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‘Who Let the Dogs Out’: The Czech Intelligence Service Annual Report and the Challenges of Discussing Threats in a Postfactual Age

Ondrej Ditrych
Commentary, 4 December 2020
Information, Intelligence, Resilience, Europe
The Czech domestic intelligence service details the threats to which the Central European country is exposed. It shows the broader challenges of talking about threats as mistrust in established institutions grows in a postfactual era.

The recently published annual report from the Czech Republic’s Security Information Service (BIS) covers a range of issues from radicalisation and organised crime to corruption and clientelism. It confirms that motor parts and designs of Czech origin were used in the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities attributed to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. It reveals elaborate efforts (which were successfully aborted) to conceal illicit arms exports on a case of Czech motors for tanks and combat vehicles, which were destined for North Korea. Pyongyang had secured a route for the motors through Moldova and Ukraine, where their designations were to be modified, respectively, to fishing machinery and electricity generators.

Yet the subject attracting the most attention is the report on hostile activities by foreign powers. The report directly names Russia and China, and minces no words as to their motives. Russia seeks rivals’ ‘destabilisation and decay’, while China’s objective is to build a ‘Sinocentric global community’ whose members afford Beijing the respect it deserves and recognise the legitimacy of Chinese interests.

BIS reports have focused more and more on Chinese covert activities in recent years. The current report provides a valuable insight into the mechanics of these influence campaigns. Beijing, the report suggests, targets the academic community, luring researchers to China where they can be more easily recruited. In Russia’s case, it points to a greater use of proxies by various actors motivated by a sense that ‘something must be done’. Both engage in cyber espionage. It is suggested that China attacked Avast, a major local antivirus company, with Russia continuing to target the networks of the Czech diplomatic service.

The report’s warning on major infrastructure and energy projects is particularly stark. The message behind the caution against dependence on suppliers from countries acting against Czech or allies’ interests and possible breaches of information security is abundantly clear: Huawei should not be allowed to develop the country’s 5G networks and ‘safeguarding political independence and sovereignty’ should be paramount in the potential tender for the completion of the Dukovany nuclear power plant – Rosatom and China General Nuclear Power are likely bidders. Indeed, the tender is likely to be delayed following a warning issued by two ministries, the country’s intelligence services and its cyber security authority.

The Talkative Service

With notable exceptions, it is unusual for an intelligence service to be so specific about threats to national security. It is worth keeping in mind it is a report on activities of the service, not a comprehensive threat assessment. A fine distinction that sometimes is lost in the press coverage and public debate.

One reason for the candid report is that the service is embattled. The BIS has been repeatedly disparaged by the country’s president, Milos Zeman, for allegedly neglecting economic crime and instead hunting the spectres of imagined foreign spies. The service’s leadership has managed to retain the support of successive governments, and also a sizeable part of the opposition. However, Zeman, who many see as close to Russia and China’s interests, is a head of state with mostly ceremonial duties, but he is also a veteran statesman with political experience next to none, able to move policy and shape public opinion. The current term of Michal Koudelka, director of the BIS, finishes next year, and a political battle may just be starting regarding the service’s future.

Koudelka ominously alleged in an interview that a ‘campaign to discredit the service is in the making’. Then, public media reported that, in an extraordinary move, Zeman had requested the BIS provide him with names of Russian spies, details of their operations and names of Czech collaborators with Russian intelligence. The service will be reluctant to provide information of such sensitivity, which it is legally obligated to secure. This resistance is likely to be spun by some as an inability to support claims of hostile interference with tangible evidence.

The Educational Service

In such an environment, the service’s message is clear: there are real threats out there, and the BIS is indispensable in protecting against them. Yet there is another likely reason why the BIS talks about threats this way. It grows from the conviction that too few – apart from a small coterie of politicians, government officials and mainstream journalists – do these days, and the truths it holds to be (self)-evident are challenged and values relativised in the postfactual age.

There is no reason to doubt the service’s good intentions. Leaving the shadows and entering the public domain, it should only be invited (and expected) to promote the democratic duty to reason in an open society, whose pluralism and ‘will to debate’, challenging sheltered beliefs and ideological proclivities, makes it truly resilient. In practice, this could entail more public insight into the reasoning behind threat assessments, measuring objectives against capacities and conditions and dissecting, where possible, the causes of principally equifinal outcomes like the undermined trust in public institutions. (This, one should emphasise, is something else entirely from divulging live operations details).

In the postfactual era, the risk grows of ‘weaponisation’ of the service’s claims (which by necessity must maintain a degree of generality), particularly by those who consider ‘hybrid war’ a significant reality. There is a certain virtue in the term ‘hybrid’ capturing and mobilising against the elusive threat represented by a consonance of seemingly unrelated activities which exercise undesirable foreign influence. Yet the notion of ‘hybrid war’ also urges total mobilisation, invites tribalism (‘true believers’) and exclusion (‘traitors’, ‘useful idiots’), and, like the cultural war fought among middle class liberals and conservatives, it risks covering up growing the socioeconomic divides that, together with the challenges of the information revolution, are actually the main structural cause of vulnerabilities exploited in ‘hybrid campaigns’.

Absorbing the Findings

To absorb and benefit from the BIS’s warnings, Czech society needs to acknowledge its own flaws and give an honest account of the origin of social divisions – rather than blaming them on historical processes it cannot influence (‘Munich’) or elusive outside forces (‘Moscow’ to some, ‘Brussels’ to others). In practice, this means acknowledging that while there are many conspiracy theories related to coronavirus, the available data lends no credit to assertions that they are products of concerted disinformation campaigns. These campaigns are real, but have marginal reach – as with online disinformation more generally. Beliefs in these conspiracies may, in fact, have more to do with scientific controversy occurring in real time in the mainstream media which undermines the credibility of science as institution; and poor government communication.

Mending socioeconomic divides and reforming public institutions to increase their capacity to govern – free of the corruption and clientelism highlighted in the BIS report – and successfully withstand the challenges of the coming digital and green transformation is the best ‘hybrid defence’ of all.

Ondrej Ditrych is director of the Institute of International Relations Prague and an academic fellow at Charles University, Faculty of Social Sciences.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Bridges over the Vltava river in Prague.

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