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

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German spies dismiss US warnings about Huawei threat to 5G network

Huawei 2German intelligence officials appear to be dismissing Washington’s warning that it will limit security cooperation with Berlin if China’s Huawei Telecommunications is allowed to build Germany’s 5G network. The company, Huawei Technologies, is a private Chinese venture and one of the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturers. In recent years, however, it has come under scrutiny by some Western intelligence agencies, who view it as being too close to the Communist Party of China. More recently, Washington has intensified an international campaign to limit Huawei’s ability to build the infrastructure for 5G, the world’s next-generation wireless network. Along with Britain, Australia and Canada, the US is concerned that the Chinese telecommunications giant may facilitate global wiretapping on behalf of Beijing’s spy agencies.

In the past several months the United States has repeatedly warned Germany that intelligence sharing between the two countries will be threatened if the Chinese telecommunications giant is awarded a 5G contract by the German government. In March, Washington informed German officials that intelligence cooperation between the two allies would be severely impacted if Chinese telecommunications manufacturers were given the green light to build Germany’s 5G infrastructure. The warning was allegedly included in a letter to Peter Altmaier, Germany’s Minister of Economic Affairs and Energy, written by Ambassador Richard Grenell, America’s top diplomat in Germany. The letter urged the German government to consider rival bids by companies belonging to American allies, such as the Swedish telecommunications equipment manufacturer Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia Corporation, or the South Korean Samsung Corporation.

But a report by Bloomberg on Wednesday said that German authorities were not convinced by Grenell’s argument. Citing “four people with knowledge on the matter”, the news agency said that Germany’s intelligence community see Washington’s warnings as “political grandstanding”. The US and Germany “need each other’s resources to tackle global conflicts” and “rely on each other too much to risk jeopardizing crucial data sharing”, said the report. The anonymous officials told Bloomberg that Germany does benefit from America’s “vast array” of intelligence. However, German spy agencies also provide their American counterparts with crucial intelligence from several regions of the world, they said. The US Department of State did not comment on the Bloomberg report. The Chinese government has repeatedly dismissed allegations that Huawei poses an espionage threat to Western nations.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 April 2019 | Permalink

US warns Germany it will end intelligence sharing if Huawei is given 5G contract

US embassy Berlin GermanyThe United States has warned Germany that intelligence sharing between the two countries will be threatened if the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is awarded a contract to build Germany’s 5G network. The company, Huawei Technologies, is a private Chinese venture and one of the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturers. In recent years, however, it has come under scrutiny by some Western intelligence agencies, who view it as being too close to the Communist Party of China. More recently, Washington has intensified an international campaign to limit Huawei’s ability to build the infrastructure for 5G, the world’s next-generation wireless network. Along with Britain, Australia and Canada, the US is concerned that the Chinese telecommunications giant may facilitate global wiretapping on behalf of Beijing’s spy agencies.

But some American allies, including Spain, France and Germany, are not satisfied with Washington’s arguments and claim that the United States is eyeing the financial benefits that would arguably come from its domination of the global digital superhighway. German officials, in particular, have told their American counterparts that Berlin has not seen any evidence that Huawei’s telecommunications hardware come with hidden interception features. Moreover, Germany says that it plans to subject Huawei’s systems to rigorous security tests before using them. On Friday, Washington increased its pressure on Berlin by informing German officials that intelligence cooperation between the two allies would be severely impacted if Chinese telecommunications manufacturers are given the green light to build Germany’s 5G infrastructure.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the warning was included in a letter signed by Ambassador Richard Grenell, America’s top diplomat in Germany. It was allegedly sent to Peter Altmaier, Germany’s Minister of Economic Affairs and Energy. The paper says that Grenell suggests in his letter that Berlin should consider rival bids by companies belonging to American allies, such as the Swedish telecommunications equipment manufacturer Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia Corporation, or the South Korean Samsung Corporation, which is the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturer. The Wall Street Journal did not reveal how it acquired Grenell’s letter, nor did it say whether the German government responded to it.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 12 March 2019 | Permalink

German far-right party wins lawsuit against domestic intelligence agency

BfV GermanyGermany’s largest far-right party, Alternative for Germany, has won a lawsuit against the country’s domestic intelligence agency, which is now barred from collecting intelligence on the group’s activities. Known by its German initials AfD, which stand for Alternative für Deutschland, the party was founded in 2013 on an anti-immigration, Eurosceptic, German-nationalist, and in some cases pro-Russian, platform. In 2017 it became the third-largest political party in the country after winning 94 seats in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament. Since the two leading parties formed a governing alliance, the AfD is currently Germany’s official parliamentary opposition.

Last year, however, government officials warned that elements within the AfD were actively organizing to subvert the German constitution and expressed concern about the AfD’s political views. In January of this year, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s primary domestic security agency, publicly announced that it would designate the AfD as a “test case” organization. According to German law, a group or organization can be designated as a “test case” when it displays “extremist elements” in its behavior, which may indicate that it “poses a threat to the constitutional order”. Once a group or organization is designated as a “test case”, the BfV is legally permitted to monitor open-source information about it. It is not allowed to resort to other methods of intelligence collection, including conducting human intelligence operations, employing informants, etc.

Shortly after the BfV disclosed the AfD’s “test case” designation, the far-right party sued the security agency, claiming that its “test case” designation amounted to public defamation. On Tuesday, Cologne’s Administrative Court ruled that the BfV had unfairly designated the AfD as a “test case” by relying on little more than “fragments of suspicion”. The court also found that the public designation of the AfD as a “test case” had unfairly defamed the party and could have a serious negative effect on its electoral performance by giving “a negative public impression”. The court decision is seen as a major symbolic victory for the far-right party ahead of several regional elections this year, in which the AfD hopes to defeat Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 February 2019 | Permalink

German chancellor inaugurates world’s largest spy agency headquarters in Berlin

BND GermanyThe chancellor of Germany has officially inaugurated the largest headquarters of any spy agency in the world. Last Friday, Angela Merkel led the public ceremony that marked the opening of the Zentrale des Bundesnachrichtendienstes, which is the new headquarters of the German Federal Intelligence Service. Known by the initials BND, the agency operates as Germany’s primary foreign intelligence service. It employs close to 7,000 people in more than 300 locations around the world, and its annual budget is approximately €1 billion ($1.13 billion).

Until recently, the BND was headquartered in the outskirts Munich, in the southern German state of Bavaria. But as of last week, the spy agency has officially moved to its new headquarters in downtown Berlin. The massive new complex is located in the German capital’s affluent Mitte district, just a stone’s throw from a section of what used to be the Berlin War —a major symbol of the Cold War. The new complex spans 3 million sq. ft., making it the largest headquarters of any intelligence agency in the world. The United States Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters at Langley, Virginia, comes a close second. Construction on the site in Mitte began in 2006 and was initially scheduled for completion in 2011, but was finally finished in 2017, 12 years after it began. It cost approximately €1 billion ($1.13 billion). British newspaper The Guardian reports that the new complex consists of 20,000 tons of steel and has 14,000 windows and 12,000 doors. The land on which the new BND headquarters is built used to be the site of police barracks, until it was heavily damaged by bombing carried out by the Allied forces in 1945. Following the partition of Germany, East German authorities built a sports complex and stadium on the site, which was demolished in 1999, in preparation for Germany’s unsuccessful bid to host the 2000 Summer Olympic Games.

According to reports in the German media, just over 3,000 BND employees have already relocated from Munich to the new BND headquarters, while another 800 are expected to relocate there in the coming year. During her speech on Friday, Chancellor Merkel said that the world was becoming “increasingly confusing”, which made the need for a “strong and efficient [German] foreign intelligence service […] more urgent than ever”. Interestingly, the new complex features a sizeable visitor’s center that is open to the public, making the BND the world’s first foreign intelligence agency with a public-access visitors’ facility.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 February 2019 | Permalink

New clues may help locate lost intelligence files from 1938 French-British-Nazi pact

Neville Chamberlain Nearly 2,000 missing British intelligence files relating to the so-called Munich Agreement, a failed attempt by Britain, France and Italy to appease Adolf Hitler in 1938, may not have been destroyed, according to historians. On September 30, 1938, the leaders of France, Britain and Italy signed a peace treaty with the Nazi government of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. The treaty, which became known as the Munich Agreement, gave Hitler de facto control of Czechoslovakia’s German-speaking areas, in return for him promising to resign from territorial claims against other countries, such as Poland and Hungary. Hours after the treaty was formalized, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrived by airplane at an airport near London, and boldly proclaimed that he had secured “peace for our time” (pictured above). Contrary to Chamberlain’s expectations, however, the German government was emboldened by what it saw as attempts to appease it, and promptly proceeded to invade Poland, thus firing the opening shots of World War II in Europe.

For many decades, British historians researching the Munich Agreement have indicated the absence of approximately 1,750 intelligence reports dating from May to December 1938. The missing files cover the most crucial period immediately prior and immediately after the Munich Agreement. They are believed to contain transcripts of German and other foreign diplomatic communications, which were intercepted by the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), Britain’s signals intelligence agency at the time. In 1947, the documents were passed on to the GC&CS’s successor agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). But they subsequently disappeared, giving rise to numerous theories as to how and why. Some historians have theorized that the documents were deliberately destroyed by British officials shortly after the end of World War II. The move allegedly aimed to protect Britain’s international reputation and prevent a possible exploitation by the Soviet Union, which sharply criticized the West’s appeasement of Hitler in the run-up to the war. Another popular theory is that they were destroyed by senior civil servants connected to the Conservative Party —to which Chamberlain belonged— in order to prevent the opposition Labour Party from capitalizing on what many saw as a betrayal of British interests in September 1938 by the Conservative administration in London.

For a long time, the GCHQ’s official historians have strongly contested the view that the documents were deliberately destroyed. Now, according to The Independent newspaper, historians have found that the missing documents were still listed in GCHQ archive indexes in as late as 1968, a full 30 years after the Munich Agreement was signed. At that time it is believed that the files were temporarily transferred to another British government department in order to be used as references in an internal report about the Munich Agreement. It is very likely, some historians now say, that the documents were simply never returned to GCHQ. It is therefore possible that they may be stored in the archives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Ministry of Defence. This new clue, according to The Independent, substantially lessens the possibility that the documents may have been removed or destroyed for political reasons.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 October 2018 | Permalink

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