UPDATE 1-Poland hunts for restaurant eavesdroppers who snooped on elite

Mon Jun 23, 2014 12:09pm EDT

* PM says secret tapes are a plot to destabilise Poland

* Taped remarks have embarrassed the government

* Security experts say easy to bug private conversations

* Officials 'should be more careful where they talk' (Recasts with Polish PM, security experts)

By Anna Koper and Christian Lowe

WARSAW, June 23 (Reuters) - Poland's prime minister on Monday said the secret recording of officials discussing affairs of state over restaurant meals was a plot to cripple the Polish state at a time when it is rallying European opposition to Russia's intervention in Ukraine.

But former security officers say the origin of the affair is probably more prosaic: someone saw an opportunity for commercial gain from recording the conversations, and exploited the fact that Poland's elite are lax about security when they go out for a meal.

The recordings, which were made over several months at two high-end Warsaw restaurants and which have been published in weekly news magazine Wprost, have included exchanges embarrassing for the government.

The owner of one of the restaurants said he was unaware of any illegal activities in the restaurant. The second restaurant, where according to the magazine's staff conversations were recorded, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

In one exchange, according to the magazine, the foreign minister described U.S.-Polish ties as worthless, in another the central bank chief and the interior minister discussed ways the bank could help the government avoid electoral defeat.

The government has said that the remarks of the officials who were secretly recorded were taken out of context, and that they had not broken the law.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Monday connected the illegal eavesdropping to Poland's role over neighbouring Ukraine, where it fiercely opposes Russian intervention, and to Warsaw's growing weight inside the European Union.

"There is no doubt that the bugging operation destabilises and reduces the capability of the Polish state," he told a news conference. "The aim is not to diminish the reputation of the ruling party, but of the state, at a critical moment in Europe and for the situation in Ukraine."

Last week, Tusk described the tapes affair as an attempted coup d'etat. Marek Opiola, a member of parliament with the opposition Law and Justice Party said that sort of talk was a political ruse by the ruling party.

"(The party) is trying in this way to distract attention away from its own incompetence and the scandalous contents of the conversations between its own senior representatives," he told Reuters.

POLITICAL FALLOUT

Poland's zloty currency fell last week on market worries that Tusk might be forced by the fallout from the recordings to call an early election, or at least fire some ministers.

This prospect receded on Monday. Tusk said he would not be forced by the illegal surveillance into changing his Cabinet, and most analysts said no single bloc in parliament had enough votes to force a snap election.

Attention in Poland has turned to who could have carried out illegal surveillance on such a scale: the recordings captured on tape more than a dozen officials, politicians and company bosses in several different meetings.

Wprost magazine has said it obtained the recordings from "a businessman," without giving any details.

Prosecutors say they detained one person on suspicion of illegal surveillance at a restaurant but later released him and did not file charges with a court, the next stage in a prosecution. Reuters was not able to contact the man for comment, or to establish the name of his lawyer representing.

MONEY-MAKING ENTERPRISE?

Jerzy Dziewulski, a former presidential security adviser who now runs a private security consultancy, said the bugging was too primitive to be the work of any nation's intelligence service.

"I am deeply convinced that this is the private activity of some person who saw and knew that VIPs met there, that they talked loudly, from time to time he might have heard those conversations, and decided to profit from that."

He said that bugging equipment could easily be bought and was not expensive. A device smaller than a matchbox could be hidden near the restaurant table, and via a SIM card inside the device, transmit the sound to a mobile phone.

He said if the device was sound-activated, it could operate for over a week before the battery ran out. (Additional reporting by Pawel Sobczak, Adrian Krajewski and Magdalena Kolodziej; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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