Czech president claims he and his advisors were wiretapped by counterintelligence services

Czech president claims he and his advisors were wiretapped by counterintelligence services
Milos Zeman has cultivated strong links with Moscow and opposes sanctions on the Kremlin. / miroslav hamrik
By bne IntelliNews August 24, 2021

Czech President Milos Zeman said in an interview for tabloid Blesk that the Czech counterintelligence service BIS had wiretapped people close to him in the Castle several years ago, under the orders of BIS head Michal Koudelka. 

"Several years ago, a senior BIS officer informed me that Koudelka had ordered the wiretapping of my close surroundings, and therefore also of me," Zeman stressed, adding that he asked the Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a close ally, to stop the wiretapping.

"Later, I learned from deep within the BIS that the wiretaps continued … So, I approached the PM to recall him. The head of the secret service cannot eavesdrop on practically any citizen he likes without grounds or evidence. That’s just one reason I believe Koudelka is not the man for the job,” Zeman said, stressing that initially he did not plan to talk about the matter to the public before the October general elections on the condition that Koudelka would be dismissed as of August 15. 

Zeman's comments were aimed at explaining why he had demanded that the BIS chief be sacked. Reportedly he had made this a condition for continuing to give Babis his support during what is expected to be a very close general election in October.

This has become a highly controversial issue ahead of the election because the BIS was instrumental in exposing the alleged Russian secret service bombing of the Vrbetice ammunition depot in Moravia, which led to a series of tit-for-tat expulsions that have decimated the Russian diplomatic representation in Prague, and reportedly its spying infrastructure. 

The intervention of the Czech president, who has cultivated strong links with Moscow and opposes sanctions on the Kremlin, was widely seen as retaliation for the collapse of his pro-Russian policy. Zeman has publicly cast doubt on the alleged Russian involvement in the explosions.

Opposition parties and reportedly Western allies urged Babis to ignore Zeman and reappoint Koudelka for another term. Eventually Babis kept Koudelka in charge of counterintelligence until a new chief is appointed by a new government following the elections. 

Babis has denied Zeman's version of events, claiming he has no power to make decisions on wiretapping. 

"Neither the government nor PM have any competence to authorise or stop wiretaps. And, of course, I have no information about who the BIS or the police are wiretapping. As far as I know, all wiretaps are authorised by the courts. I fundamentally reject the idea that I would ever inquire about who our services are eavesdropping on," Babis said to the Czech News Agency. 

The BIS has also rebutted Zeman's comments. According to the BIS statement, “any use of intelligence technology is subject to the approval of the president of the Senate of the High Court in Prague.” 

The chair of the parliamentary committee that oversees the BIS, Pavel Belobradek, has called a meeting on August 26 to address Zeman´s claims.

Zeman's top adviser Martin Nejedly has close links to Russia, the source of the president's campaign finance is murky, and opposition parties and journalists have long alleged that this allows the Kremlin to exercise undue influence over the president. Nejedly has not been given security clearance, though Zeman can view classified information. The president famously does not have a mobile phone but uses office phones or the mobile phones of his advisers when needed.

In 2020,  Zeman tasked BIS with providing him with a report on  Russian intelligence officers working in the Czech Republic and Czechs working with  Russian intelligence, including the content of information they pass on and what the cooperation looks like. The BIS refused and leaked the request, causing an outcry and leading opposition senators to call for Zeman's impeachment.