The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Austria’s far-right ordered a raid on its own intelligence service. Now allies are freezing the country out.

Herbert Kickl, Austria’s interior minister, speaks at a news conference in July. (Daniel Kopatsch/Epa-Efe/Shutterstock)

VIENNA — The raids came without warning, surprising even the intelligence operatives whose job is to never be caught off guard.

On the morning of Feb. 28, police stormed offices of Austria’s main domestic intelligence agency and carted off some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets in open crates and plastic bags. Top spy service officials working from home that day were greeted by officers threatening to break down their doors. 

The extraordinary decision to target the agency responsible for defending the country from a multitude of threats, including right-wing extremism, had been made by the service’s new bosses: members of the far-right Freedom Party. 

The reason? Defending the totalitarian North Korean regime from an Austrian espionage operation, among others cited in the search warrant. Critics saw absurd pretext for a politically motivated stab at an independent institution that could threaten the party’s agenda.

Five months later, the impact continues to ripple across this central European nation of 9 million — and far beyond.

In a country whose geopolitical positioning between East and West has long made it a nest of spies — “a playground for all nations” in the words of one Austrian intelligence veteran — the hometown service has been left in disarray. 

“It’s paralysis,” the veteran said. “How could you work in such an environment?”

Intelligence services across the West, meanwhile, have looked on in dismay — and have chosen to protect their own secrets by freezing Austria out.

“We used to have very deep and good cooperation,” said a top European intelligence official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. “But since the raids, we have stopped sharing highly sensitive information. We’re worried it might get into the wrong hands.”

The raids and their aftermath reflect a messy emerging reality across Europe as parties once relegated to the fringes move to the center of power

Austrian state want to force meat-consuming Jews and Muslims to register, drawing Nazi comparisons

In Greece, Italy, Poland, Hungary and Austria, anti-establishment parties with positions on either the far left or far right have taken hold of governments, either in whole or in part. Many are closely linked to Russia, and some have ties to extremist groups that have been associated with violence.

A place in government gives these parties control of influential state institutions that are supposed to be above politics, including the courts, military and intelligence agencies. 

But as Austria has shown, those theoretically independent institutions are vulnerable to political meddling — or at least the appearance of it. In the trust-is-everything realm of intelligence work, that raises tricky questions for allies, which must decide whether they can risk continued cooperation.

Russia ties

The Freedom Party came to power in Austria at the end of last year as the junior partner in a coalition with the center-right. The party was founded by former SS officers in the 1950s, and has ridden anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric to new heights of popularity in recent years. Some of its members have been revealed to share a nostalgia for Hitler’s Third Reich.

The party has a formal cooperation agreement with President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, and the close ties show. Austria was a notable holdout when European Union nations banded together in March to expel Russian diplomats to protest the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal. Top Austrian officials, meanwhile, have spoken out against the E.U.’s Russian sanctions. On Saturday, Putin is expected to be a guest of honor when Austria’s foreign minister, the Freedom Party-allied Karin Kneissl, gets married.

The Freedom Party had been in government before, in the early 2000s. But this is the first time it has been given control of the highly coveted Interior Ministry, which is responsible for law and order in Austria and is home to the country’s main domestic intelligence agency, known as the BVT. 

Among the BVT’s work in recent years has been sniffing out Russian influence, notably attempts at election interference. The agency also has tracked Islamist extremists and investigated the activities of violent far-right groups, including Islamophobic and anti-Semitic hate crimes. Much of that work requires cross-border cooperation, especially with European allies.

Information from those investigations, among many others, was among the troves of intelligence seized by police in the February raid.

To critics, the raids were nothing less than an attempt to quash intelligence work that ran counter to the party’s interests. 

“Your actions intimidated those officials who are supposed to fight the extremist right,” Christian Kern, a former center-left chancellor, told Interior Minister Herbert Kickl during a parliamentary debate. “It’s a signal that will embolden the rightist scene.” 

The Interior Ministry declined an interview request. But Kickl and his allies have publicly defended the raids, noting that a state prosecutor had sought a warrant and that a judge signed off on it. Seized documents were turned over by the police directly to the prosecutor. 

The raids, he said, were in line with the rule of law. “It’s time we turn to the facts and leave aside the conspiracy theories,” Kickl said.

The search warrant cites several prosaic reasons for the raids, including an alleged failure by the intelligence agencies to properly discard information that had been slated for deletion. 

But it also includes more-fanciful justifications. Among them: Several top agency officials had worked with the South Korean government on an espionage operation to obtain blank North Korean passports, which were being printed in Austria. 

The victim of the supposed crime? Kim Jong Un’s murderous regime.

The raids are now the subject of legal action, with a court scheduled to decide within days whether the operation was legal and proportionate. A parliamentary inquiry, meanwhile, is to begin next month.

Several people familiar with the matter said they don’t necessarily agree with the most sinister interpretation of the raid — that the Freedom Party was carrying out a grand plan to seize intelligence and scuttle investigations. 

But they also said they believe the party was using flimsy pretexts in a clumsy attempt to put its stamp on the agency and install loyalists in top jobs. A number of senior intelligence officials were fired or suspended in the raid’s aftermath. Various reasons were given, including keeping sensitive documents at home.

“They tried to change the system with force, and they ended up destroying it,” one agency insider said. “Do you know of any other intelligence service where the prosecutor can go and seize all the communications data? Can seize the files of ongoing cases? Can seize data from foreign services?”

'Alarms are going off'

Those foreign services have responded by pulling back. Although Austria is officially neutral and sits outside of NATO, it is a member of the European Union and has historically had close intelligence-sharing relationships with Western allies.

“The alarms are going off,” one senior European intelligence official said. “What happened in Austria reminds me of what autocrats would do.” 

A senior Western intelligence official said it was not only allies who had stopped sharing with Austria but also the other way around.

“The Austrians no longer call or reach out as they used to before,” the official said. “Maybe because it’s chaos in their house or because they are ashamed about what happened.”

Both the Freedom Party and its partner, the center-right People’s Party of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, campaigned for office last year vowing to get tough on immigration and crack down on Islamists.

But the weakening of the BVT could compromise efforts to keep the country safe from extremist attacks, a core mission of the agency. 

So far, however, the government is not paying a price for that possibility. Both parties remain broadly popular, and they have managed to keep the intelligence agency scandal out of the limelight by maintaining their focus on Islam. Deft at public relations, the parties have floated several largely symbolic initiatives, including burqa bans and prohibitions on halal meat.

On the day this past spring when opposition parties called a news conference to discuss the BVT raids, the government immediately countered with its own news conference to announce the closure of several allegedly extremist mosques. (The mosques have since reopened.)

“The government is trying to perform politics on the back of Muslim society, which leads to anger and fear and hate,” said Ramazan Demir, a leader of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria, an umbrella group for the country’s roughly 700,000 Muslims. “A big part of Austrian society already fears Islam. This way of doing politics doesn’t help.”

To some, the focus on Islamist extremism also distracts from other threats, including anti-Semitism among non-Muslims.

“I have never experienced an anti-Semitic threat from Muslims in Austria,” said Schlomo Hofmeister, a Vienna-based rabbi for the country’s small Jewish community. “But I receive every week threats from right-wing Austrians.”

Roman Haider, a veteran Freedom Party official who was made available by the party in response to interview requests, declined to discuss the raid on the BVT. But he was eager to talk about what he described as a real threat to Austria: the disappearance of pork from school lunchrooms, allegedly in deference to pious Muslims. 

“This is our society. This is our culture,” he said. “In our schools, pork should be served.”

Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.