Return to the Wilderness of Mirrors
Germany unmasks a Russian mole at the top of its spy service, just the latest in redux reboot of the 'Year of the Spy'
There's lots of fascinating nuggets in this weekend's story in The Washington Post about the discovery of a Russian mole near the top of a key German intelligence agency.
Carsten Linke, 52 who was arrested on December 21, oversaw an internal security unit of the BND, Germany’s premier foreign intelligence gathering agency, “with access to the personnel files of agency employees," officials told the Post. According to the charges, Linke was aided in his treachery by a 31-year-old gem and metals trader in Bavaria who frequently ferried Linke’s classified booty to Moscow. An unidentified allied intelligence service helped the Germans unearth the spy op, the paper said.
The revelation comes on the heels of the Jan. 23 arrest of Charles McGonigal, a high ranking veteran FBI counterintelligence official in New York, and amid a mounting furor over questionably sourced accusations that a senior former CIA spy catcher was a Russian mole.
The Post’s story featuring Linke, which led Saturday’s print edition, was headlined, “U.S. and allies seek to root out Russian spies.”
Good times. The rush of events seemed like a faint echo from a distant past, like 1985, dubbed “The Year of the Spy” following the discovery of Russian moles in the CIA, FBI, State Department and U.S. military services. The arrests made it seem like the government was honeycombed with Russian moles. Meanwhile, the ease with which so many of these spies have walked out of their offices with reams of documents under their coats or pockets jangling with flash drives is a constant thread throughout a new book on security breeches, Spyfail: Foreign Spies, Moles, Saboteurs, and the Collapse of America’s Counterintelligence. The intelligence agencies seem to have “less security measures in place than department stores or libraries,” author James Bamford told me in last week’s SpyTalk podcast. “They spend tons on security clearances then forget about it.”
But the German case has a very contemporary twist. Way back in the day, Americans like the World War Two “atomic spies” turned coat out of communist loyalty to the Soviets or a leftwing sympathy for the then-U.S. ally against the Nazis. Same for British turncoats in its spy services. Today, some U.S. and European neo-Nazis and right wingers look to Vladimir Putin’s Russia for help—and vice-versa.
The German arrests are a case in point.
“German media reports have said that Linke and Eller met in 2021 at a social event,” The Post reported. “But in recent interviews with The Post, officials said there are indications that the two were introduced by a member of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party, raising the prospect that Linke may have been motivated by radical political views.”
Right wing extremists and Russia working in tandem? That’s the roar you’ve heard tearing through U.S. and European political parties since 2016. But for years now Putin has more-or-less openly supported Europe’s rightwing politicians, like France’s Marie Le Pen. It’s long been suspected, but not proven, that Moscow surreptitiously stoked the U.K. Brexit vote in 2016, in the same manner it interfered in U.S. elections to Donald Trump’s benefit the same year. Anyone who saw Trump take Putin’s side over the FBI’s in Helsinki will never forget it.
Extremists have been making inroads among U.S. military services, as revealed in the congressional and federal investigations into Jan. 6 Even some elements of the CIA, FBI and Secret Service have been affected. But Germany has been swept by repeated revelations of far-right extremist penetration of its most elite military and security services. In December, authorities uncovered a Russian connection to a mind-blowing far-right plot to decapitate the government in Berlin.
“The plan was to storm the German Capitol, arrest lawmakers and execute the chancellor,” authorities told the New York Times. “A prince descended from German nobility would take over as the new head of state, and a former far-right member of Parliament would be put in charge of a national purge. To facilitate the coup, the electricity network would be sabotaged. Satellite phones to communicate off grid had already been bought.”
Nationwide raids netted “25 suspected co-conspirators. They included an active duty soldier, a former officer in the elite special forces, a police officer and at least two army reservists,” the Times reported.
Axis of Evil
But here’s the fascinating rat droppings between the raids and the arrests of Linke and Eller—all, by the way, around the same time in December.
“Prince Heinrich XIII had tried to make contact with representatives of the Russian government through the Russian Embassy in Berlin” through a Russian in Germany accused of supporting the coup, authorities told the Times.
The Russian, identified only as “Vitalia B.,” according to the Times, “is believed to have helped” the pretender prince “in trying to establish contact with Moscow. But prosecutors said there were no indications that they had received a positive response from the Russian sources they had contacted.”
Evidently the coup scheme was too wacky even for the Russians. They stayed away at the critical moment.
But not out of Germany. We may yet learn that Russian subversion played a role in Berlin’s initial aversion to helping Ukraine with anything more than helmets. It may help explain its continuing caution about staring down the bear at its doorstep. Or why it hasn’t cracked down on Russia’s moles more forcefully over the years.
The alleged treachery of Linke, the man in charge of its elite spy agency’s internal security, may offer a clue.
The bear’s overreach did jolt most of Europe from its gas-induced slumber. Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago next week, America’s European allies have doubled down on outing Moscow’s spies and provocateurs. European revulsion for Putin’s “special mission” triggered the eviction of some 400 spies from Russian embassies across the continent last year. Moscow’s foreign espionage services have taken a big, big blow. It takes years to properly train a spy and insert him or her safely into the enemy’s lair. Shortcuts have consequences.
They can’t be happy about it. Only time will tell how unhappy they are about it.
In the meantime we can be sure that the Napoleon on the Moskva is putting the whip to his spies to unearth secrets on NATO’s plans for Ukraine—and to derail them in any way they can—with help from their right wing extremist friends, wherever they can find them.
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Spying on each other is the meat and potatoes of all national intelligence agencies. We do it, the Russians do it, the Chinese, etc.. Nothing earth shattering here. I suspect that both (all) sides are thoroughly infiltrated and with supplemental technical means there are very few real secrets to be found. Only the sheer quantity of such material offers at least temporary confidentiality.