When former Estonian senior defence official Herman Simm was convicted in 2009 of sharing NATO secrets with Russia, it wasn’t immediately known how much harm he’d done. But according to a classified NATO report, the consequences of his espionage, which spanned 12 years, were far-reaching indeed, earning Simm the dubious distinction of being the “most damaging [spy] in alliance history.”
The admission, however bold, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. As head of the security department of Estonia’s Ministry of Defence until 2006, Simm, who was sentenced to 12½ years in jail after pleading guilty to being a Russian informant, had access to classified NATO and European Union information. According to the report, Simm “compromised a wide range of NATO intelligence reports and analyses”; the thousands of documents he is believed to have leaked included details of alliance defence policies, outlining “installation, maintenance, procurement and the use of cryptographic systems.”
The scandal exposes just how vulnerable NATO has become in the wake of its post-Cold War expansion to include states formerly behind the Iron Curtain. Before Estonia broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, Simm was, secretly, a KGB colonel who had earned 44 awards and three medals for his exemplary service. Though at the time he presented himself as a champion of independence, he never abandoned his allegiance to Russia. In 1995, after being dismissed from his post as head of the national police amid charges of corruption, he says he was recruited by a Russian intelligence officer while on a trip to Tunisia. (He claims the officer threatened to expose his KGB past if he didn’t co-operate.) He began working in Estonia’s defence ministry after his return.
For reasons that are still unknown, Western counterespionage officials put Simm under surveillance in 2008, which ultimately led to his arrest. But, by then, the damage, which is described as significant and indefinite, had been done.