BOOK REVIEW: New book goes behind the scenes of Russian espionage in Austria

BOOK REVIEW: New book goes behind the scenes of Russian espionage in Austria
By Graham Stack in Berlin October 4, 2016

Vienna as a battleground for the renewed east-west battle of the spooks came to global attention in July 2010: in the first major Russia-US spy swap since the cold war, Russian and US planes landed in the summer heat at Vienna International Airport and rolled up facing each other. A black van sped between the planes exchanging their respective passengers. 90 minutes later the planes took off again – the US-bound plane carrying the CIA agent and former Russian nuclear scientist, Igor Sutyagin, and three other Western spies held in Russia. The Moscow-bound plane carried 28-year-old Anna Chapman, exposed in the US as a sleeper agent, and soon to become a Russian TV celebrity, together with nine fellow Russian spies.

With its echoes of Cold War high drama, the scene seems as dated as the very concept of deploying ‘sleeper’ agents in an age of global migration and the internet. And one of the arguments of Florian Horcicka’s excellent new book on contemporary spying in Austria, “Im Fadenkreuz der Spione: Wie Agenten Österreich unterwandern”, (In the crosshairs of spies: How agents undermine Austria) is that the Alpine republic is rapidly becoming a kind of espionage theme park, where hundreds of agents in the field from all sides practice trade craft already made obsolete by digital technologies.

Horcicka provides a number of explanations for this: Austria’s formal neutrality, its playing host to major international organisations such as the UN, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), International Atomic Energy Agency and Opec, and a legislative loophole meaning that espionage against third countries is not a crime in Austria if it does not hurt Austrian interests.

As a result, Austria attracts spies by the thousands – the international secret service ‘community’ in Austria totals 6,000-7,000 in a country of only 8.4mn, according to data quoted by Horcicka.

A special contribution to Austria’s role as a spy reserve is played by Russia’s massive intelligence presence in the Central European country. Russia is the primary exponent of ‘old school’ spy craft developed in the glory days of the Cold War. In contrast to the Anglo-Saxon services focus on mass data capture, “the Russians still talk to real people, shadow them, and deal in personal information”. Consequently, Russia deploys an estimated 600 officers in the country, nearly 10% of the total community, compared to an estimate of a mere 80 US agents.

Russia is, of course, itself run by a Cold War spy, Vladimir Putin, so that Russian ‘boots on the ground’ in Austria also personify the current regime in Moscow. And the legacy of Cold War spying may have further implications for European politics, claims Horcicka, who writes it is common knowledge in Austria’s secret service that Putin knows German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally from East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and retains photos of her from student days attending a nudist camp.

Everyday spy craft

But is is not just the Russians who cling to 20th century-style ‘humint’. Local secret services in Mitteleuropa are still far removed from the vacuum-cleaner data sweeps of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

Horcicka has performed sterling work in accessing the most reclusive of communities – international spies. The author describes a day in the life of a Mitteleuropa spook of unspecified nationality – starting with the daily scouring of the news at breakfast, with an estimated 90% of actionable intelligence found in open sources. In the office, briefing papers warn of a management reshuffle pending at Austria’s energy giant OMV – a company watched closely by the Russians. ‘The Service’ orders fresh intel on how the reshuffle will effect OMV’s strategy.

Top managers are due to meet for lunch at a prestigious Viennese restaurant to discuss the reshuffle and our spy reserves a neighbouring table. He eavesdrops on the conversation, plants a bug in the bathrooms, and gleans enough to enter one of the managers’ hotel rooms unobserved in the evening – copying a USB stick carelessly left lying. Everything familiar from the movies – the spy even dons wraps over his shoes to avoid leaving traces in the room. Whether the flash drive contained sensitive commercial data or the manager’s holiday snaps remains untold.

It is not only Russia that is of interest to Western spies. Horcicka also reconstructs an Anglo-Saxon spy’s day on duty in Vienna: one whose professional paranoia compels him to sit with his back to a wall in cafes where the tables are thick enough to stop a bullet. His target today is a major German industrial corporation believed on the verge of delivering sensitive laser technology to Iran. His contact in the firm hands him a pen drive, and leaves with an envelope of cash, while the spy congratulates himself on scoring a large bonus from ‘The Service’.

Man or machine?

The conundrum that Horcicka investigates: is such traditional spy craft still relevant in the age of NSA-style data vacuuming? A former Austrian intelligence officer warns him that new Austrian data retention requirements will capture users’ – ie. citizens’ – metadata to an extent that, if unchecked, officials could “easily know more about you than you know yourself”.

The author himself designed a test of whether Austria is a sort of spies’ playground, with the real action elsewhere in the cybersphere. Together with a Russian-speaking friend and a telescopic lens, he sets up in broad daylight to photograph the site of an officially secret Austrian listening post, exchanging comments in Russian taking notes in full view. Nobody in the public or law enforcement shows interest, let alone intervenes.

Horcicka concludes that one main driver of Austria’s role as ‘spy craft park’ may simply be Vienna’s exceptionally high living standards. Far from the shadowy struggle between East and West in a derelict post-war Vienna portrayed in Graham Greene’s classic novel “The Third Man”, Vienna today is a desired deployment not only for Russians, but also for Western agents.

“In the British and US services, a posting to Vienna is regarded as a great step-up: great food, excellent tap water, high culture, high level of security, good leisure options.” Or as Austria’s former domestic intelligence boss Gerd-René Polli says in an interview: “A posting to Vienna is a huge reward for any agent.”

“Im Fadenkreuz der Spione: Wie Agenten Österreich unterwandern”, (In the crosshairs of spies: How agents undermine Austria), published by Verlag Kremayr & Scheriau (2016).