German spycatchers raise game against China and Russia

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With a spate of high-profile arrests of suspected Chinese and Russian spies in recent days, Germany’s counter-intelligence agents, once criticised for their lack of mettle, may have come in from the cold. 

On Tuesday morning, German police swooped on Jian Guo, a staffer working in the European parliament, accused by prosecutors of spying for China.

On Monday, three German citizens, including a husband and wife, were picked up in the western German state of Nordrhein-Westfalen on suspicions of trying to sell sensitive military technology to Beijing.

And just last Thursday, two men were taken into custody in Bavaria for allegedly plotting to bomb military and logistical sites in Germany on behalf of the Russians. 

In all three cases, the most recent in a series of high-profile operations, the role played by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, was crucial. 

“Our security authorities, especially the [BfV], have massively strengthened their counter-espionage efforts,” Germany’s interior minister Nancy Faeser said in a statement following Guo’s arrest on Tuesday. “The current investigatory successes show that.” 

Police enter an apartment building in Dresden for a search after an employee of a German MEP was arrested on suspicion of spying for China © Robert Michael/Avalon

Haunted by past scandals, hobbled by strong federalisation, and limited by strict legal curbs on intrusive surveillance and information gathering, the BfV was for years regarded warily at home and by partner agencies abroad. 

Its recent results point to hostile states more willing to aggressively pursue their goals on European soil than at any time since the cold war, and an effort to better combat them that has been years in the making, German government officials note. 

“We are now discussing new forms by authoritarian states to influence and destabilise our democracy on an almost daily basis,” Konstantin von Notz, the chair of the German parliament’s powerful intelligence committee, which oversees the BfV, told the Financial Times.

“We are currently only seeing the tip of the iceberg. One must assume that hundreds of spies are up to mischief in Germany.”

For Thomas Haldenwang, the BfV’s president, the writing has been on the wall for some years.

Foreign spies, he told a conference hosted by his agency on Monday, “[will] use all means possible [against us]: espionage and cyber attacks, influence and disinformation, proliferation and sabotage, and state terrorism”.

German interior minister Nancy Faeser, right, pictured with Thomas Haldenwang, centre, says the country’s ‘security authorities . . . have massively strengthened their counter-espionage efforts’ © Omer Messinger/Getty Images

Haldenwang often talks of his agency as being an “early warning system”.

Whereas Chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed a Zeitenwende — a turning point — in German security policy after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the BfV has been quietly assessing growing threats from foreign spies for at least a decade and deploying resources accordingly. 

Haldenwang, who took over the agency in 2018, has presided over a period of big internal change. 

Between the end of the cold war and 2014, the BfV’s number of staff was practically static. In the decade since, however, it nearly doubled, rising from 2,700 to 4,300. Additions to its fourth department — which handles counter-intelligence and cyber — have been particularly large. 

Under Haldenwang’s leadership, co-operation and ties with other intelligence agencies in allied countries have become a priority.

A European security official who regularly works with the BfV said the sharing of classified information between services on the continent was now “absolutely vital to almost every successful action that has been taken [against Russia and China]”. 

Haldenwang’s management style also contrasts that of his predecessor. Politicians who work with him say he is diligent, unassuming and focused on detail and steady progress, rather than grandstanding.

Tellingly, Haldenwang prefers to spend his time in Cologne with his lieutenants.

Hans-Georg Maassen, who ran the agency from 2012 to 2018, preferred operating from the BfV’s satellite headquarters in Berlin, where he could network with ministers and politicians. 

Since taking over, he has reversed Maassen’s scepticism towards aggressively investigating far-right activity. Maassen now finds himself under investigation by Haldenwang’s agents, under suspicion of being a right-wing extremist. Maassen has described the probe as “insubstantial and unjustified”. 

An open question remains about the BfV’s relationship with its sister agency, the BND, which is tasked with collecting foreign intelligence for Berlin.

The BND — once criticised by its own former chief August Hanning as “the vegetarian among the secret services” for its dovishness — has come under repeated criticism for its failures regarding Russia in particular.

When Moscow’s full-scale invasion against its neighbour began on February 24 2022, the agency’s current chief, Bruno Kahl, found himself stuck in a traffic jam for 36 hours trying to flee from Kyiv. The BND had not believed an attack was imminent, despite repeated warnings from the US and UK.

A senior BND employee, Carsten L., was arrested last year following an investigation by the BfV on suspicion of spying for the Kremlin. His trial began in December.

Information against Carsten L. also came from abroad.

“As European democracies, we must act together,” said von Notz. “We must co-ordinate our efforts even more internationally.”

The threat posed by China and Russian espionage was Europe-wide, he noted, and could not be tackled by any agency acting in isolation: “We are following the developments in the UK and the recent exposure of Chinese spies there very closely.”

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