Germany’s ruling coalition in ‘permanent crisis mode’ over far-right spy row

Hans-Georg MaassenGermany’s fragile ruling coalition continues to face strong criticism two days after removing the country’s domestic intelligence chief over concerns that he may harbor far-right sympathies. Hans-Georg Maassen, a career civil servant, led Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) from August 2012 until his removal on Thursday of this week. His hasty removal from the BfV was caused by the so-called Chemnitz protests, a series of prolonged anti-immigrant rallies, pogroms and riots that shook the east German city of Chemnitz in the last week of August of this year. They were prompted by news of the death of a German man, reportedly during a fight with two Kurdish immigrants. Videos of the protests surfaced on social media, showing participants throwing Nazi salutes, singing Nazi-era German songs and chasing people perceived to be immigrants in the streets of Chemnitz.

The controversy deepened when Maassen appeared to dispute the authenticity of the videos in an interview. The BfV director warned that the videos may have been faked as part of a disinformation campaign aimed at stirring racial tensions in Germany. The spy chief’s motives were questioned, however, when several investigative reporters, among them a team from the German public broadcaster association ARD, insisted that the videos were genuine and were posted online by people with real —not fake— accounts. Eventually Maassen became the focus of the story, as accusations surfaced that he may have leaked BfV documents to far-right activists and that he may even have coached them on how to evade government surveillance. The claims reignited widespread fears that members of Germany’s security and intelligence agencies may harbor sympathies for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), a coalition of Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant and neo-Nazi groups that has gained prominence since its establishment in 2013. Currently, the AfD is Germany’s third-largest party, having received nearly 13% of the vote in the 2017 federal elections. The AfD is also the country’s main opposition party in the Bundestag, since the two leading parties, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the liberal Social Democratic Party (SPD), are members of the governing coalition.

Following nearly two weeks of controversy, the German Chancellery announced on Thursday that Maassen would be removed from head of the BfV and would serve instead as second in command in the Federal Ministry of the Interior. The decision was seen as a difficult compromise between the three members of the governing coalition —the liberals of the SPD, who wanted Maassen fired, and the conservatives of the CSU and its Bavarian wing, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, who are in favor of tighter immigration policies. But the controversy surrounding Maassen continues in light of news that the former spy chief will see his income rise in his new post. In a report from Berlin, the Reuters news agency described Maassen’s reassignment as “a clumsy compromise” that highlighted the “dysfunctional relationship” of the three “loveless partners” in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fragile governing coalition. One critic, SPD Secretary General Lars Klingbeil, told the news agency that the Maassen controversy had caused the government to “slide into a permanent crisis mode”. Meanwhile the name of Maassen’s replacement at the helm of the BfV has not yet been announced.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 September 2018 | Permalink

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German far-right group is arming itself, poses serious threat, report warns

ReichsbuergerAdherents of a bizarre far-right movement in Germany, who claim to be citizens of Prussia, are arming themselves and pose a growing security threat, says a new report by the country’s domestic spy service. The members of the movement call themselves Reichsbuerger (“citizens of the Reich”) and reject the legitimacy of the Federal Republic of Germany. Instead of the modern-day German state, which emerged in 1990 from the union of East and West Germany, Reichsbuergers swear allegiance to the Deutsches Reich (German Reich), the Nazi German state that existed between 1933 and 1945. They also claim that the Deutsches Reich, which they occasionally refer to as Prussia, continues to exist in its pre-1945 state and is still governed by a provisional government in exile.

In some cases, Reichsbuerger adherents have contacted foreign embassies in Berlin and asked to be recognized as citizens of the Third Reich, but without success. In addition, some Reichsbuerger associations issue Deutsches Reich identification cards and Deutsches Reich car license plates. But these are dismissed as “fantastical” by German authorities, who have historically refused to take Reichsbuerger adherents seriously. But now the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s main domestic security agency, has said that the Reichsbuerger movement is growing and needs to be viewed as a potential security threat. According to the BfV’s annual report, which was published on Tuesday, the Reichsbuerger movement has grown by more than 65 percent since 2016 and currently consists of approximately 20,000 committed members.

In its report, the BfV notes that the numerical growth of Reichsbuerger adherents may be partly attributed to the heightened attention that German authorities have been paying to far-right organizations in recent years. The agency also states that only about five percent of Reichsbuergers may be described as violent or potentially violent extremists. However, violent Reichsbuergers have risen from 500 in 2016 to 900 in 2017, an 80% increase in a year, according to the report. Moreover, says the BfV, many core members of the Reichsbuerger movement maintain close contacts with German far-right criminal networks, whose members include current and former supporters of the National Socialist Underground (NSU). Earlier this month, several NSU members were found guilty of having participated in 10 politically motivated killings of immigrants between 2000 and 2007. The BfV report states that Reichsbuergers increasingly view the NSU’s violent acts as examples to follow, and that they are systematically attempting –and usually succeeding– to obtain gun licenses. In a report published earlier this year, the BfV had warned that the Reichsbuerger movement was trying to build an army.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 July 2018 | Permalink

German intelligence chief says Russia tried to hack energy grid

BfV GermanyThe head of Germany’s domestic security agency has publicly blamed the Russian government for a large-scale cyberattack that has targeted German energy providers. The comments follow a June 13 announcement on the subject by Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), which is charged with securing the German government’s electronic communications. According to the BSI, a widespread and systematic attack against Germany’s energy networks has been taking place for at least a year now. The attack, which the BSI codenamed BERSERK BEAR, consists of various efforts by hackers to compromise computer networks used by German companies that provide electricity and natural gas to consumers around the country.

The attacks have been mostly unsuccessful, said BSI, having managed to breach just a few office computer networks. Energy grids have remained largely unaffected by BERSERK BEAR, said BSI. But the agency has refused to disclose information about the extent of the alleged cyberattacks and the companies that were targeted. It claims, however, that the situation is now “under control”. On Wednesday, Hans-Georg Maassen, director of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) said in an interview that the Russian government was most likely behind the attacks. There were “numerous clues pointing to Russia”, said Maassen, including the method with which the attack was carried out. The “modus operandi” of the attackers “is a major indicator that points to Russian control of the offensive campaign”, said Maassen.

Earlier this month, the United States imposed for the first time economic sanctions on Russian companies that allegedly helped the Kremlin tap undersea communications cables used by Western countries. One of the companies was identified by the US Department of the Treasury as Digital Security, which Washington said has helped Russian intelligence agencies develop their offensive cyber capabilities. Two of Digital Security’s subsidiaries, Embedi and ERPScan, were also placed on the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list. But the Kremlin fervently denies these accusations. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the office of the Russian presidency said that Moscow had “no idea what [Maassen] was talking about”. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters in the Russian capital that Germany and other countries “should provide facts” to justify their accusations against Moscow.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 June 2018 | Permalink

German spy chief warns against Chinese investment in German hi-tech firms

Hans-Georg MaassenThe head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has warned of security risks resulting from Chinese direct investment in high-technology German and other European companies. Since 2012, Hans-Georg Maassen has served as director of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic security and counterintelligence agency. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Maassen said his agency had noticed an inverse correlation between cyber-espionage attacks on Germany by Chinese actors and the acquisition of German technology firms by Chinese companies. German counter-intelligence officials were puzzled, he said, about a dramatic reduction in Chinese cyber-espionage activities in 2016. But they eventually realized that cyber-espionage operations had been replaced by “lawful methods”, he said, such as direct takeovers of German hi-tech firms by Chinese companies.

The purpose of these takeovers was “to gain access to German technical know-how”, added Maassen. He went on to say that “industrial cyberespionage is no longer needed if an actor can simply exploit liberal economic regulations to buy companies, and then proceed to disembowel them, essentially cannibalize them, to gain access to their know-how”. The spy chief noted that Germany did not object to foreign investment and the free flow of capital from all countries, including China. However, he added, “certain direct investments in specific technologies can compromise domestic security”. Maassen mentioned several examples in his presentation, including the takeover of Kuka, a German robotics firm, by a Chinese investor in 2016. He said that in the past few months alone, Chinese companies have attempted to purchase stakes in 50Hertz, a German energy grid operator, German car manufacturer Daimler, and Cotesa, a German aerospace contractor.

In response to a question from a journalist about policy coordination between Germany and the European Union, Maassen said that Germany, France and Italy have been pressuring Brussels to update and modernize its screening procedures against foreign takeovers of companies that are involved in manufacturing and selling “sensitive technologies”. He noted that a new EU-wide screening mechanism should be in place by the end of 2018.

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

North Korea used Berlin embassy to acquire nuclear tech, says German spy chief

North Korean embassy in BerlinNorth Korea used its embassy in Berlin to acquire technologies that were almost certainly used to advance its missile and nuclear weapons programs, according to the head of Germany’s counterintelligence agency. For many decades, Pyongyang has used a sophisticated international system of procurement to acquire technologies and material for its conventional and nuclear weapons programs. These secret methods have enabled the country to evade sanctions placed on it by the international community, which wants to foil North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.

But according to Hans-Georg Maassen, director of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), at least some of the technologies used by North Korea to advance its nuclear program were acquired through its embassy in Berlin. Maassen admitted this during an interview on ARD television, part of Germany’s national broadcasting service. The interview will be aired on Monday evening, but selected excerpts were published on Saturday on the website of NDR, Germany’s national radio broadcaster. Maassen was vague about the nature of the technology that the North Koreans acquired through their embassy in Berlin. But he said that North Korean diplomats and intelligence officers with diplomatic credentials engaged in acquiring so-called “dual use” technologies, which have both civilian and military uses. These, said Maassen, were acquired “with a view to [North Korea’s] missile program and sometimes also for the nuclear program”.

Maassen noted that the BfV had evidence of North Korean diplomats in Berlin attempting to procure dual use technologies as late as 2016 and 2017. “When we notice such actions, we prevent them”, said the BfV director, adding that in 2014 his agency prevented a North Korean diplomat from acquiring equipment that could have been used to develop chemical weapons. However, “we simply cannot guarantee that we are able to detect and block each and every attempt”, said Maassen.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 February 2018 | Permalink

German intelligence warns European officials of fake Chinese LinkedIn profiles

BfV GermanyIn an unusual step, German intelligence officials have issued a public warning about what they said are thousands of fake LinkedIn profiles created by Chinese spies to gather information about Western targets. On Sunday, Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) held a press conference in which it said that it had discovered a wide-ranging effort by spy agencies in China to establish links with Westerners. The agency said that it undertook a 9-month investigation, during which it identified 10,000 German citizens who were contacted by Chinese spy-run fake profiles on LinkedIn. Across Europe, the number of targets could be in the hundreds of thousands, according to the BfV.

The main targets of the operation appear to be members of the German and European Union parliaments. Also targeted are members of the armed forces, lobbyists and researchers in private think tanks and foundations in Germany and across Europe. These individuals were all targeted as part of “a broad attempt to infiltrate Parliaments, ministries and administrations”, said BfV Director Hans-Georg Maassen. He added that the fake LinkedIn profiles are of people who claim to be scholars, consultants, recruiters for non-existent firms, or members of think tanks. Their profile photographs are usually visually appealing and are often taken from fashion catalogs or modeling websites. During the press conference BfV officials showed examples of what they said were fake LinkedIn accounts under the names “Rachel Li” and “Alex Li”. The two identified themselves as a headhunter for a company called RiseHR and a project manager at the Center for Sino-Europe Development Studies, respectively. The information on these accounts was purely fictitious, said the BfV officials.

Individuals who have been targeted by the Chinese include European politicians and senior diplomats, according to the Germans. Many were invited to all-expenses-paid conferences or fact-finding trips to China by their LinkedIn contacts, presumably in attempts to recruit them for Chinese intelligence. At the closing of the press conference, the BfV urged European officials to refrain from posting private information on social media, including LinkedIn, because foreign intelligence operatives are actively collecting data on users’ online and offline habits, political affiliations, personal hobbies and other interests. In a statement issued on Monday, the Chinese government dismissed the German allegations, saying that the BfV’s investigation was based on “complete hearsay” and was thus “groundless”. Beijing also urged German intelligence officials to “speak and act more responsibly”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 December 2017 | Permalink

German spy officials dismiss calls to create European intelligence agency

European UnionGermany’s two most senior intelligence officials have dismissed suggestions by European officials and leaders, including the president of France, to create a Europe-wide intelligence agency. The numerous deadly attacks carried out by Islamic State supporters across Europe in recent years have given rise to calls from various quarters for the establishment of a new intelligence service that would combine resources from every member-state of the European Union. Last month, the European Union’s Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said that the time had come for Europe to be “ambitious and bold, to overcome the security taboos of the past and finally work in order to build a European intelligence system”. He went on to say that, had there been sufficient “cooperation, information sharing and exchanging” between the various European intelligence services, “maybe some of these tragic events could have been predicted and prevented”. Avramopoulos’ remarks were echoed last week by France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron. Speaking at Sorbonne University in Paris, France’s head of state said that the creation of a European Intelligence Agency would “strengthen links between our countries” and prevent emerging security threats.

But these calls were rebuffed this week in Berlin, where Germany’s two most senior intelligence officials rejected any and all calls for the creation of a European intelligence service. The officials are Bruno Kahl, director of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, and Hans-Georg Maaßen, who heads the country’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, known as the BfV. The two men spoke before a special session of the Intelligence Oversight Committee of the German Federal Parliament, known as the Bundestag. The BND’s Kahl said Europe already had an intelligence-based early-warning center, known as the European Union Intelligence and Situation Center (EU INTCEN). He argued that there was “no need for a European intelligence agency or any other supplemental Europe-wide intelligence organization” and added that “intelligence is better organized on the national level”. He was backed by BfV’s Maaßen, who warned that the creation of a European intelligence service would “create additional bureaucratic structures, both on the European and domestic levels”, which would “profoundly lower our efficiency”.

The two German intelligence officials said that cooperation between European Union member-states had improved substantially in the past few years, and that the current model of bilateral exchange was “the most efficient […] and quickest way to share information”. The current system of inter-agency coordination would be weakened if a European intelligence service was created, according to the two men.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 October | Permalink