German prosecutors may investigate ‘CIA hacking base’ in Frankfurt, adding tension to Merkel-Trump meeting
Germany’s chief federal prosecutor’s office said on Wednesday it would review new documents from anti-secrecy group Wikileaks which suggest the CIA ran a hacking hub from the US consulate in Frankfurt, and launch a formal investigation if warranted.
The development came days before Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to visit Washington for an initial meeting with US President Donald Trump, who has sharply criticised Berlin for everything from its trade policy to what he considers inadequate levels of military spending.
“We’re looking at it very carefully,” a spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office said. “We will initiate an investigation if we see evidence of concrete criminal acts or specific perpetrators.”
Wikileaks on Tuesday published what it said were nearly 8,000 of pages of internal CIA discussions about hacking techniques used between 2013 and 2016.
The contents of the published documents could not be independently confirmed as authentic, but several contractors and private cyber security experts said the materials appeared to be legitimate.
The Wikileaks documents may complicate bilateral intelligence ties that have just begun to recover after a series of scandals, including news in 2013 that the National Security Agency had bugged Merkel’s cellphone. The consulate was already heavily investigated by German lawmakers after that incident.
Merkel last month told lawmakers she did not know how closely Germany’s spies cooperated with their US counterparts until 2015 when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the BND spy agency had for years passed on information to the NSA about European companies and politicians.
Germany scaled back the level of cooperation with the NSA after those revelations.
White House Press Secretary said on Wednesday that Merkel would visit Trump next week.
US officials have acknowledged that the consulate in Frankfurt is home to a CIA base. A facility adjacent to the city’s airport and the Rhein-Main Air Base has for many years been home to the CIA’s “Tefran” station, a US centre for collecting intelligence on Iranian activities in Europe, maintaining surveillance on Iranian officials and targeting potential defectors working in Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Foreign ministry spokesman Sebastian Fischer told a regular government news conference that Germany took the issue seriously, but more work needed to be done to verify the authenticity of the documents. Berlin was in close touch with Washington about the case and such matters generally, he said.
Officials at the German government news conference declined to answer questions about any knowledge Berlin might have about CIA activities in Germany. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Germany’s domestic intelligence agency was tasked with uncovering espionage activities in Germany, and carried out its work comprehensively.
Wikileaks reported CIA employees had been given diplomatic passports and State Department identities to carry out their work in Germany at the US consulate in Frankfurt, focused on targets in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
The documents included advice for CIA experts about life in Germany, and to have “your cover-for-action story down pat” when they passed through German customs.
One European official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Wikileaks material could in fact lead to closer cooperation between European spy agencies and US counterparts, which share concerns about Russian intelligence operations.
The European official said there was suspicion, still unconfirmed, that Moscow could have had a hand in the latest leaks. US spy agencies accuse Russia of meddling in the US presidential election last year, which Russia denies.
“It’s interesting and maybe significant that this leak coincides with stepped-up Russian attempts to influence upcoming European elections, intimidate the Baltic states and other former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, and destabilise Nato and the European Union,“ said the European official.
However, US intelligence and law enforcement officials told Reuters on Wednesday that it was believed that CIA contractors likely handed over the documents to WikiLeaks.
Two officials speaking on condition of anonymity said intelligence agencies have been aware since the end of last year of the breach.
Contractors have been revealed as the source of sensitive US government information leaks in recent years, most notably Snowden and Harold Thomas Martin, both employed by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton while working for the National Security Agency.
The CIA has declined to comment on the authenticity of the latest leak. But such disclosures would bolster America’s enemies, the agency said.
“The American public should be deeply troubled by any WikiLeaks disclosure designed to damage the intelligence community’s ability to protect America against terrorists and other adversaries,” said CIA spokeswoman Heather Fritz Horniak on Wednesday.
“Such disclosures not only jeopardize US personnel and operations, but also equip our adversaries with tools and information to do us harm,” she said.
Horniak defended the CIA’s cyber operations, which the WikiLeaks materials showed focused heavily on breaking into personal electronics using a wide range of malware systems.
“It is CIA’s job to be innovative, cutting-edge, and the first line of defence in protecting this country from enemies abroad,” she said.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse