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Were All the Bugged Materials Really Destroyed?

Posted August. 06, 2005 06:18,   


The announcement made by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) on August 5 that it had conducted illegal bugging and monitoring, including listening in on mobile phone conversations, until March 2002 (the latter years of the Kim Dae-jung administration) must have been rather a painful confession.

It is a rare occurrence for the head of a national intelligence unit anywhere in the world to publicly admit to his agency’s wiretapping practices. But there’s too much widespread doubt and mistrust for this “confession” to be taken at face value.

Is There No More Bugging Going On?-

Kim Gi-sam (40), the former NIS agent who revealed the existence of the illegal wiretapping unit called the “Mirim team” within the Agency for National Security Planning (NSP, now NIS) during the Kim Young-sam administration, said on August 5 that he “could not believe the NIS’s announcement regarding the discontinuation of wiretapping practices after March 2002.”

Kim offered specific instances of bugging that occurred even after that date.

For example, Grand National Party representative Chung Hyung-keun disclosed, during the National Policy Committee’s inspection of the Financial Supervisory Commission on September 24, 2002, part of a conversation which took place over international lines on May 2002 between Hanhwa Group Vice Chairman Kim Yeon-bae and Chairman Kim Seung-youn, who had been residing overseas at the time.

Chung argued that the contents of this conversation “were only accessible to a few of the highest NIS officials,” and the issue had caused substantial controversy within the political community.

Kim Gi-sam noted, “To my knowledge, the NIS closed down the Bureau of Science and Security under the deputy general manager in charge of bugging and monitoring at around October of that same year.” He retorted, “If the NIS really suspended illegal bugging after March 2002, then how do you explain the existence of documents containing the details of a conversation which took place after that date?”

The reactions of others who have held posts in the NIS are generally similar.

Although eavesdropping on conversations is illegal, it is not easy for an intelligence agency to give up its most effective means of collecting information, they maintain. Even without direct instructions from above, a subordinate agent might well decide to carry out such illegal activities in order to gather information.

Others point out that bugging—a “necessary evil” in intelligence gathering—may be taking place in other agencies like the police or the military as well.

Were All Wiretapped Materials Destroyed?-

Another question that arises is how much of the massive amount of information gathered by the NIS in past years still remains.

The NIS stated during its announcement on August 5, “Data collected prior to September 1995 were stored on reel tapes, while those collected after that date were stored as PC files,” and emphasized, “Both reel tapes and PC files were destroyed after one month; no materials remain.”

However, as the case of former Mirim team leader Gong Un-young (58) clearly demonstrates, the NSP’s belief that the materials were destroyed had only been a vague hope.

Computer files are particularly conducive to leakage because they can easily be copied or transmitted at any time. The possibility of a security breach becomes even higher when one considers the fact that the illegal wiretapping was normally carried out not at the NIS headquarters but in a safe house in downtown Seoul by a small team dedicated to the task.

The fact that, at the time of the 1997 and 2002 presidential elections, certain NIS agents had attempted to “line up” behind various ruling and opposition party candidates lends further weight to the assertion that the materials were leaked. Virtually everyone in the NIS is familiar with the story of “A” who handed insider information on the 1997 election to one of the presidential candidates, and the story of “B” who hopped on the coattails of another candidate during the 2002 Presidential election.

A former NIS agent said, “Because wiretaps are illegal, there are no provisions governing their maintenance or destruction,” adding, “That’s why it’s ludicrous at this point to try to ascertain every bit of information collected.”

In the end, determining whether illegally bugged conversations or materials were leaked outside the NIS looks to be all but impossible for the fundamental reason that an intelligence agency makes it its business to veil its budget and organization in secrecy.

Conflicting Claims-

The prosecution’s investigation must also resolve the contradiction between the contents of the NIS’s interim report and the statements given by persons involved in the case.

According to the NIS, former chief Chun Yong-taek directed then-head of the Inspection Office Lee Geon-mo (60) to recover the illegally bugged audiotapes in late November 1999. By contrast, Lee stated that he had “received the order to inquire into the wiretapped materials in the summer of 1999.” An interval of no less than two to three months separates the timeframe of these two statements.

Jong-Seok Kim needjung@dona.com wing@dona.com