Two dozen US diplomats in Vienna show signs of ‘Havana syndrome’, report claims

Vienna Austria

ABOUT TWO DOZEN PERSONNEL of the United States embassy in the Austrian capital Vienna have been experiencing unexplained neurological symptoms that are similar to the so-called “Havana syndrome”, a mysterious medical condition that continues to puzzle brain scientists. The condition is believed to have afflicted at least 130 American and Canadian diplomats around the world in recent years.

The matter first came to light in 2017, when Washington recalled the majority of its personnel from its embassy in Havana, Cuba, and at least two more diplomats from its consulate in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. The evacuees reported experiencing “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena” and hearing “unusual sounds or piercing noises”. Subsequent tests showed that the diplomats suffered from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing, and possibly from various forms of brain injury.

Now a new report by The New Yorker’s Adam Entous claims that “about two dozen” personnel at the US embassy in Vienna have shown Havana syndrome symptoms “since Joe Biden took office” in January of this year. If accurate, this number of incidents would mean that the Austrian capital is now the largest Havana syndrome location in the world after Cuba. In his report, Entous cited a spokesman for the US Department of State, who said that department was “vigorously investigating” reports of “possible unexplained health incidents” among US diplomats and other embassy personnel in Vienna. The expression “unexplained health incidents” is the official term that the US government uses to refer to what is informally known as the Havana syndrome.

Meanwhile, the Reuters news agency reported a statement issued on Saturday by the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs. It said the ministry was “working with the US authorities on jointly getting to the bottom of this”, adding that the Austrian government took “these reports very seriously”, as they potentially affected “the safety of the diplomats sent to Austria and their families”, which was a “top priority” for the Austrian government.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 July 2021 | Permalink

Austria expels alleged assassin accused of working for Turkish government

Berivan AslanAUSTRIAN AUTHORITIES HAVE REPORTEDLY expelled from the country an Italian citizen of Turkish origin, who was allegedly hired by the Turkish government as an assassin. The man, Feyyaz Öztürk, 53, reportedly turned himself in to Austrian intelligence last year. According to the British press, Öztürk claimed he had been hired by the Turkish government to assassinate Berivan Aslan (pictured). Aslan, who is of Kurdish heritage, is a Viennese parliamentarian and a leading critic of Turkey’s treatment of its minority Kurdish population.

News reports claimed Öztürk’s mission was to terrorize members of the Kurdish expatriate community in Austria and elsewhere in Europe, who tend to be vocal critics of the Turkish government’s human rights record. British newspaper The Telegraph claimed that Öztürk had been tasked by Ankara to “ensure [Aslan] was hurt or died”, so that “other politicians get the message”. Öztürk also claimed that Turkish intelligence officials had blackmailed him in order to force him to carry out Alsan’s assassination. Moreover, he had been asked to kill two more Austrian public figures who are of Kurdish origin.

However, Öztürk reportedly aborted the assassination operation in March of last year, after he broke his leg in an accident during a trip to the northern Italian city of Rimini. Austrian prosecutors confirmed that an official investigation on Öztürk had concluded. It found that he had carried out “military espionage on behalf of a foreign state”, but did it not identify the state. Turkey has strongly denied that its intelligence agencies have any connection with Öztürk.

Öztürk’s espionage trial has been scheduled for February 4. However, according to Austrian law, he cannot be held in pre-trial detention and must be freed prior to his day in court. Rather than allow him freedom of movement inside Austria, the authorities decided to expel him to Italy. Öztürk’s lawyer said yesterday that her client had been designated “an imminent danger to public security” and taken to the Italian border shortly before Christmas.

The lawyer added that Öztürk wishes to return to Austria to attend his trial in February. There are suspicions among intelligence observers that the Austrian state would prefer Öztürk not to return to Austria, so as to avoid exposing espionage methods and sources in court. Meanwhile, Aslan said she remains under police protection, which was initially extended to her last year, when the alleged assassination plot against her became known.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 January 2021 | Permalink

Mossad helped Syrian intelligence official flee to Austria, despite alleged crimes

BVT AustriaA SYRIAN INTELLIGENCE OFFICIAL, who was denied political asylum in France due to claims he committed serious war crimes, received protection from Austria with assistance from Israel, according to a report. This was revealed on Sunday by British newspaper The Telegraph, which said it had been given the information by “a judicial source”.

The Syrian official in question is Khaled al-Halabi, a former Brigadier General in the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate (MID). He served as head of the MID in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa amidst the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011. But in 2013, as the civil war became fiercer, al-Halabi defected from Syria and took his family to France, where applied for political asylum.

Two years later, al-Halabi was notified by the French authorities that his application for political asylum had been denied, due to serious concerns that he had been involved in criminal acts against opponents of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, soon after being notified that his application for asylum had been rejected, al-Halabi mysteriously disappeared from France, and was never seen there again.

According to The Telegraph, while waiting for a decision from the French authorities in regards to his application for asylum, al-Halabi was negotiating with the Israeli external intelligence agency, the Mossad. The Israeli spy agency allegedly whisked al-Halabi away from France and took him to nearby Austria. Once there, al-Halabi went into the custody of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT), Austria’s primary intelligence agency.

In December of 2015, al-Halabi was granted asylum in Austria, and today he is believed to live in Vienna, in a four-bedroom apartment provided to him by the Austrian government. The decision by the Austrian government to give the former Syrian spy official asylum made headlines in Austria in October, causing significant controversy. This is because at least one lawsuit has been filed against al-Halabi for his alleged participation in war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Syrian Civil War, according to The Telegraph.

But the alleged involvement of the Mossad in al-Halabi’s case was not known until last Sunday. If true, the Mossad’s role in this case could signify that al-Halabi had established a relationship with the Israeli spy agency prior to his defection from Syria in 2013. According to the Austrian press, al-Halabi denies that he was involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 December 2020 | Permalink

Austrian government signals major overhaul of spy service, following Vienna attack

BVT AustriaAUSTRIAN GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS SIGNALED on Thursday the beginning of a major overhaul of the country’s intelligence community, in response to this week’s terrorist attack in Vienna, which killed four people. Another 20 people were wounded by a lone gunman, who used an automatic weapon to spread panic in the Austrian capital before he was shot dead by Austrian police.

The gunman was later identified as Kujtim Fejzulai, an Austrian citizen of Albanian extraction, who was born in North Macedonia and held citizenship there too. The shooter was known to Austrian authorities, as he had been previously convicted of trying to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. He had been imprisoned as an Islamic radical, but had been released after allegedly duping Austrian judges, who believed he had reformed.

In the days following the attack, it emerged that Slovakian authorities had notified Austrian security agencies in July that Fejzulai had tried to purchase ammunition in Slovakia. On Wednesday, Austria’s Director General for Public Security, Franz Ruf, said that Austrian intelligence authorities “sent questions back to Bratislava”, but then there had been a “breakdown” in the system. Austrian Minister of the Interior Karl Nehammer added that “something apparently went wrong with the communication in the next steps”.

Nehammer and others, including Austrian Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler, called for the establishment of an independent commission to examine the Fejzulai case and “clarify whether the process went optimally and in line with the law”. The Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, said on Thursday that the country did not have “all the legal means necessary to monitor and sanction extremists”, adding that he would initiate the creation of a panel that would supervise a “realignment” of the intelligence agencies. He was referring to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known by the initials BVT. He did not provide details.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 November 2020 | Permalink

Austrian financier dubbed ‘world’s most wanted man’ worked for several agencies

Jan Marsalek

AN AUSTRIAN FINANCIER, WHO disappeared and is wanted by Western spy agencies in connection with a massive financial scandal in Germany, may have worked for several spy agencies simultaneously, according to reports. Jan Marsalek, dubbed by some as “the world’s most wanted man”, is connected with the sudden collapse of Wirecard AG in Germany last month.

Wirecard (est. 1999) was a German provider of financial services, such as mobile phone payment processing and other electronic payment transaction systems. The company also issued physical and virtual credit and pre-paid cards. But on June 25 of this year the company declared insolvency, after an audit revealed that nearly €2 billion ($2.3 billion) in cash deposits were missing from its accounts. Soon afterwards the company’s shares lost over 70 percent of their value and its management team, including its chief executive officer, Markus Braun, stepped down. Braun was eventually arrested. But Marsalek, who had worked as Wirecard’s chief operating officer since 2010, was nowhere to be found.

Marsalek, 40, was also in charge of Winecard’s operations in Asia and specifically the Philippines, where the fictitious €2 billion had reportedly been deposited. On June 18, after getting fired from his job, Marsalek told colleagues that he was leaving immediately for Manilla, in order to track down the missing funds and clear his name. However, he never arrived there, as he seemed to disappear into thin air on the way. An investigative report by The Financial Times revealed that Marsalek never made use of his airline ticket to the Philippine capital, and that the immigration records that showed him entering the country and then flying from there to China had been forged. This was later confirmed by the Philippines government.

Last Thursday, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that, according to some German lawmakers, Marsalek may have operated as an informant for the Austrian Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT). The paper cited a number of German lawmakers, who said they were told during a briefing of the German Parliament’s Committee on Intelligence Oversight that Marsalek probably worked “for several intelligence agencies at the same time” prior to his disappearance. The lawmakers did not provide details of these allegations. Meanwhile, Marsalek’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 November 2020 | Permalink

Austria to press charges on man caught spying for Turkish intelligence service

Karl NehammerThere were angry exchanges between Austrian and Turkish officials on Tuesday, after the Austrian government announced it would press charges against an individual allegedly caught spying for Turkish intelligence. The charges were announced on Tuesday morning local time by Austria’s Interior Minister Karl Nehammer (pictured), during a press conference in the Austrian capital Vienna.

During the press conference, Nehammer said the Austrian government wished to send “a clear message to the Turkish Republic: Turkish espionage and interference by Turkey in the civil liberties [of Austrian citizens] have no place in Austria”. Additionally, the Austrian official said his government would “work at the European level to make sure that Turkey does not interfere in the internal affairs of European Union states”. Vienna had already notified Horst Seehofer, president of the European Council, of the espionage case, said Nehammer.

It is believed that the alleged Turkish spy was uncovered by Austrian authorities after a large political protest that took place in Vienna last June, which resulted in violent clashes between pro-Kurdish and pro-Turkish demonstrators. The protesters were members of pro-Kurdish organizations in Vienna, but were confronted by pro-Turkish demonstrators, which resulted in the whole rally descending into violent street clashes. An investigation by Austrian police determined that many of the pro-Turkish demonstrators were affiliated with a far-right Turkish group known as the Grey Wolves.

According to the Austrian Interior Ministry, however, it was also found that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, known as MİT, helped organize the Grey Wolves group that confronted the pro-Kurdish rally. Among the Grey Wolves rioters, say Austrian officials, was a man who had been “recruited” by the MİT to spy on pro-Kurdish activists or critics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Nehammer said the alleged spy already confessed to working for Turkish intelligence.

In response to Nehammer’s statements, the Turkish government accused Austria’s national leadership of harboring an “anti-Turkey obsession”. Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy told reporters in Ankara that the Austrian government should “top chasing artificial agenda with shallow and domestic political calculations over Turkey, and act with […] seriousness, common sense, and sincere cooperation”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 02 September 2020 | Permalink

Russia expels Austrian diplomat in tit-for-tat move involving espionage claims

Russian embassy in AustriaRussia has expelled a diplomat stationed at the Austrian embassy in Moscow, just hours after the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs expelled a Russian diplomat from Austria, allegedly for engaging in espionage. Austrian officials reportedly gave the unnamed Russian diplomat until Tuesday, September 1, to leave Austrian soil, in a move that surprised observers, given the close relations between Austria and Russia in recent years.

The Russian diplomat is accused by the Austrian authorities of engaging in “behavior that violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations”. The Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not elaborate on the accusations against the diplomat, and refused to name him. However, the Vienna-based Kronen Zeitung newspaper, said on Monday that the Russian diplomat had carried out “industrial espionage” for several years. According to the paper, the Russian had recruited an Austrian citizen who worked for a technology firm to spy for Moscow. Austrian authorities arrested the man, who promptly identified the Russian diplomat as handler. The paper also said that, according to some sources, the man turned himself in to the authorities.

Later on Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Johannes Aigner, Austria’s ambassador to Russia, and “strongly protested the unjustified course of action to cancel the accreditation of a Russian diplomat and order him to leave Austrian soil”. Moscow said in a statement its decision to expel an Austrian diplomat was “guided by the principle of reciprocity”. It is not known at this time how this incident will affect bilateral relations between Russia and Austria, which have been among Moscow’s warmest with a Western country in recent years.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 August 2020 | Permalink

Austrian court finds unnamed retired Army colonel guilty of spying for Russia

Igor Egorovich ZaytsevA court in Austria has found a retired Army colonel guilty of providing classified military information to Russia, following a closed-door trial. Interestingly, the alleged spy’s name has not been made public. Some Austrian media have been referring to him as “Martin M.”.

The retired colonel was arrested in November of 2018, reportedly after having recently retired following a long military career. Austria’s Defense Ministry said at the time that the arrest came after a tip given to the Austrian government by an unnamed European intelligence agency from a “friendly country”. Martin M. reportedly served in peacekeeping missions in the Golan Heights and Cyprus before being posted at one of the Austrian Armed Forces’ two headquarters, located in the western city of Salzburg. It was around that time, say prosecutors, that the unnamed man began spying for Russia. Starting in 1992, he was in regular contact with his Russian handler, who was known to him only as “Yuri”.

“Yuri” was later identified by Austrian authorities as Igor Egorovich Zaytsev, who is allegedly an intelligence officer for the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. Known as GRU, the organization is Russia’s primary military-intelligence agency. The Austrian government has issued an international arrest warrant for a Zaytsev.

Zaytsev reportedly trained Martin M. in the use of “sophisticated equipment”, according to the Austrian prosecutor, which he used to communicate classified information to Moscow. He is thought to have given Russia information on a range of weapons systems used by the Austrian Army and Air Force, as well as the personal details of high-ranking officers in the Austrian Armed Forces. Austrian media initially reported that the alleged spy was paid nearly $350,000 for his services to Moscow.

During his trial, Martin M. reportedly admitted that he had received payments form the Russians to provide information. But he claimed that the information he gave them was already publicly available. His legal team compared his role to that of a “foreign correspondent” for a news service. The court, however, did not accept that argument and on Tuesday sentenced Martin M. to three years in prison.

Soon after his sentencing, the defendant was released on parole, after the court counted the 18 months he has served behind bars since his arrest as part of his prison sentence. His legal team said they plan to appeal the sentence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 May 2020 | Permalink

Austria issues international arrest warrant for alleged Russian spy

Igor Egorovich ZaytsevThe Austrian government has issued an international arrest warrant for a Russian man who allegedly recruited a retired colonel in the Austrian Federal Army to spy for Moscow. The arrest warrant was issued on Tuesday by the public prosecutor’s office in the city of Salzburg. It identifies the Russian man as Igor Egorovich Zaytsev. Austrian officials allege that the Moscow-born Zaytsev is in fact an intelligence officer for the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. Known as GRU, the organization is Russia’s primary military-intelligence agency.

In an accompanying press statement issued on Tuesday, the Austrian Ministry of the Interior said that Zaytsev had facilitated the “betrayal of state secrets” and that his actions had been “to the detriment of the Republic of Austria”. The arrest warrant accuses Zaytsev of having participated in the “intentional disclosure of a military secret”, but does not provide details. However, in a subsequent statement, Austrian police directly linked the search for Zaytsev with an espionage case that was reported in the Austrian media last year. The statement said that Zaytsev is believed to have recruited a man known as “Martin M.” to spy on Austria. This appears to refer to the arrest last November of a 70-year-old colonel in the Austrian Army, who was stationed in Salzburg. He is believed to have spied for Russia from at least 1992 until his arrest. Austrian media reported that the accused spy was believed to have given Russia information on a range of weapons systems used by the Austrian Army and Air Force, as well as the personal details of high-ranking officers in the Austrian Armed Forces.

Soon after the arrest of “Martin M.”, Austrian authorities arrested a second man, identified only as “O.”, who is also suspected on having spied for Russia. According to the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s Office, “O.” was an employee of the Austrian Office for Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known as BVT. He had been investigated on suspicion of espionage for more than a year prior to his arrest. The man’s arrest took place alongside simultaneous raids at two residential addresses associated with him, according to reports. No further details have been made available since the arrest. It is not known whether Zaytsev’s is also connected with the case of “O.”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 July 2019 | Permalink

Israel leaked video that brought down Austrian government, says German ex-spy chief

Strache GudenusIsraeli intelligence was likely behind the leaked video that brought down the far-right governing coalition in Austria on Monday, according to the former deputy director of Germany’s spy agency. The surreptitiously recorded video was leaked to two German media outlets on May 17, days before Austrian voters participated in the continent-wide elections for the European Union. In the video, two senior members of Austria’s governing far-right Freedom Party are seen conversing with an unnamed woman posing as a Russian investor. The two men in the video were Heinz-Christian Strache, the the Freedom Party’s leader and until recently Austria’s Vice Chancellor, and Johannes Gudenus, the party’s deputy leader and a member of parliament. In the video, Gudenus and Strache promise to award the woman’s firm state contracts if her uncle —a Russian oligarch— purchases an Austrian newspaper and uses it to support the Freedom Party. The video threw Austria’s political system into disarray and prompted the resignations of both Strache and Gudenus. On Monday, Austria’s Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, was removed from power during a special parliamentary session in Vienna.

But the question is who leaked the video, and why? In an article in the Cicero, a monthly political magazine based in Berlin, a former senior official in Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) argues that Israeli intelligence was probably behind the leak. The article’s author is Rudolf Adam, who served as deputy director of the BND from 2001 to 2004, before serving as president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy of the German Ministry of Defense. Adam argues that the actions of Strache and Gudenus, as shown in the leaked video, seem “half mafia-like and half-treasonable”, and that the two should face legal consequences. But he goes on to ask “a far more interesting question”, namely “who is behind this intrigue [and] what were the intentions of its initiators?”. Adam points out that nothing is known about the woman in the video; she reportedly met Gudenus several months before the video was filmed. She posed as the Latvian niece of a Russian oligarch with ties to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. In exchanges that lasted for several months, the woman told Gudenus that she planned to move with her daughter to Vienna and was interested in investment opportunities. She eventually invited him and Strache to a meeting in a villa in the Spanish resort island of Ibiza. It was there where the video was recorded. Read more of this post

German spy agency concerned about Russian penetration of Austrian government

Sebastian Kurz Vladimir PutinA day after Austria’s political system was thrown into a disarray by a covert video featuring the country’s vice chancellor and a woman posing as a Russian investor, German intelligence sources have raised fears that Russia may have penetrated the Austrian government with informants. Heinz-Christian Strache, who heads Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, stepped down from the post of vice chancellor on Saturday. His resignation came a day after two German media outlets aired a covert video in which Strache appears to be promising to award state contracts in the construction sector to a woman posing as a Russian investor. In return for the state contracts, the unnamed woman said that she would have the firm of her uncle —a Russian oligarch— purchase an Austrian newspaper and use it to support Strache’s political party.

According to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, the video was filmed in Spain in 2017, two months before the Freedom Party won a record 26 percent in Austria’s national election. This gave the party 51 seats in the Austrian parliament and propelled Strache to the post of vice chancellor. In his resignation statement, Strache said he was filmed while drunk and was engaged in “macho talk” in an atttempt to “impress the attractive hostess”. He also dismissed the airing of the covertly filmed video as “a targeted political assassination”, but added that he was resigning from the government as a matter of principle. Shortly afterwards, the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Chairman of the rightwing Austrian People’s Party, announced that new national elections would be held “as soon as possible”.

Meanwhile, German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag reported on Saturday that the director of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), warned that sharing intelligence with Austria was “risky”. The Berlin-based newspaper said that BfV director Thomas Haldenwang was speaking at a closed-door meeting with German parliamentarians. He reportedly told his parliamentary audience that, due to the close relationship between the Freedom Party and Moscow, members of the Austrian government could potentially “misuse” and in some cases “forward to Russia” intelligence that they receive from other European Union member-states. This is not the first time that such warnings have come out of Germany. Last year August Hanning, who served as director of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) openly warned Western officials to stop sharing intelligence with the government of Austria, because of its alleged proximity to the Kremlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 May 2019 | Permalink

Austria arrests second spy for Russia in a week: media reports

BVT AustriaAuthorities in Austria have arrested a second alleged spy for Russia in a week, according to media reports. Several Austrian news outlets reported on Monday that police had arrested an Austrian counterintelligence officer on suspicion of passing classified information to Russian intelligence. The news follows reports late last week of the arrest of an unnamed retired colonel in the Austrian Army, who is believed to have spied for Russia since 1988. As intelNews reported on Monday, the unnamed man worked at the Austrian Armed Forces’ headquarters in Salzburg. He is believed to have been in regular contact with his Russian handler, known to him only as “Yuri”, who trained him in the use of “sophisticated equipment” for passing secret information to Moscow. He is thought to have given Russia information on a range of weapons systems used by the Austrian Army and Air Force, as well as the personal details of high-ranking officers in the Austrian Armed Forces.

On Monday, the Vienna-based newspaper Kronen Zeitung, said that a second Austrian man had been arrested on suspicion of carrying out espionage for Moscow. The man was identified in Austrian news reports only as “O.”, due to strict restrictions imposed on media in the country. But the Kronen Zeitung said that the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had confirmed the reports of the arrest of the second alleged spy. According to the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s Office, the second individual was an employee of the Austrian Office for Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known as BVT. He had been investigated on suspicion of espionage for more than a year prior to his arrest this week. The man’s arrest took place alongside simultaneous raids at two residential addresses associated with him, according to reports. No further details about this latest case have been made available.

No information is available about the kind of information that the suspect is believed to have shared with Moscow. Furthermore, statements from Austrian officials do not mention any connection between the arrest of “O.” and the arrest of the retired Army colonel that took place last week. The Kronen Zeitung notes that, if found guilty of espionage, “O.” will face a sentence of up to 10 years behind bars. The embassy of Russia in Vienna refused to respond to questions about the arrest of “O.” on Monday night.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 November 2018 | Permalink

Austria summons Russian ambassador over arrest of alleged army spy

Sebastian Kurz Mario KunasekThe Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Russian ambassador to Vienna on Friday, following the arrest of a retired Austrian Army colonel who allegedly spied for Moscow for more than two decades. The news was announced on Friday by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at an emergency news conference in Vienna. He did not reveal the alleged spy’s identity, but said that he had been taken into custody as Austrian counterintelligence were investigating the extent of the security breach he caused.

However, according to the Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s highest-circulation newspaper, the suspect is a 70-year-old Army colonel who recently retired after a long military career. He reportedly worked at one of the Austrian Armed Forces’ two headquarters, located in the western city of Salzburg. The unnamed man is believed to have spied for Russia from the early 1990s until his arrest last week. The Kronen Zeitung said that the retired Army colonel was in regular contact with his Russian handler, known to him only as “Yuri”. The Russian handler reportedly trained him in the use of “sophisticated equipment”, which he used to communicate information to Moscow. He is thought to have given Russia information on a range of weapons systems used by the Austrian Army and Air Force, as well as the personal details of high-ranking officers in the Austrian Armed Forces. Austrian media reported that the alleged spy was paid nearly $350,000 for his services to Moscow. According to Austria’s Minister of Defense Mario Kunasek, the arrest came after a tip given to the Austrian government “a few weeks ago” by an unnamed European intelligence agency. He also said that Austrian security services were looking into the possibility that the suspect may have been part of a larger spy ring working for Moscow.

The incident has strained relations between Austria and Russia. In the past decade, Austria —which is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization— has been seen by observers as a rare ally of Moscow inside the European Union. Unlike the vast majority of European Union countries, Austria chose not to expel Russian diplomats following the poisoning of former Russian double spy Sergei Skripal in March of this year. In August, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the wedding of his personal friend, Austria’s Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl. But Mrs. Kneissl has now canceled a planned visit to Moscow in December in response to last week’s spy scandal. Speaking in Moscow on Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed Austria’s accusations as “unfounded” and “unacceptable”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 November 2018 | Permalink

German ex-spy chief tells West to stop sharing intelligence with Austria

Peter GridlingA former director of Germany’s foreign intelligence service has warned Western officials to stop sharing intelligence with the government of Austria, because of its alleged proximity to the Kremlin. August Hanning served as chief of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND, from 1998 to 2005. He went on to serve as the most senior civil servant in the Ministry of the Interior until his retirement in 2009. In an interview published on Wednesday in Germany’s Bild newspaper, Hanning argued that “caution is necessary with [an intelligence] service [like that of Austria,] which cannot protect its own secrets or the sources and sensitive information of its partners”. He went on to add that “there is […] now extreme caution when sharing information] with the Austrian intelligence services.

Hanning’s statement came less than a week after The Washington Post claimed in a major article that most Western intelligence services had stopped sharing sensitive information with the Austrian government. The newspaper alleged that the disruption in intelligence cooperation between Austria and other Western countries was sparked by an unprecedented police raid on the headquarters of Austria’s spy agency in February of this year. On February 28, Austrian police raided the central offices of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT), which operates as Austria’s domestic intelligence agency. By that evening, thousands of classified documents had been removed from the BVT’s headquarters and stored in police facilities in Vienna. Austrian officials claimed that the raid was sparked by allegations made by South Korean intelligence that blank Austrian passports had been acquired by the North Korean government.

However, according to The Post, the raid was politically motivated by Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, which is part of the country’s ruling coalition. The purpose of the raid, said the article, was to neutralize the BVT, whose mission includes defending the Austrian constitution from domestic threats from the far left and the far right. Many Western services were alarmed by the February 28 raid on the BVT and immediately stopped sending sensitive information to the agency’s Vienna headquarters, according to The Post. It also said that Western European powers are concerned by the seemingly close relations between some members of Austria’s government and the Kremlin. Last week, Russian Premier Vladimir Putin traveled to Austria to attend the wedding of Karin Kneissl, Austria’s Minster of Foreign Affairs, who is politically close to the Freedom Party. The Russian leader said that he attended Kneissl’s wedding on a “purely private” capacity. But that did little to appease European Union leaders.

On Monday, the BVT rejected the claims made by The Post. In a statement issued to the media, BVT director Peter Gridling (pictured) said that “cooperation [between the BVT and] partner intelligence services continues to work well in key areas such as the fight against terrorism”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 August 2018 | Permalink

More spies now in Brussels than Vienna, Austrian intelligence chief says

Peter GridlingThe head of Austria’s counterintelligence agency has said that Brussels has now replaced Vienna as Europe’s spy capital. For nearly a decade, this blog has published expert commentary that points to the Austrian capital being the world’s busiest spy den. In 2009, German broadsheet Die Welt explained that Vienna had “the highest density of [foreign intelligence] agents in the world”. The reasons for this are partly historic: during the Cold War, the center of Vienna was located less than an hour’s drive from the Iron Curtain, making it a central location for East-West spy intrigue. Additionally, Austria boasted then, and boasts today, an efficient transportation network that connects it to both Western and Eastern Europe.

Furthermore, Vienna hosts the headquarters of several important international agencies, including the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). This gives dozens of countries the opportunity to station in Vienna large numbers of diplomats, in addition to those who staff their embassies there. Consequently, it is estimated that the Austrian capital today hosts nearly 20,000 foreign diplomats, which is a substantial number for such a small country with a permanent population of less than 9 million. Experts believe that around half of these foreign diplomats are in fact connected to a foreign intelligence agency.

But in a rare public appearance on Thursday, Peter Gridling, head of Austria’s main counterintelligence agency, said that Vienna no longer topped the list of preferred destinations for the world’s spies. Gridling heads the Vienna-based Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known as BVT. He was speaking during the official presentation of the BVT’s annual Constitutional Protection Report for 2017, which was held at the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior. Gridling told reporters that the number of foreign intelligence operatives pretending to be diplomats posted in the Austrian capital remained significant, and that Austria as a whole was still “a favored area of operations” by the world’s intelligence agencies. However, he added that Vienna had now been overtaken by the Belgian capital Brussels as the spy capital of Europe. Gridling said that, according to his agency’s calculations, there was now a greater density of spies in Brussels than in any other European capital.

Gridling thus appears to concur with numerous intelligence experts and practitioners, among them Alain Winants, former Director of Belgium’s State Security Service (SV/SE), who have claimed since 2009 that Brussels is home to more spies than any other city in the world. When asked to specify the number of foreign intelligence operatives that are active in Vienna, Gridling said it was “in the neighborhood of hundreds of people, but certainly fewer than 1,000”. The Austrian counterintelligence chief declined calls to provide further elaboration on the mater.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 June 2018 | Permalink