Merkel opens controversial spy agency’s new Berlin HQ

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday inaugurated the new, fortress-like Berlin headquarters of Germany's scandal-plagued BND foreign intelligence service.

Merkel opens controversial spy agency's new Berlin HQ
Merkel and BND chief Bruno Kahl stand outside of the new headquarters on their opening day, February 8th, 2019. Photo: DPA

Located where the Berlin Wall once dissected the city, the huge €1.1-billion complex now houses 4,000 of the spy agency's 6,500 staff.

Built on the former site of an East German sports stadium, it is one of the
world's largest secret service bases, covering 10 hectares (25 acres) — the equivalent to 36 football fields.

Pointing to a host of global threats from terrorism to cyber-attacks, Merkel thanked the BND staff for their work “so that millions of Germans can live in safety”.

For the BND, which until now has been cloistered away in a former Nazi settlement outside Munich since its founding after World War II, its bold new presence is meant to signal a more self-confident global role.

The massive limestone and aluminium-fronted structure in central Berlin affords Federal Intelligence Service chief Bruno Kahl a view of the chancellery building, which he reports to.

The BND, hit by a series of scandals — most recently the 2013 revelations
of fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden — has also signalled
greater transparency to a sceptical public.

SEE ALSO: Merkel tells NSA committee she didn't know Germany spied on allies

Mid-year it even plans to open a visitor centre, having already built up its online presence and stepped up open recruitment activities for the next
generation of German spies.

'Healthy distrust'

For many Germans, given their country's fascist and totalitarian past, the
idea of a secret service evokes images not just of James Bond but also of the Gestapo and Stasi.

The far-left opposition Die Linke party routinely demands the abolition of
Germany's three intelligence agencies, also including the domestic BfV and military spy service MAD.

Merkel stressed that while the Stasi “was used against the populace”, the
BND serves the country and is subject to laws and parliamentary oversight.

“A healthy distrust is helpful, but being overly suspicious is a hindrance,” said Merkel.

SEE ALSO: Why Germany will never forget the Stasi era of mass surveillance

Many Germans were shocked by Snowden's revelations that the BND had closely cooperated with US and British services in the near-blanket surveillance of the world's digital communications.

Merkel, who grew up in the East German police state, herself expressed anger at news that Washington had for years tapped her mobile phone, insisting that spying on allies “is not on”.

But Germany was soon forced to admit that the BND had itself eavesdropped on targets including the French presidency, the EU and international media organisations.

Last year the world's largest internet hub, the De-Cix exchange in Frankfurt, challenged the BND over its mass capture of international communications, but a German federal court in May approved the surveillance.

The massive operation to build the new BND headquarters, too, did not pass without delays, budget blow-outs and glitches.

In 2011, the agency had to admit that the blueprints for the sprawling new
complex had been stolen, but played down the security risks posed by the loss.

And in 2015, thieves broke into the building site and stole newly fitted water taps, causing massive flooding damage that media dubbed the “Watergate” scandal.

Former BND chief Gerhard Schindler on Friday complained that the agency's technical surveillance had stayed behind at the old Bavarian base, saying there was “no rational, logical reason” for this.

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Germany arrests Russian scientist for spying for Moscow

German police arrested a Russian scientist working at an unidentified university, accusing him of spying for Moscow, prosecutors said on Monday, in a case that risks further inflaming bilateral tensions.

Germany arrests Russian scientist for spying for Moscow
Vladimir Putin. Photo: dpa/AP | Patrick Semansky

Federal prosecutors said in a statement that the suspect, identified only as Ilnur N., had been taken into custody on Friday on suspicion of “working for a Russian secret service since early October 2020 at the latest”.

Ilnur N. was employed until the time of his arrest as a research assistant for a natural sciences and technology department at the unnamed German university.

German investigators believe he met at least three times with a member of Russian intelligence between October 2020 and this month. On two occasions he allegedly “passed on information from the university’s domain”.

He is suspected of accepting cash in exchange for his services.

German authorities searched his home and workplace in the course of the arrest.

The suspect appeared before a judge on Saturday who remanded him in custody.

‘Completely unacceptable’

Neither the German nor the Russian government made any immediate comment on the case.

However Moscow is at loggerheads with a number of Western capitals after a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders and a series of espionage scandals that have resulted in diplomatic expulsions.

Italy this month said it had created a national cybersecurity agency following warnings by Prime Minister Mario Draghi that Europe needed to
protect itself from Russian “interference”. 

The move came after an Italian navy captain was caught red-handed by police while selling confidential military documents leaked from his computer to a Russian embassy official.


The leaders of nine eastern European nations last month condemned what they termed Russian “aggressive acts” citing operations in Ukraine and “sabotage” allegedly targeted at the Czech Republic.

Several central and eastern European countries have expelled Russian diplomats in solidarity with Prague but Russia has branded accusations of its involvement as “absurd” and responded with tit-for-tat expulsions.

The latest espionage case also comes at a time of highly strained relations between Russia and Germany on a number of fronts including the ongoing detention of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who received treatment in Berlin after a near-fatal poisoning.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has moreover worked to maintain a sanctions regime over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the scene of ongoing fighting between pro-Russia separatists and local forces.

And Germany has repeatedly accused Russia of cyberattacks on its soil.

The most high-profile incident blamed on Russian hackers to date was a cyberattack in 2015 that completely paralysed the computer network of the Bundestag lower house of parliament, forcing the entire institution offline for days while it was fixed.

German prosecutors in February filed espionage charges against a German man suspected of having passed the floor plans of parliament to Russian secret services in 2017.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas last week said Germany was expecting to be the target of Russian disinformation in the run-up to its general election in September, calling it “completely unacceptable”.

Russia denies being behind such activities.

Despite international criticism, Berlin has forged ahead with plans to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, set to double natural gas supplies from Russia to Germany.