On March 6, 2019, two Czech officials entered the CIA headquarters in Langley. They were Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and Michal Koudelka, the director of the Security Information Service, which handles the country’s domestic intelligence and is known by its initials BIS. Few details emerged about the meetings Babiš and Koudelka had at the CIA; one of them was that the latter received the George Tenet Medal.
Koudelka is an unassuming intelligence officer who managed to become one of the most prominent heads the BIS ever had. As illustrated by the discrete visit to the CIA, he had a solid relationship with Babiš – both leaders have made it clear in public appearances that they stand behind each other. The situation has changed in recent weeks though, as the Prime Minister was hesitating to extend Koudelka's mandate. Thus, a dispute broke out in the Czech Republic over the head of the most influential secret service. It took place partly behind the scenes, partly in the open and it was an emotional one. The opposition spoke of threats to state security, cowardice, or incompetence. Finally, the game ended in a tie – Kouldelka wasn’t appointed for a new term as BIS director, but he continues to lead the service.
The pro-Russian President vs. the intelligence chief wary about Russia’s spies
Koudelka worked almost all his professional life in BIS, where he raised through the ranks to the helm of the counter-intelligence department, which he led for a decade. He was appointed director of the secret service in 2016, and from that position he warned about the risk arising from the activities of the Russian or Chinese secret services on Czech territory. Under his leadership, the BIS conducted several operations that have hit the network of Russian spies in the Czech Republic.
It is his focus on the activities of the Russian and Chinese secret services or his clearly pro-Western orientation that earned Koudelka the open hostility of President Miloš Zeman, who maintains very warm relations with both powers.
The President began speaking out against the BIS and its director at the time of the Novichok affair, when allied countries expelled Russian agents with diplomatic cover en masse as a sign of solidarity with Great Britain, on whose territory double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned. The Czech Republic joined in and expelled three Russian embassy staff at the end of March 2018.
The President responded by ordering Czech secret services to investigate whether the nerve agent Novichok, which was apparently used by agents of Russia's GRU military intelligence to poison the Skripals, was produced or stored on Czech territory. Zeman imposed this task on the BIS and the military intelligence after Moscow accused the Czech Republic that the Novichok used in Britain may have originated there.
According to reports at the time, Zeman was bothered by the BIS's role in the expulsion of the three Russian agents – and it may be assumed that the Koudelka-led service was pushing for the toughest possible action. And then the President was reportedly unhappy with the BIS's response to his query about Novichok – both intelligence services found that a substance known as A230 had been tested in small quantities in the Czech Republic. And while Military Intelligence said it was a Novichok-type substance, BIS said it was not.
Zeman then announced on television that Novichok was being produced in the Czech Republic.
Shortly thereafter, the President rejected a government proposal to promote Koudelka to the general rank. He refused to do it every six months thereafter, six times in total. So the head of the key secret service continues to hold the rank of a colonel.
The President has given various explanations for refusing to promote a man who otherwise garnered accolades at home and abroad. He made no secret of his discomfort with Koudelka's focus on Russian and Chinese activities. Zeman and his entourage have close ties with Moscow and Beijing.
"I told the prime minister that instead of fictitiously chasing Russian and Chinese spies, Mr Koudelka should focus on economic crime in the Czech Republic," he said in October 2019, adding that then the service would "finally be useful".
"I hope I am not revealing state secrets other than the secret that BIS is incompetent. In six years, there is not a single indication that even a single Russian or Chinese spy has been detected," Zeman said at another time.
The BIS director then, very unusually, responded the next day with a public statement. "I will just mention that we have prevented dozens of Russian and Chinese intelligence officers from operating over the past five years, either by not recommending accreditation or by making them to quietly leave. For example, we informed our legal addressees earlier this year that we had successfully broken the intelligence network of one of the Russian intelligence services operating on our territory, completely paralyzing its activities," Koudelka defended his intelligence service.
Caught between a spy hunter and a President
The situation escalated when the President hired former BIS chief analyst Jiri Rom who had a complicated relationship with Koudelka and had left the secret service shortly before. Rom produced for Zeman a document summarizing the alleged reasons why Koudelka was a bad manager and should not continue in his post. The President handed this material to Prime Minister Babiš at the end of last year.
"I believe that Mr Koudelka should be dismissed, but given that his term expires in less than a year, I consider this to be somewhat irrelevant," President announced at the time.
Babiš defended Koudelka against Zeman last year and insisted that he was running the secret service well.
So what made Babiš change his mind about Koudelka and refrain from supporting him for a second term in office? To understand the situation, it is necessary to explain the balance of forces on the Czech political scene.
In October, parliamentary elections will be held. Andrej Babiš and his ANO movement may win, but it is far from clear whether he will govern again. The opposition parties have formed two coalitions, and they stand a good chance of beating ANO. Moreover, Babiš's current political partners - the Social Democrats and the Communists - are hovering around the 5 percent threshold needed to be elected to the lower house. So even if his party wins, Babiš could find himself without the necessary majority. And that’s where the President will step in – he can appoint anyone as prime minister, regardless of whether he has a majority. Zeman has already made it clear that Babiš can count on his help, saying that he will entrust the formation of the government to the leader of the winning party, not to a coalition.
Also, Zeman’s supporters have similar profiles to those rooting the ANO movement, so the President's possible support before the election could help Babiš's movement (Zeman has already said he will vote for ANO in the autumn elections).
Given the circumstances, it would be politically understandable if Babiš tried to satisfy Zeman. The two politicians discussed Koudelka's possible continuation on Monday, August 2. The prime minister said after the meeting that he had recommended to the President to meet with Koudelka. And he announced two possible solutions: Either Koudelka would be reappointed or his mandate would expire, in which case Koudelka's deputy would be put in charge of the BIS – so Koudelka would leave his leading role in BIS, according to the prime minister. However, the BIS director is named by the government, in which Babiš has a key role, so the next course of action was in the prime minister's hands only. He refused to talk about this topic and his decision for a long time – practically until the last moment.
Babiš's hesitation was strongly criticised by the opposition, which said that not appointing a chief of the service could endanger the security of the Czech Republic. For example, Pavel Bělobrádek (KDU-ČSL), the chairman of the Chamber of Deputies commission overseeing BIS, pointed out that in the law there is no such thing as a temporary BIS director and that this situation could have an impact on the functioning of the service. Not to mention that the whole situation could affect the trust of foreign partners who, for example, share information with the BIS. "Long-term inaction on the appointment of the BIS director will cause distrust among our allies. And trust is the most valuable thing you have in the community," Bělobrádek warned.
Muddy waters in uncertain times
The uncertainty surrounding the BIS comes at a time when the investigation into the Vrbětice case is still ongoing. The case, which involves Russia's largest subversion on Czech territory – the explosion of an ammunition depot caused by members of the Russian GRU – has essentially frozen relations between the Czech Republic and Russia, and counterintelligence played a key role in uncovering it. But even in this case, Zeman contested the results that the police and the BIS announced. He has repeatedly claimed in interviews that there are two investigative versions of the explosion, while according to the government and the relevant authorities there is only one version – that of Russian diversion.
Finally, on Monday, August 8, the Prime Minister announced that he would propose to the government that Koudelka would be temporarily put in charge of the BIS when his mandate expires. He will therefore not be a proper director, but only an interim head. The director for the next five years is to be decided by the next government.
This solution is perceived as a compromise – although Babiš listened to Zeman and did not appoint Koudelka for a new term, he did not completely remove the internationally respected director, whom he himself praised.
It is not yet clear what the President's reaction to this move will be. It is likely, however, that the first government to emerge after the elections will be the one led by Andrej Babiš, to whom the decision about Koudelka may come back like a boomerang. It is also possible that at that time, given the new distribution of political forces, he will be even more dependent on the President than he is now.