A slow-simmering scandal in Austria has brought into public view potentially disastrous divisions among Western intelligence agencies. As far-right politicians have joined coalition governments in Austria and Italy and taken ministerial positions in charge of security and law enforcement, concerns have grown among intelligence professionals that they will ignore or even encourage the threat of violent ultra-right extremists.
The extreme right is now in charge of the interior ministries in both Vienna and Rome, putting conspicuous pressure on the intelligence services. In Austria, there have even been police raids on the homes and offices of top intelligence service staffers.
Already, at least some intelligence sharing between Germany and Austria appears to have been curtailed, and the relationship between Italy’s extreme-right-wing interior minister Matteo Salvini and other major European countries is severely, publicly strained. French President Emmanuel Macron last week likened the rise of such populists to “leprosy all across Europe.”
At the same time, these far-right politicians’ open friendliness toward Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the KGB veteran who may have helped some of them get elected, raises grave security issues for the NATO alliance. And the fact that right-wing U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be playing a similar game—trying to discredit U.S. intelligence professionals while flirting with Putin—greatly heightens the sense of alarm.
The rise of far-right parties across Europe and their control of intelligence agencies is a real cause for concern, says Mike Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and now the senior director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania.
Far-right groups and political parties across Europe have close ties to Russia and may be sponsored by the Kremlin. Some even have close links to Russian intelligence services, said Carpenter. So for these groups to head the intelligence services charged with protecting their countries from foreign meddling is “like the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Carpenter. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
It also has implications for the U.S. government. “On the intelligence side, it raises alarms because of the nature of the sensitive information we share with our allies and partners,” said Carpenter. “That’s something that could potentially compromise sources and methods.
“Take a look at some of these politicians who have now been put in front of intelligence services and ministries of the interior, dig into their backgrounds and see if any of them have links to Russia,” said Carpenter.
Affinity for Russia is a well-known feature of far-right groups across Europe. “There is a tendency among European far-right parties to idealize Russia as a white supremacist far-right state, though that’s not accurate,” said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But it is something that Russia has been happy to take advantage of.
“If there are people who like Russia in these organizations, there is an increased risk that this information could be passed to Russia,” said Oliker. But, she added, “There are all sorts of reasons to be concerned about far-right groups taking control of intel that have nothing to do with Russia. They tend to be high on repression and low on citizens’ rights.”
All this comes at an extremely delicate political moment. At a European Union summit at the end of this week, the big issue will be immigration, as the EU tries to devise a coherent policy after years of conflicting positions in the face of a flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Then, next month, Trump will likely meet Putin in Europe at roughly the same time he attends a NATO summit.
In the past, even when there were major political differences among allies (as there were, for instance, between the Americans and the French in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq), the cooperation among the professional intelligence agencies remained strong. But that may no longer be the case, according to several veteran intelligence sources.
“I don’t think it is just about the intelligence agencies and their relationships waxing or waning,” a former senior military commander and leader in the field of U.S. intelligence said in an email to The Daily Beast. “We’ve had challenges in the past when agencies persisted in keeping their heads in the sand over issues we thought quite clearly evident but which our counterparts found uncomfortable politically.
“Rather, this is about ultra-nationalist leaders with authoritarian leanings hijacking the institutions of state that used to provide checks and balances. And nothing fuels that better than an ‘external’ threat to one’s existence as a national culture, with all that follows. Needless to say, Hitler perfected this. And other would-be authoritarians are doing likewise.
“But the truth is that European countries really do need to come to grips with the unprecedented influx of refugees and immigrants of different ethnic and sectarian groupings and determine how to turn some away humanely and accept others without the country’s own sense of identity and culture being eroded.”
Two years ago, Patrick Calvar, the then-head of France’s General Directorate of Internal Security (DGSI), warned a commission at the National Assembly in Paris that European society was at a tipping point after the January 2015 massacres at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket, the November 2015 carnage at Paris cafés and the Bataclan concert hall and other incidents. And the problem was not just with Muslim terrorists, but with anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant extremists on what he called the “ultra-right.”
Calvar’s closed-door session with the parliamentary committee reportedly painted an extremely bleak picture: “We are on the verge of a civil war,” he said. His public testimony was hardly more optimistic. “Europe is in great danger,” Calvar said. “Extremism is rising all over and we are—we, the internal security services—are in the process of redeploying resources to focus on the ultra-right that is waiting for nothing but a confrontation.”
Also in 2016, German spy chief Hans-Georg Maassen warned that right-wing extremists in Germany were now networking with similar groups across Europe.
Just last weekend, 10 people were arrested in France under suspicion they were planning attacks on mosques, radical muslim leaders, and women wearing veils picked at random. Their website, called “Guerre de France,” or war for France, advocates preparation for the war to come, and not only against Muslims but against Jews as well.
In Italy, far-right politician Matteo Salvini now serves as head of Italy’s interior ministry, which handles internal security and terrorism. Salvini, who assumed office on June 1, previously has called for “mass cleansing, street by street, quarter by quarter” to get rid of migrants. One of his first acts as interior minister was to announce a census for the Roma minority, declaring that Roma without Italian citizenship would have to leave the country.
In Austria, the specific incident that has crystallized wider concerns in the world of espionage and counterespionage as well as counterterror was a series of raids ordered by the far-right interior minister earlier this year on the offices of the professional domestic intelligence chief, whose organization had in the past conducted and coordinated with Germany its surveillance of right-wing extremists.
Although there is no official confirmation, several reports indicate Germany has since quit sharing such sensitive information with Austria. And as one long-time security adviser to several French presidents told The Daily Beast, “The Austrian operation against the intelligence service by the ministry of interior had an impact on every other intelligence service in the West.” It was seen as, potentially, the shape of things to come.
Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) gained control of the interior ministry in December, after the center-right party agreed to form a ruling coalition with the once-scorned FPÖ.
Founded in 1956, the FPÖ has a strong Nazi pedigree. Its first leader was a former SS officer and the party has never really strayed far from its roots.
The annual Ulrichsberg gathering for the “reconciliation” of World War II veterans in the southern Austrian province of Carinthia was for a long time a nostalgia-fest for former SS officers and other Nazi collaborators from across Europe. In recent years a new generation of right-wing extremists have joined in, too.
The golden days of Ulrichsberg featured the charismatic but self-destructive leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), Jörg Haider, who gave an infamous speech in 1995 praising SS veterans as “decent men of character” who “stand by their convictions even in the strongest headwinds.” To say otherwise, according to Haider, was to be “politically correct.”
Haider was killed in a car crash in 2010, but the gathering in Ulrichsberg already had been canceled the year before because one of the organizers was caught trading Nazi memorabilia on the internet (a swastika and various medals, all advertised as being “original and in excellent condition”). By 2012 it was starting to make a comeback, however, and one participant is among the most notorious figures of the German-speaking neo-Nazi scene: Gottfried Küssel was twice imprisoned in Austria for “Nazi revivalism” and his rotund body, it has to be said, is rather reminiscent of the late Hermann Göring’s.
The first time the FPÖ entered government, in 2000, it caused a major continent-wide crisis. The European Union levied sanctions on Austria. Amid international pressure, Haider ceded the chancellorship to a less controversial figure. The sanctions were lifted only after the FPÖ demonstrated that it met certain human rights standards.
But the political winds have changed dramatically since then. The FPÖ joined the ruling coalition in December 2017, after political star Sebastian Kurz revitalized Austria’s failing center-right party by diluting far-right policies to make them more palatable for the general populace. When the FPÖ came in second, a coalition with Kurz’s party seemed natural. And with far-right populist parties advancing across the continent, Europe was in no position to sanction Austria this time around.
Since December, the FPÖ’s Herbert Kickl has been Austria’s interior minister. Kickl, whose lean, grizzled face and wire-rim glasses make him look like a radical conspirator out of central casting, used to write speeches and gags for Haider. The former president of the Viennese Jewish community, Ariel Muzicant, said in 2009 that Kickl’s texts reminded him of Joseph Goebbels.
In 2016, Kickl appeared at an extreme-right congress dubbed “Defenders of Europe.” The attendees were a mix of pan-Germanist frat-boy types who work for the Freedom Party, “new right” bloggers with university degrees who call themselves “identitarians,” and editors from various German and Austrian alternative news outlets. One was a publishing company from Graz that described National Socialism (that is, Nazi ideology) as “Europe’s attempt to prove itself against international superpowers in the east and west.” Kickl gave the keynote speech and told the crowd: “I see the audience that I wish for here, better than in the parliament.”
Today, Kickl often is described as the “mastermind” behind the electoral successes of the FPÖ that allowed it to enter into a coalition government with the somewhat more mainstream Christian Democratic Party of Prime Minister Kurz.
As junior coalition partner, the Freedom Party now controls the defense, interior and foreign ministries. Kurz has been credited by some with besting the far right by embracing its agenda, which is a dubious proposition when talking about a party that has never really shaken off its Nazi heritage. (Hackers discovered that the party’s chairman, Johann Gudenus, who is not in the current government, once had the Facebook password “heilheil”). The party also has a friendship contract with Putin’s ruling United Russia party, which it signed two years ago when it was not in power and Putin already was the go-to guy for would-be right-wing authoritarians.
In March this year, a police unit headed by a Freedom Party member raided the homes of four staffers and an office of the domestic intelligence agency known as the BVT (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismus Bekämpfung, i.e., Federal Bureau for the Protection of the Constitution and for Counterterrorism). The bureau deals with, among other things, right-wing extremism.
The raids were justified as part of an investigation into alleged corruption in the BVT. But this “investigation” was based on dubious “insider info”: documents that contained embarrassing tales of sex parties and cliquishness but hardly any legally relevant information about actual operations of the BVT. The material, supposedly written by a BVT employee, was first offered around to the press in Vienna a year ago, but no one was interested—until Kickl took over the interior ministry. Since he took over, he has appeared intent on discrediting the BVT and replacing its leadership with people loyal to the FPÖ.
Peter Gridling, known as the stubborn but politically colorless head of the BVT for the last 10 years, was fired several days after the raids. He had been the object of a virulent campaign by the website unzensuriert.at (known as “the Austrian Breitbart”). The former editor in chief of unzensuriert.at is now Kickl’s communications director.
Gridling, along with intelligence chiefs Calvar in France and Maasen in Germany, warned in 2016 about a “dramatic rise” in right-wing extremist crime. Sibylle Geissler, who directed the BVT’s operation watching right-wing extremism, wrote a report about unzensuriert.at and the 2016 “Defend Europe” conference mentioned earlier.
Geissler reported that the Defend Europe congress is a “networking for the extreme right scene” and that unzensuriert.at publishes content which is “in part extremely xenophobic” and has “anti-Semitic tendencies.” She also wrote that unzensuriert.at “represents conspiratorial approaches and a pro-Russian ideology.” Apparently by mistake, Geissler’s report was made public and quoted in the media.
Some of Geissler’s files were taken in the police raids launched by Kickl this year. And last month she wrote in an email, which was leaked to the Austrian weekly magazine Falter, that she is now subject to a “witch hunt” by the interior ministry, which prevents her from continuing to do her job effectively.
The police raids were clumsy, but Kickl’s interior ministry still appears to have succeeded in obstructing the surveillance of right-wing extremism in Austria.
After the news went public, the German intelligence service (BfV) asked the Austrian service if the prosecutors had seized any of Germany’s shared intelligence during the raids. The German interior ministry told the German Left Party politician Andrej Hunko that if this is the case, then “there needs to be a new inquiry about how cooperation with the BVT can be continued in the future.”
Austria and Germany also trade intel via international forums like the CTG (Counter Terrorism Group). In a more recent inquiry by Hunko about the CTG, the German interior ministry confirmed that a foreign intelligence agency that passes on German intel to a third party, domestic or foreign, without Germany’s permission is a likely deal breaker, but said that one concern about ceasing cooperation was that the leak or sharing with undesirable third parties could be made worse.
Hunko tells The Daily Beast he is specifically concerned that Kickl and his people would be able to acquire intelligence about leftist activists who oppose right-wing extremism: “It is unthinkable what would happen if secret information about anti-fascist activities falls into the hands of the extreme right via Austria’s conservative-far right government.”
He adds: “The same applies for Italy, above all with the neo-fascist Salvini. I know that the German intelligence has written reports on the sea rescuers, some of whom are left-wing activists. It is a big problem, if the heirs of fascist parties and movements now control the intelligence services and can pursue these activists with this information.”
A few days after the BfV’s request in March for more information about what the police took from the intelligence agency, Christian Pilnacek, the secretary general of the Austrian Ministry of Justice, denied that any German intel was taken in the raids. But last week, Pilnacek admitted that officers took a DVD labeled “Photos Ulrichsberg 2015,” which came originally from the BfV. The disc apparently shows which people took part at the 2015 Ulrichsberg gathering in Carinthia. Pilnacek said that, from the DVD’s title, it was not clear that this was Germany’s information. And he said that the DVD has now been returned to the BVT extremism department. But of course the police under Kickl may now know details about German sources and methods they might not have known before.
In the raid, the prosecutors also took data from the “Neptune” network, which the BVT uses to communicate with other European intelligence agencies.
In light of the BVT affair, opposition parties tried unsuccessfully to pass a motion of no confidence against Kickl. “No sane intelligence service in the world will continue to share information with us, apart from maybe the weather forecast,” said Jan Krainer from the Social Democrats.
BVT boss Peter Gridling, now reinstated, told the Ö1 Morgenjournal (the morning news) on Monday that “without a doubt” cooperation with foreign intelligence has become “difficult.”
Kickl has tried to assure everyone that he still has the trust of foreign security services. His evidence: that Vienna is being considered as the location for Trump and Putin to meet. This shows, according to Kickl, that “all the talk about security and international isolation is a purely party politically motivated show.”