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

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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

Germany drops espionage case against senior Swiss intelligence official

Paul ZinnikerGermany has dropped a criminal case against the second-in-command of Switzerland’s intelligence agency, who was accused by Berlin of authorizing an espionage operation against the German tax collection service. A year ago, Germany launched an unprecedented investigation into three senior officials of Switzerland’s intelligence agency, the Federal Intelligence Service (NDB). The probe was launched on suspicion that the Swiss officials masterminded a spy operation against German tax investigators who were probing the activities of Swiss banks. The German probe was launched three months after authorities in Germany arrested a Swiss intelligence officer, identified only as “Daniel M.”, for engaging in espionage on German soil.

The German government believes that billions of euros have been deposited by its citizens in banking institutions in European tax-havens like Liechtenstein, Switzerland or Monaco. For the past decade, German authorities have resorted to bribing whistleblowers in offshore banks in order to acquire internal documents that reveal the identities of German citizens who are hiding their money in foreign bank accounts. It is estimated that over a hundred million dollars have been paid to whistleblowers by German authorities since 2006. The latter argue that the proceeds collected from unpaid taxes and fines more than justify the payments made out to whistleblowers. But the Swiss government has strongly criticized Berlin for encouraging Swiss banking sector employees to steal internal corporate information that often breaks Switzerland’s stringent privacy laws. It is believed that the NDB has been instructed by the Swiss government to monitor efforts by German tax-fraud investigators to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector.

The man identified as “Daniel M.” appears to be one of several Swiss spies who have been collecting information on the activities of German tax investigators. For a while it appeared that German counterintelligence officials were intent on targeting Paul Zinniker (pictured), Deputy Director of the NDB. They claimed that Zinniker was the main support officer of the operation that “Daniel M.” was participating in when he was arrested in Germany in 2017. According to the Germans, it was Zinniker’s who conceived the operation in 2011. But on Monday a spokesman for Germany’s federal prosecutor told the Swiss News Agency that Berlin dropped the case against Zinniker back in June. The revelation came less than 48 hours after a report in the Sunday edition of the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung claimed that the charges against Zinniker would be dropped. According to the German federal prosecutor’s office, the case against the Swiss spy official was dropped because of the lack of cooperation by Swiss authorities, which made it impossible to prove that Zinniker was indeed the mastermind of the espionage operation against Berlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 September 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

Germany arrests Jordanian intelligence operative who spied on mosque

Hildesheim mosqueAuthorities in Germany announced yesterday the arrest of a German national who is accused of spying on a central German mosque on behalf of Jordan, according to media reports. The man was reportedly arrested on Tuesday at an unknown location by officers of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). In a press statement, the agency said the man is a 33-year-old German national named “Alexander B.”. German privacy rules forbid the public identification of crime suspects prior to their conviction in a court of law.

According to the public statement issued by the BfV, the 33-year-old man is believed to have worked for “a Jordanian intelligence agency” —most likely the Jordanian General Intelligence Department, or GID, which is a branch of the Jordanian Armed Forces— since at least 2016. He is accused of having infiltrated a Sunni mosque in the central German city of Hildesheim, located 20 miles southeast of Hanover in Germany’s Lower Saxony region. His mission, according to the BfV, was to keep tabs on mosque goers who expressed support for the ideology of the Islamic State, and might even consider traveling to the Middle East to join the radical group. The alleged Jordanian intelligence operative was also tasked with reporting on news reaching the mosque from those of its members who had already gone to the Middle East and joined the Islamic State.

Last year, German authorities closed down the Hildesheim mosque, known in German as Deutschsprachiger Islamkreis Hildesheim e. V. (DIK), and arrested its imam, Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah A., known as Abu Walaa. The Iraqi-born imam was charged with supporting a foreign terrorist organization by actively recruiting young Muslims on behalf of the Islamic State. The mosque has since remained closed, because authorities believe that it had become a beehive of fundamentalist activity. Jordan is one of the Middle East’s most liberal states and has been targeted repeatedly by the Islamic State, which views its leadership as pro-Western. However, it appears that Alexander B. was spying on the Hildesheim mosque —therefore on German soil— without having informed the host country of his activities. The government of Jordan has not commented on his arrest.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 09 August 2018 | Permalink