Word Count: 1984
For years, I’ve been writing about the numerous failings great and small of government agencies and political leaders in Romania. Certainly no country is perfect and some mistakes and missteps are to be expected. But the subject of this article encapsulates exactly what is wrong with the country and why no amount of “progress” and European Union money will ever do more than slow down a headlong rush over the cliff into chaos and crushing poverty.
Formed in 1948 after the war, a heinous government agency was created in Romania. Widely known by locals and foreigners alike as the Securitate, the agency’s formal name was Departamentul Securității Statului or “The Department of State Security”.
This name is in the Romanian language but is a literal translation of the Russian KGB, a fact which few Romanians today want to acknowledge. Much like the Soviet KGB, the Securitate was an all-encompassing branch of the government that engaged in spying abroad, monitoring citizens at home, and arresting and torturing anyone who disagreed with the government.
In English and in other language, the Securitate were widely referred to as “secret police”. And that’s an important distinction because, amongst all the spying and torturing, it must never be forgotten that the Securitate also did function as a police agency. It investigated crimes and assisted prosecutors (like Laura Codruta Kovesi’s father) in putting people in jail.
Uniquely in Romania amongst other Communist-era nations with secret police forces, a huge percentage of the local citizens enjoyed working with the secret police. No one knows exactly how many snitches ratted out their family members and fellow citizens but estimates range as high as half a million people.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that anyone will ever learn the extent of the Romanian population’s cooperation with the Securitate as political obstruction and collective shame has essentially shoveled that mess under the carpet. Many of the files from the Securitate have been destroyed and the rest are moldering away in a locked archive that the public cannot access.
The Birth of the SRI
After the Revolution in 1989, the various agencies of the Communist-era government were either disbanded or reformed into new entities. The Romanian KGB (Securitate) was split into four different agencies:
- SPP – Tasked with guarding political leaders and important institutions and materials
- SIE – Somewhat equivalent to the CIA, an intelligence agency focused on external threats and gathering information in foreign countries
- STS – Operates and protects government websites and telephone communications
- SRI – The domestic intelligence agency
It was never quite made clear what the SRI’s mission was. Currently, there is a national police force which investigates crimes, including serious ones that threaten state security. There is also a law enforcement agency (DIICOT) which focuses solely on organized crime and terrorism. So what, then, is the mandate of the SRI?
No one can tell you. All that is known is that the SRI remains a branch of the military and has a “black” or secret budget. Much like the American CIA, no one knows who works for the SRI (except for the director), how many employees there are, or what they’re supposed to be doing.
Since no high-ranking Communist officials or Securitate members were ever punished after 1989, the new SRI was formed without a clear mandate and was allowed to be staffed by the same evil bastards who once worked for the Securitate.
Nonetheless, they managed to remain largely out of the limelight until starting about a year ago.
The Rise of the DNA
As I documented in three lengthy articles this year, an EU-mandated prosecutorial body called the DNA (National Anti-Corruption Directorate) went from being a joke in 2003 to one of the few Romanian government agencies receiving praise from the EU and wider world despite operating under a cloak of secrecy and convicting people in secret trials.
With the number of cases filed and successful prosecutions rising meteorically over the past couple of years, many people in Romania began noticing that a large percentage of these DNA cases originated with evidence gained by wiretapping mobile phones and other forms of communication. In the vast majority of these cases, the wiretap evidence was provided to DNA investigators by the SRI.
Questioned multiple times by the press, DNA chief Saint Laura Kovesi downplayed the SRI’s contributions, first stating that “only” 1 in 5 cases relied on SRI wiretap evidence and then downgrading that number to about 1 in 10.
At the same time, many knowledgeable people, including current Justice Minister Raluca Pruna and the American Ambassador to Romania, began intimating that the DNA was getting the equipment and training necessary to start performing their own wiretaps of corruption suspects.
Minus a little grumbling here and there, it seemed like the issue was going to go away as the DNA ramped up its own wiretapping efforts and the SRI fading into the background to find something else to do with their time and money.
A Surprise Ruling
All that changed on February 16 of this year when the Constitutional Court (the highest court in the land) ruled that an ambiguous clause in the law that seemingly gave the SRI permission to pursue criminal cases (you know, like a police force does) was unconstitutional.
That’s when the shit hit the fan. Various legal experts, including the present and former Ministers of Justice, all opined that the court’s ruling threatened not just future prosecutions but could overturn hundreds (if not thousands) of previous corruption convictions obtained by DNA prosecutors using wiretap evidence obtained from the SRI.
The talking heads on TV filled up the airwaves with an abundance of facts, hyperbole and scaremongering. One media outlet estimated that the SRI was currently performing 47 thousand wiretaps a year, of which only 2000 were related to corruption cases.
The DNA responded by asking for an additional 10 million euros just to hire new workers. The current Justice Minister, Raluca Pruna, startled everyone by declaring that for the DNA to perform 2,000 wiretaps on their own without the SRI’s help it would cost a billion dollars, a sum that was also repeated by former Justice Minister Monica Macovei.
The press responded by mocking this figure, noting rightly that this is the same amount that Facebook spent on all of its highly-technical and advanced infrastructure.
Not sure what to do, the political leadership in Romania did what it always does – go into full panic mode.
Yet Another Emergency Fix
Last Friday, the government called a session of the CSAT, the National Security Council, and decided that the court’s ruling barring SRI wiretaps from being used in criminal prosecutions required emergency measures.
The CSAT first responded by passing an emergency ordinance to patch up one part of the “loophole” ruled on by the Constitutional Court. From now on, the SRI can pursue criminal cases and perform wiretaps, as long as these are done in the interest of protecting national security.
National security was clarified to mean (and I’m not making this up): cases of treason, hostile acts against the state, spying, actions that put the natural security in jeopardy, communicating false information, engaging in war propaganda (?), and “anything that compromises the state’s interest”. A prudent person might read that definition as outlawing all peaceful, democratic dissent.
Nonetheless, the emergency ordinance did not include an option for running wiretaps on behalf of the DNA for use in prosecuting corruption cases. Instead, it split the difference and said that SRI wiretaps were permissible if prosecutors used SRI equipment as long as no SRI employees “helped” in running the wiretaps. And the SRI now has explicit permission to conduct criminal investigations for the first time, albeit under certain guidelines.
President Iohannis Klaus then proclaimed that this emergency fix was “only temporary”. Justice Minister Raluca Pruna went off the rails, praising the ordinance as being necessary for the SRI to protect national security and prevent a situation “like what happened in London a few years ago”, idiotically unaware that the case in question happened 12 years ago in Spain, not Britain. Pruna may have forgotten what happened in Madrid but the families of the 16 Romanians who died in that attack sure haven’t.
Pruna went on to state that all previous DNA prosecutions using SRI wiretaps were not in danger of being overturned while former Justice Minister Monica Macovei disagreed.
Meanwhile, all ongoing cases that include SRI wiretap evidence are in a state of limbo, including several prominent ones involving ex-Bucharest mayors Sorin Oprescu and Andrei Chiliman as well as some people involved in the November 2015 Colectiv fire that killed more than 60 people.
“Technocrat” Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos praised the CSAT’s emergency ordinance granting police powers to the SRI by saying (my translation):
“Concerning the emergency ordinance concerning wiretaps, we had to do it because there was literally no time to consider the matter. We had to do it this way because there are some ongoing cases which would be threatened if we didn’t act now before the court’s ruling is published in the Monitorul Oficial.”
Yep, that’s right. Despite all the sturm und drang, none of this is actually real.
It’s All Just a Fantasy
Supposedly, the Constitutional Court made its ruling on February 16, 2016. I say “supposedly” because, much like my own personal case, the judges made a “ruling” but then never published it.
In the United States, a federal law, ruling, or statute doesn’t actually officially exist until it is published in the Federal Register. Likewise in Romania, no law, ruling or ordinance actually exists until it is published in the Monitorul Oficial (The Official Monitor).
According to PM Dacian Ciolos himself, neither the court’s ruling nor the emergency ordinance granting new powers to the SRI has ever been published in the Monitorul Oficial.
Neither the Constitutional Court’s decision nor the emergency government ordinance concerning wiretaps have yet been published in the Monitorul Oficial. Emergency ordinances take effect on the date of their publication.
Therefore, despite all of the talk, the panic, the emergency session of the security council, the court considering the issue, and debate, nothing has actually happened. That is to say, all of the DNA’s prosecutions are still valid, the court hasn’t changed anything, and the law barring the SRI from being a police agency still exists on the books.
And absolutely no one has bothered to explain why the ruling and the emergency ordinance haven’t been published yet.
The Romanian Fail Whale Checklist
Adding up all of these elements, we get:
- The police are always breaking the law
- Thousands of star chamber DNA prosecutions may be in jeopardy
- Spying on Romania’s citizens is an incredibly common occurrence
- The Constitutional Court continues to rule on the legality of laws, but “not really”
- Anyone who disagrees with the government may be considered a threat to national security
- Every problem provokes a panicked response
- A hugely important issue is dealt with through the use of emergency ordinances, something the EU has repeatedly condemned, completely bypassing democratic parliamentary procedures
- There’s never enough money for healthcare or education but there’s always plenty of money for “national security”
- The solution to a crisis is to throw even more money at it, preferably the EU’s money
- All of the government’s missteps are simultaneously explained away as being “temporary” as well as “in line with European Union values and norms”
- The end result is (literally) nothing but powerful men and women spouting hot air
- The Romanian people are once again left with no recourse or say in the matter other than posting sarcastic or frustrated comments on social media
- The entire issue is forgotten in a month or less
Keep this list in mind because we’re going to see a lot more of it in the future. The next time there’s another “crisis” in Romania, watch and see how many of these same items on the checklist are ticked off one by one.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…