It’s the stuff sensational spy thrillers are made of. In a dramatic finale to what investigators are calling the biggest spy scandal in NATO history, a former security head at Estonia’s defence ministry has just been sentenced to more than 12 years in prison for selling nearly 3,000 pages of intelligence information to Russia.
Last Wednesday, Herman Simm, 61, pleaded guilty to treason at a closed trial at the Harju County Court in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn. He was accused of selling top secret NATO and EU documents to Russia’s SVR Foreign Intelligence Service for about $131,000.
NATO says it won’t comment on intelligence matters, but Europe’s diplomats are clearly shaken by the incident, saying the security breach has seriously compromised the EU’s internal security procedures. The transgression is particularly serious because Simm had complete access to top secret NATO and EU documents.
“The activities of Herman Simm were a risk not just to Estonia but to our partners,” Mati Raidma, head of the Estonian parliament’s defence committee, told the New York Times after the verdict was delivered. “But on the positive side, it was a good sign that our security services and our processes worked well to find him and bring him to justice.”
Simm worked at the ministry between 1995 and 2006. He was arrested last September along with his wife, who was later released without being charged. In addition to his jail sentence, Simm has been ordered to pay 20.2 million Estonian kroons ($2.1 million) in damages to Estonia’s defence ministry.
Most of the documents he leaked dealt with Estonia’s defence policy, defence systems, foreign relations and NATO communication systems. Estonia joined NATO in 2004, and its diplomatic relationship with Russia has been strained. So far, the Kremlin has denied any involvement in the case. But there is an ongoing investigation into the people Simm has issued security clearances to over the years, and it could yield further unexpected twists.