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12/09/2022 | Austrian pro-Kremlin officials planned to launch shadow spy agency, report claims

Joseph Fitsanakis

THE AUSTRIAN STATE HAS launched a probe into an attempt by alleged pro-Russian government officials in Vienna to create a brand new intelligence service in 2018, according to news reports.

 

The effort did not succeed. Some claim, however, that, had it become operational, the new spy service in this European Union state would have been under Russian influence. There are also questions about whether Austria’s foreign minister at the time, Karin Kneissl, was aware of this effort, which appears to have emerged from within her ministry.

The alleged effort to create a new intelligence agency in Austria occurred during the government of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a conservative politician belonging to the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). Having failed to secure a majority in parliament in the 2017 national election, Kurz’s ÖVP formed a government through an uneasy coalition with the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), a rightwing populist alliance of euro-skeptics, anti-immigration campaigners and strong critics of Islam. In joining Kurz’s governing coalition, the FPÖ was successful in installing Kneissl as Austria’s Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs.

Although previously a supporter of the ÖVP, Kneissl had worked closely with the FPÖ —though never officially joined it— in the run-up to the 2017 national election. Prior to that, she had spent nearly a decade with Austria’s Foreign Office, where she had been able to utilize her near-fluent command of English, French, Spanish, and Arabic (she had spent much of her childhood in Jordan, where her father worked as a pilot). Even prior to heading the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Kneissl —and the FPÖ as a whole— was seen by her critics as being too close to the Kremlin. At her wedding in 2018, the list of guests included Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kneissl stepped down from her ministerial post in the summer of 2019. She has since blogged for the Kremlin-funded Russia Today television channel, while also serving —until earlier this year— on the board of the Moscow-headquartered energy company Rosneft.

Back in 2018, the effort to establish a brand new Austrian intelligence agency was allegedly led by a group of FPÖ-supporting officials inside the Foreign Affairs Ministry. According to reports, they included Johannes Peterlik, Austria’s former ambassador to Indonesia, who was the highest ranking civil servant at the Ministry at the time. Had it been launched, the new agency would have complemented —and perhaps competed against— the country’s existing intelligence organizations. These were the —now defunct— Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (known as BVT), which at the time served as the nation’s domestic intelligence agency, and the foreign-oriented Heeresnachrichtenamt, which is the intelligence organization of the Austrian Armed Forces.

There are claims that Peterlik was to head the planned spy agency, and that the agency’s “Coordination Directorate” was to be led by an official identified in Austrian media only as “Egisto O.”. In subsequent months, Peterlik was investigated for “giving classified documents in 2018 to a former Austrian secret agent accused of spying for Russia”. That former Austrian secret agent was Jan Marsalek, a financier and fugitive from justice, who has been dubbed by some as “the world’s most wanted man”, and is currently thought to be living in Russia under the Kremlin’s protection. Meanwhile, “Egisto O.” is reportedly under investigation for allegedly spying for Russia.

Last week, an investigative report by the Südwestrundfunk, southern Germany’s public broadcasting corporation, and the Hamburg-based television news network Tagesschau, questioned whether Kneissl —herself seen by her critics as a Kremlin supporter— was aware of the effort to establish a new Austrian spy agency under the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which she headed at the time. What is more, the report raises the question of whether the creation of the new agency was Kneissl’s idea to begin with. The report notes that Kneissl, who is currently believed to live in Lebanon, claims to have had no knowledge of plans to establish a spy agency. Additionally, “Egisto O.” has said through his lawyers that the allegations against him are unfounded and “lack any basis whatsoever”.

Intelnews.org (Estados Unidos)

 



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