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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British commander in Iraq contradicts US assessment of increased Iranian threat

Christopher GhikaThe most senior British military officer in the war against the Islamic State contradicted American assessments of a heightened threat from Iran, prompting an unusually strong rebuke from Washington. Last week, the White House ordered the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group to sail to Middle Eastern waters, following intelligence showing that “Iran or its proxies were planning attacks against US forces in Iraq, Syria and at sea”.

On Tuesday, however, this view appeared to be challenged by Major General Christopher Ghika, Britain’s most senior military official in the Middle East, who is deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). The OIR umbrella brings together all pro-Western forces that are fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. General Ghika spoke to American reporters at the US Department of Defense via a live video-link from Baghdad, where he is currently stationed as OIR deputy commander. In responding to questions by reporters about alleged threats to Western forces from Iran or its proxies, General Ghika said that the OIR forces were “aware of that presence [or Iranian-led Shia militia groups in Iraq and Syria], clearly. And we monitor them along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we are in”. However, added the general, “no, there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria”.

British newspaper The Guardian, which published General Ghika’s comments on Tuesday, noted that his statements appeared to directly contradict Washington’s claims of a heightened Iranian threat in the region. But in a statement released on Tuesday night local time, the US Central Command CENTCOM, whose responsibilities include the Middle East and Central Asia theaters, rejected General Ghika’s comments. “Recent comments from OIR’s Deputy Commander run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region”, said the statement. The Guardian described CENTCOM’s statement as “particularly striking” and “an extraordinary rebuke of an allied senior [military] officer”. The British Ministry of Defense had not responded to CENTCOM’s statement by Wednesday morning.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 May 2019 | Permalink

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

European Union agrees to establish joint intelligence training school

PESCO EUTwenty-five members of the European Union have agreed to establish a joint intelligence training academy, a move interpreted by some as a concrete effort to deepen inter-European security cooperation following Brexit. The announcement came just hours after leading EU heads of state spoke in favor of establishing a joint EU defense force. Calls for tighter cooperation between EU members in the areas of defense and security have been issued for decades. But the upcoming departure of Britain from the EU —popularly known as Brexit— has prompted Germany and France to propose deeper integration as a response to the rise of anti-EU sentiment across the continent.

The decision to establish a joint intelligence training school was approved on Monday by the ministers of defense and foreign affairs of 25 EU members. It was part of a wider agreement involving 16 other joint defense and security projects under the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) pact. The pact was first agreed on in September of 2017, and has since been functioning under the supervision of the European Defense Agency and the External Action Service —the diplomatic service of the EU. Nearly 20 projects of a military or security nature have since been signed under PESCO. Monday’s agreement virtually doubled the PESCO projects in existence. The new EU intelligence academy initiative will be led by Greece —an EU member since 1981— and will be headquartered in Cyprus, which joined the EU in 2004. When it becomes operational, the academy will provide “education and training in intelligence disciplines and other specific fields to EU member states’ intelligence personnel”, according to a joint PESCO communique issued on Monday.

The new intelligence school will work in cooperation with the individual intelligence agencies of the 25 co-signatory states, along with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and with other regional security bodies, said PESCO. However, three EU states, namely Denmark, Malta and the United Kingdom, refused to support the project. Denmark and Malta are not participants in PESCO, while the United Kingdom is expected to leave the EU in March of next year. However, even before Brexit, London had vetoed the idea of closer EU intelligence cooperation, which it saw as a potential competitor to the so-called Five Eyes alliance, a postwar intelligence pact between the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Additionally, despite the overwhelming support for the intelligence academy by EU officials, it remains to be seen whether it will be realized. Observers told Politico on Monday that many other PESCO projects have “yet to get much beyond the drawing board” since their announcement last year.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 November 2018 | Research credit: K.A. | Permalink

 

Poisoned Russian spy advised Spanish intelligence, say officials

Sergei SkripalSergei Skripal, the Russian double agent who was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in England earlier this year, worked with Spanish intelligence after his defection to the United Kingdom, according to sources. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, had kept a low profile while living in the English town of Salisbury. He was resettled there in 2010 by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), after he was released from a Russian prison. But he and his daughter Yulia made international headlines in March, after they were poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, but the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

The attempt to kill Skripal surprised some intelligence observers due to the fact that the Russian government had officially pardoned the double agent prior to exchanging him with Russian spies who had been caught in the West. As intelNews wrote in May, “typically a spy who has been pardoned as part of an authorized spy-swap will not need to worry about being targeted by the agency that he betrayed. If it indeed tried to kill Skripal, the Russian government may therefore have broken the unwritten rules of the espionage game”. Eventually, however, it was revealed that, instead of retiring after his defection to the UK, Skripal traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, where he advised local intelligence agencies on how to defend against Russian espionage. The double agent participated in MI6-sponsored events in which he briefed intelligence practitioners in at least two countries, Estonia and the Czech Republic. These activities may have convinced the Kremlin that Skripal had broken the unwritten conditions of his release, namely that he would not participate in any intelligence-related activities against Russia.

Now The New York Times has claimed that, in addition to consulting for Czech and Estonian spies, Skripal also visited Spain, where he met with officers from the country’s National Intelligence Center (CNI). Citing an unnamed Spanish former police chief and Fernando Rueda, a Spanish intelligence expert, The Times said that Skripal advised the CNI about the activities of Russian organized crime in Spain and the alleged connections between Russian mobsters and the Kremlin. When he traveled to Spain under MI6 protection, said the paper, Skripal was effectively returning to the place where he had been initially recruited to spy for the British. Skripal spent several years in Spain, said The Times, serving as a military attaché at the Russian embassy in Madrid. It was there that he began to work secretly for MI6. However, the precise timing of Skripal’s return trips to Spain after 2010, as well as the content of his discussions with Spanish intelligence officials, remain unknown, according to The Times.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 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