Late last month, German police arrested two men they say are suspected of funneling reams of top-secret weapons technology, including plans to a much-anticipated future fighter jet, to Russia. RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky files this report on what is being called a "classic spy case."
Prague, 11 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- According to several accounts, a German engineer at a subsidiary of the German aerospace giant DASA relayed high-tech secrets, including blueprints on tank defense systems, to a German businessman. The businessman then allegedly passed the secrets on to Moscow.
The businessman was apparently caught with a briefcase brimming with classified documents when police arrested him at the Hannover airport. His alleged accomplice from DASA was arrested about the same time at his office outside of Munich.
Although law enforcement officials announced the arrests, they only publicized details of the espionage charges last Friday. That came as word leaked out that a German weekly, Focus, would go to press this past Monday with a blockbuster story about the case.
The article turned out to include claims that the two men had handed over details on the much publicized future European prototype fighter jet, the Eurofighter. Specifically, the magazine claimed that the materials included top secret studies on how to improve the new jet's missile targeting systems. Four countries -- Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain -- are jointly developing what is being touted as Europe's next prototype warplane.
If Russia had gained information to the top-secret Eurojet project, German officials likely feared the breach of security could be deep.
Officials at DASA say the engineer, identified so far only as Peter S., worked in its anti-tank missile unit and was not involved in developing weapons for the Eurojet.
There have been allegations that the two men were hired by then Russian spy chief Vladimir Putin, who was just named prime minister by President Boris Yeltsin this past Monday.
Oddly, Moscow has not yet commented publicly on the spying allegations.
The German federal prosecutor and German Defense Ministry have launched a probe into the case. Officials at the Defense Ministry told RFE/RL early this week that there would be no further public comment on the case pending the outcome of the investigation.
But German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping made comments lending credence to the seriousness of the incident. He said publicly that the incident has damaged ties between Germany and Russia. Even more outspoken has been Willfried Penner, the chairman of the Bundestag's Interior Affairs Committee. He has appealed to the German government to slap sanctions on Russia and other countries engaged in industrial espionage in Germany.
But in an interview today with RFE/RL, Penner downplayed the long-term affects of the incident, stressing the importance of Russo-German relations.
"It is well known that since the changes [in Russia], we have had a special relationship with Russia, because the Russians played a decisive role in the reunification of Germany. And it is also well known that we support the Russians as they work to overcome their financial and economic problems. But that doesn't justify them engaging in massive spying. And this must be made clear to the Russians."
Penner also toned down his earlier call for sanctions against Russia and noted it is not fair to single out Moscow. He says other countries are engaged in the same type of spying in Germany.
"Yes this case has gained a lot of notoriety, which is rather spectacular, but there are other countries obtaining technological and industrial secrets [in Germany]. This time it seems it was the Russians. We don't have any illusions [about the fact] that other countries which want to obtain high-tech secrets aren't reluctant to use illegal methods."
Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, an intelligence service expert and head of the Wilheim Research Institute for Peace, tells RFE/RL that some of Germany's closest allies also play the spying game in Germany.
"Germany's high-tech industry has been a favorite target for espionage. The former security advisor to [former German chancellor Helmut] Kohl, Mr. Bernd Schmidbauer, claimed that some of our important companies [such] as Hoechst, BASF, Siemens, and some weapons producers had been victims of illegal attacks during the past years. Not only Russian or East-European services spy with agents or by electronic means in Germany. The most active countries are the United States, France, Japan, and after 1990 even China. They try to steal not only results of research and development but also find out market strategies, offers in current negotiations and so on."
Eenboom says German security experts, officials from counterintelligence organizations, and business circles estimate the cost of spying to Germany's economy at some 40 billion German Marks each year.
Eenboom suspects that in this latest spying episode, the Russians have probably gained a lot. He believes that information has already found its way to Russia to update rockets and possibly also information on air-to-air missiles planned as equipment for the Eurofighter.
Eenboom says that a lot of states, especially in Asia, are interested in buying new military equipment over the next few years. He says Russia is eager to try to sell to this market, which means it will have to beat out its European and American competitors.