Home - Tuesday 5.6.2001
ARTO ASTIKAINEN / Helsingin Sanomat
Yrjö Viitasaari, Lord of the Classified Information
A rare interview with the Head of the Finnish Defence Forces' Intelligence Division
By Arto Astikainen
The moment has a historic feel to it, in spite of the fact that the situation is intrinsically very normal indeed: a state
official sits down in the armchair in his office, gives a grunt of the "Right, let's get this done" variety, and prepares
to answer the reporter's questions. These things happen every day.
But on this occasion the official is an exceptional one, and even his room is not one of those you see every week on the TV
news. We are on the top floor of the Finnish Defence Forces' General Staff building in Helsinki, in a room located at the
end of a long corridor, behind several locked doors.
The long-serving head of Finnish military intelligence Yrjö Viitasaari, whose official title is Head of the Operations Staff Intelligence Division, has finally agreed to talk to the press.
- This remarkable turn of events happened in the final days of the intelligence chief's career, as a kind of spin-off from his birthday celebrations. On
Wednesday Major-General Viitasaari turns 60, and at the end of June he will be retiring and entering the reserves.
To put things into perspective, just a couple of years ago an interview with Viitasaari would have been out of the question.
Twenty years ago it would not even have been seemly for a journalist to call the head of military intelligence, let alone
ask for an audience.
Forty years ago the very existence of such a department was kept firmly under wraps. The Intelligence Division went under
the nondescript title of the "Inspection Department".
But now the members of the intelligence corps, too, are putting out feelers to the rest of society. For some time now they
have lectured at national defence courses and have provided politicians with confidential briefings and situation reports,
and sometimes they have even confided in journalists.
Transparency has gone so far that Yrjö Viitasaari is prepared to put a face on Finnish military intelligence with his very
- The face that is presented has a rugged military mien, accentuated by bushy eyebrows, and from a distance the officer's visage might appear even somewhat
frightening. But behind the brown eyes is a surprising warmth and when he gets going Viitasaari exhbits a hearty, earthy sense
His cheeks glow pink as we begin. It looks as if the General might be a bit excited about making his media début.
This is his first time, for all that Viitasaari opens by saying: "I have given one interview before this, you know". What he is
referring to is the three clipped sentences that were published in the evening paper Ilta-Sanomat in 1996.
- A Russian newspaper had commented on the movements of a Finnish assistant military attaché in some military areas of Russian Karelia, and had asserted that
the Finns were engaged in spying over there. According to the article, the officer had entered the military zone without permission
and had been arrested.
"Then I came out of my foxhole and said: 'He hasn't been spying and he hasn't been arrested'", states Viitasaari, spelling
out the words.
The country's military attachés are the subordinates of the Head of the Intelligence Division, intelligence gatherers working
in the public domain at Finland's embassies and legations abroad. Viitasaari has a network of 40 people working abroad. Half
of them are serving officers. Civilian experts account for half a dozen or so, and the remainder are office personnel.
"We have an absolute rule forbidding attachés from doing anything in contravention of the laws of the country in which they
are stationed. The assistant military attaché in this case was with a Russian driver on a trip sanctioned by the Russian authorities.
He was invited in for coffee at one particular garrison, and then all hell broke loose over this visit", says Viitasaari.
His voice does not disguise his annoyance over the incident five years ago.
The listener is left in no doubt that this is one chief who will defend his staff like a wolf does its cubs.
- "Look, we don't deal in illegalities. We don't spy. We don't bug people's mobile phones. Not one of the subjects of our electronic surveillance is within the
boundaries of Finland", Viitasaari patiently recites the list of those things that the intelligence branch is routinely suspected
of - everything from spying on our neighbours to eavesdropping on the Finns.
Major-General Viitasaari relaxes when we turn to how a policeman's son from Lapua, whose school career in Vaasa was remarkable
largely for detentions and trumpet-playing, could have drifted into the opaque world of military intelligence.
The anecdote that follows is worth repeating: it was all down to the top hat worn by the principal of Vaasa Lyceum.
- The school was one of those that was ordered in the immediate post-war years to teach extended courses in Russian. Language studies were determined in
the 2nd grade, and in Vaasa it was either English or Russian.
"The principal got out an old top hat and put forty slips of paper into it; fifteen of them had the word "Russian", and the
other 25 were blank. I got Russian", says Viitasaari with a grin.
After attending cadet college at his father's urging, the young Russian scholar was picked out as a Senior Lieutenant to be
an intelligence officer. He was sent on a Captain's prepping course at the Signals School and then despatched on a scholarship
to learn more of the language at Leningrad University. That was the beginning of a 27-year career in intelligence.
"It was a secondment like any other. When you are a Senior Lieutenant you don't hang around and ask for the reasons, but I
suppose it was the language and my background that swung it", he offers.
- Yrjo's father Arvo Viitasaari was an inspector in the Security Police in Vaasa. The General's own sons have not strayed far from the security branch, either:
one is a military officer and the other a policeman, now employed in data security work with Sonera.
With his gift for languages, as a young officer Viitasaari often found himself detailed to do interpreting work, and at the
beginning of the 1980s he was seconded to the embassy in Moscow as an assistant military attaché.
"All sorts of things happened while I was there. On one occasion I was at a reception in the Kremlin hosted by the then General
Secretary Yuri Andropov. The nine-course dinner plus speeches must have lasted, oh...fully 45 minutes. When I turned to my table companion and held
my knife and fork aloft for a second or so, the plate disappeared from under them. There was not a chance of actually tasting
all of the dishes we were served."
Viitasaari's recollection of the incident spurs him into guffaws of laughter under the gaze of Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, whose picture hangs on the wall over a large safe.
- But enough of the past, what about intelligence work? What do the army's intelligence staff and the Head of the Intelligence Division actually do, and how big an organisation are we talking about?
The General's chuckling stops abruptly.
"We procure information, we analyse it, and then we pass on the results to the decision-makers. We are not eager to give
information on staff numbers, working methods, tasks, or results to outsiders", replies Viitasaari, weighing each word carefully.
With a bit of dogged persuasion he does reveal a little more, for example the detail that half of the Division's staff are
- The Head of the Intelligence Division coordinates all the military's intelligence operations, but in concrete terms he does not head the entire show.
Underneath his watchful eye are not just the Intelligence and Investigation (counter-intelligence) Departments and the military
attachés but also the intelligence officers seconded to regional commands, and a further establishment called the Signals
Test Facility, which belongs to the Air Force. Viitasaari himself headed this unit on his return from Moscow in the mid-1980s.
So what is the Signals Test Facility? (Translator's Note: the name is for once a direct word-for-word translation, since no official English name appears to exist. )
"I can't tell you that, since it is an intelligence facility. We don't give out information on its activities", says the General
charitably but firmly. Persuasion will not work on this one.
- Those who make a point of knowing these things will tell you that the unit, which is based in Tikkakoski, listens to the military radio traffic of Finland's
neighbours, and that it measures and pinpoints various radio and radar signals.
Anyone who has heard one of Viitasaari's situation reports can guess that data on the present whereabouts and movements of
Russian military units are based at least in part on the results of work carried out by the Signals Test Division. A situation
report on the current state of play in East Timor could be based on CNN newscasts, however.
"It should be remembered that 90% of the information out there in the world is public. In our case, too, half of our information
sources are in the public domain."
"By reading newspapers of record, listening to the radio, and watching television you can acquire enough information to get
a decent passing grade. You can up this to an "excellent minus" by reading the the reports of other official bodies. These
come in from the police, the Frontier Guard, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Bank of Finland, and so on and so forth.
If you are looking for straight A grades, then you also need the data that is gathered by various intelligence groups", explains
- The FDF's Intelligence Division collates and analyses all this information and drafts reports on what is going on for the use of the armed forces and the
Viitasaari is thus after a fashion the country's #1 prognosticator.
The head of military intelligence is one of those rare public servants who meets with the President regularly, practically
on a weekly basis. This practice was introduced in August 1990, when Iraq launched an attack on Kuwait. That autumn, Yrjö
Viitasaari was appointed to the post. He has therefore already been able to supply three Presidents with facts and forecasts.
- The two-term President from 1982-1994 Mauno Koivisto, who had a yen for things Russian and for details of a military technological nature, once requested something of the General
that had him scratching his head and wondering where to look.
"It was in the fall of 1993, when the attempted coup was going on against Yeltsin in Moscow. Russian army tanks shelled the
Parliament building, the White House."
"I got a question relayed to me from the Presidential Palace asking if I could find out whether the tanks were tearing the
place up with firing hollow-charge grenades, fragmentation shells, armour-piercing, fin stabilised sabot-tracer shells or
something else altogether", sighs Viitasaari.
"Now, from the TV-footage I could see as well as the next man that they were making ugly holes in the walls, but I had no
idea what sort of hardware was doing it. I had to report back that I wasn't going to be visiting the Palace in person this
- Finnish military intelligence could not claim to have predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Viitasaari's men did make one significant forecast that had a bearing
on it. The head of military intelligence was able to brief the then Prime Minister Esko Aho on the second morning of the August 1991 coup attempt that the junta fronted by Gennadi Janajev would not be able to seize power. The military forces stationed in Moscow were not behind the coup. This analysis proved
The international connections of the intelligence fraternity have throughout history been a sensitive matter. Ten years back
there was an enormous fuss made when the former Swedish defence minister reported that Sweden and Finland had enjoyed far-reaching
intelligence cooperation during the Cold War.
Finland's Minister of Defence Elisabeth Rehn denied the charge categorically and promised that "heads would roll" if the information she had received proved to be false.
Yrjö Viitasaari's head and neck are still firmly attached to his shoulders.
- "I never tell a lie", the intelligence chief declares with some vigour. He freely admits that there are intelligence contacts with other countries
these days, in fact quite a lot of them.
Last fall, for instance, he was present in Brussels at the first joint meeting of the military intelligence chiefs of the
fifteen EU countries. This spring the ad hoc Intelligence Board came together for a second time to discuss ways of improving
EU intelligence operations.
Right now the new EU military staff is putting together an intelligence section, to which one Finnish officer will be seconded
in due course, and in Kosovo this March saw the launching of a joint intelligence centre for the four Nordic countries. This,
to be fair, serves the needs of the troops on the ground in Kosovo, rather than Finland's decision-makers.
- And what about NATO cooperation? "NATO has no common intelligence corps", fires back Viitasaari. "NATO intelligence gathering is made up of information collected
by the individual member-countries and fed into a shared pot.
Partnership for Peace activities have numerous working parties in the intelligence field, but we don't take part. We noticed
that they only discuss the means, and not the intelligence."
- The talkative Lord of all the Secrets has got up such a good head of steam by this stage in our talk that I dare to ask what the real situation is behind our eastern
border: is Russia a threat to us or does the Leningrad/St.Petersburg military district really only have a couple of penniless infantry brigades and some rusty helicopters at its disposal?
Yrjö Viitasaari does not answer immediately, but gets up from his chair and heads to the window-sill, from where he retrieves
a small red tin with a lid on it.
It turns out that this is his secret ash-tray. Holy invisible ink! The Head of the Intelligence Division even smokes his cheroots
in secret! Smoking is not allowed in the rooms of the General Staff building.
"In fact there are three rapid response brigades stationed there. One is an airborne brigade", he eventually replies.
- "But in answer to your question, we do not need to feel any military threat. In my view there isn't one. But those who claim that Russia's military capability
is zero or pitifully poor are making a grave mistake."
"They have fought two wars in Chechnya without recourse to mobilisation. On each occasion there have been 70-100,000 men on
the front. They have been trained, equipped, and then replaced with others like them."
"Now any country that can put 100,000 soldiers into the field without mobilising has to have a pretty reasonable military
capability, wouldn't you say?"
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 3.6.2001
- More on this subject:
- Yrjö Viitasaari, Lord of the Classified Information
- The file on Yrjö Viitasaari
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