Bulgaria’s eavesdropping saga: the worm turns, again

After days of headlines about what media reports called “Operation Worms”, the alleged large-scale illegal surveillance of protesters against Bulgaria’s 2013/14 government, current Prime Minister Boiko Borissov has said that there was no eavesdropping on protesters.

Just what the internal security services were up to at that time is yet to become clear, if it ever will. There is confirmation that prosecutors have been investigating something for some time, but what it is that they have been investigating and for how long also has not been made clear.

The question may also be left aside whether those who were involved in the protests from June 2013 to July 2014 against the “Oresharski” cabinet, having now heard the denials from Borissov, Interior Ministry chief secretary Svetozar Lazarov and former interior minister Tsvetlin Yovchev of eavesdropping on protesters, will believe them.

Several days after the uproar started about the alleged illegal eavesdropping on protesters, following charges made on live television by parliamentary’s internal security chairperson General Atanas Atanassov, Borissov said on February 9 that reports presented to him by the Interior Ministry had findings “far more worrisome” than the information first released in the public domain.

Borissov was speaking after a meeting with Interior Minister Vesselin Vuchkov and Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov.

It was not immediately clear what Borissov was referring to regarding the “far more worrisome” findings. A government media statement said that “due to the classified information contained in the document, details of it cannot be disclosed”.

Borissov’s first comments after the meeting with Vuchkov and Tsatsarov were interpreted by reporters as confirmation that there had been eavesdropping on the “DANSWithMe” anti-government protesters.

Later, however, Borissov underlined that the operation (no one in authority has confirmed that it really was called “Worms” but there has not been a coherent denial either) had not been directed against the protesters against the “Oresharski” cabinet. It had been directed against the whole information system, and there had been “very serious violations,” according to the Prime Minister.

From statements on February 9 by Prosecutor-General Tsatsarov, it emerged that prosecutors had been conducting an investigation for some time. He refused to say for how long, except to say that the probe had been going on long before members of Parliament and cabinet ministers had been kicking up a fuss, with the accompanying media furore.

Time will tell if the fact of the prosecutors’ investigation dates from before the approach to the caretaker interior minister, Yordan Bakalov, in the interim cabinet of August 2014 by the Protest Network, requesting an investigation into possible eavesdropping on protesters.

At very least, Tsatsarov’s statements on February 9 have been taken to mean that the investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office has been going on for several months.

Interior Ministry chief secretary Lazarov has said repeatedly that he has “no information” on eavesdropping on protesters while former interior minister Yovchev, who also was deputy prime minister in the “Oresharski” cabinet, has described allegations of illegal eavesdropping as a “blatant lie”.

A February 9 report by public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television (BNT), quoting the broadcaster’s own sources, said that “Worms” had been about investigating a leak of information from the Interior Ministry.

According to the BNT report, the operation began in summer 2013, soon after the beginning of the protests that had been prompted by the abortive appointment of controversial figure Delyan Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security.

Borissov told reporters that protesters had not been tapped, but there had been much more serious offences regarding the issuance of authorisation for wiretapping.

As the report pointed out, it also is not known (as so much else is not clear) who had proposed setting up “Operation Worms” and who had approved it.

One allegation is that, by being continued for about 300 days, the operation far exceeded the legal limit allowed for surveillance. The law also requires investigators to discontinue such an investigation if no concrete evidence is found.

Borissov made specific reference to this allegation, saying that he had understood from the ministry’s report that there had been a “serious breach of the law on the period of authorisation for interception”.

He said that he “truly hoped” that the Prosecutor-General and prosecutors would be uncompromising.

According to BNT, it was expected that by the end of the week, the Interior Ministry would take disciplinary action in the security section regarding “Operation Worms”.

Meanwhile, another former interior minister, Roumen Petkov – who held that post for part of the term of office of the 2005/09 Bulgarian Socialist Party government and now is a senior member of breakaway socialist party ABC, which is involved in the current ruling coalition – called for the setting up of an ad hoc committee on Parliament to inquire into “Operation Worms”.

Petkov said that there were several important questions, such as who had asked for the operation, what was the scope of the people being monitored, and what the motivation was, “because it is a very rude encroachment on the rights and freedoms of people – if there was such a thing”.

Petkov said that Interior Minister Vuchkov should support the convening of an ad hoc parliamentary committee and do everything possible to ensure that the committee had the “full volume of information”.

(Archive photo: noresharski.com)



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.