It was May 13, 2021, Ascension Day, in the Bavarian town of Weilheim, and a local club was having a party. The pandemic had put a bit of damper on the festivities, but 10 guests showed up nonetheless. It was a cozy gathering.
The party had been organized by Reno S., a soldier in the German military, the Bundeswehr, and a functionary in the right-wing radical party Alternative for Germany (AfD). Among the invitees was a businessman named Arthur E., and one of his friends from town, a friendly, heavyset man named Carsten L., who coached youth soccer. Arthur E. would later tell investigators that Carsten L. had a fair amount to drink that night and began gloating about working for the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency. Arthur E. and the BND agent apparently took to each other instantly.
Cut to a scene around half a year earlier: The Ritz-Carlton in Moscow, a glamorous building with a red façade located near the Kremlin in the heart of the Russian capital. A room here costs around 500 euros per night.
On October 24, 2020, Arthur E., the businessman who would later attend the party in Weilheim, spent the night here, getting to know the Russian businessman Visa M. A wealthy man, Visa M. spoke to Arthur E. about his business interests. The Russian is thought to have excellent connections to senior Russian politicians, and it seems likely that this was the moment when Arthur E. saw an opportunity to earn a pile of money.
Two meetings, two random encounters – but they mark the beginning of the biggest spying scandal in recent years, perhaps even in recent decades. The upshot of the affair are suspicions that BND agent Carsten L. may well have committed high treason by pilfering important BND documents related to the war in Ukraine and delivering them to Arthur E. Nothing has yet been proven, no charges have been filed and the presumption of innocence remains in effect. But hardly any doubts still remain that Carsten L. was used as a spy.
Arthur E. is thought to have delivered the information to the FSB, the Russian domestic intelligence agency. Visa M., the man Arthur E. met in the Ritz-Carlton, is thought to have connected Arthur E. with the FSB.
The case has rocked the BND, besmirching its reputation as a partner to other Western intelligence agencies – at a time when Russia is waging war against Ukraine. Indeed, in a situation where the secure exchange of extremely delicate information was, and continues to be, crucial, BND information ended up in Moscow. A worst-case scenario and extremely embarrassing for the Germans.
The repercussions have already made themselves felt at the BND. Even as heads of other agencies officially insist that they continue working with the Germans just as cooperatively as ever, agents lower down the chain of command say they have noticed a significant reticence from Germany’s NATO allies. For a time, at least, the governments of the United States, Britain and other countries curtailed intelligence- sharing with Berlin.
Germany’s partners were also aggravated by how easy it apparently was for Carsten L. to smuggle information out of the BND and have it brought to Russia. There are a number of indications that the BND’s control mechanisms failed. And clear warning signs, such as clues pointing to the right-wing extremist leanings of those involved, were ignored.
Carsten L. was apparently able to establish a network of mostly involuntary helpers without his superiors realizing that anything untoward was going on. And all that in an agency that underwent radical restructuring, including the introduction of new levels of control, following the scandal surrounding the U.S. agency NSA several years ago.
The BND was only able to track down the mole in its ranks thanks to a tip-off from a partner agency, which set off an extensive investigation. [Continue reading…]