also have the most advanced counterintelligence technology.
3) The Armenian government must consult with ally governments on how to improve the training, organization and activities of its intelligence services.
4) The 19 Armenians who were arrested for spying are accused of transferring to Azerbaijan secret information about Armenia’s military personnel, weapons and military facilities. It remains to be seen if they will be found guilty in a court of law since there have been many Armenian officials arrested in the past four years for committing various offenses, but were not convicted.
5) How can the Armenian military allow its soldiers to have Facebook pages since everyone knows that they are vulnerable to hackers and can be co-opted by outsiders?
6) Where was the oversight by Armenia’s intelligent services as the compromised soldiers were transmitting national secrets to the enemy? It would have been best to prevent the transfer of such secrets before they happen, not after the damage is done.
7) It is highly concerning that such a large number of soldiers of various ranks were arrested. The NSS announced that a total of 24 soldiers were involved in these spying activities which means that there are several other suspects who have not been arrested either due to a lack of evidence or because their identities and locations are unknown. We also do not know how long this spy network has been operating before their arrest.
8) Even if the remaining members of this spy network are arrested and charged, it does not mean that the 24 suspects are the only ones involved in this spying Network. There may be dozens or hundreds of others whose identities and activities are unknown. As opposed to Armenia, Azerbaijan seems to have a highly competent and experienced cadre of agents who know what they are doing. They are most probably trained and aided by the highly skilled Turkish intelligence services, the MIT (National Intelligence Organization).
9) One serious aspect of this spying scandal is that some of the arrestees reportedly sold national secrets for a few hundred dollars. There must be something seriously wrong in Armenia’s educational system if an Armenian, born, raised, educated, and serving in the military, is willing to betray his nation to the enemy for a handful of dollars. It is highly concerning that there seems to be a lack of national pride and patriotic sentiments among some Armenians, particularly soldiers.
10) This is not the first time that spies have been arrested in Armenia. There have been several cases of Armenians spying for Turkey in the past 30 years. Some of them were Armenian government officials.
11) Azerbaijan announced in the past the arrest of a number of Armenians and Azeris who had allegedly spied for Armenia. It is not known if they were really spies or not.
12) I fear that the spying problems in Armenia will get much worse with the contemplated opening of the border with Turkey and Azerbaijan. This will allow many more Azeri and Turkish spies to enter Armenia via air and land as tourists or business people.
13) In addition to actual spies, Azerbaijan and Turkey will collect valuable information about Armenia by debriefing their citizens after their return from Armenia. Of course, spying is not limited to these two countries, as other states are also engaged in gathering intelligence on Armenia.
14) There have been several cases where Armenians, who have immigrated to Turkey in recent years due to lack of jobs at home, have been approached by Turkish intelligence to gather information on Armenia upon their return home for which they were handsomely compensated.
In conclusion, antagonistic actions are carried out not only during the war, but also at peacetime by recruiting domestic and foreign agents. The Armenian government must approach this problem very seriously and allocate the necessary resources and personnel to counter such intelligence gathering activities.