A British man working at the UK embassy in Berlin has been arrested on suspicion of passing information to the Russian intelligence services, German prosecutors said on Wednesday.
The 57-year-old UK national, named only as David S, was arrested on Tuesday in Potsdam, a town southwest of Berlin, following a joint investigation by German and British authorities.
The German federal prosecutor’s office said he was a local employee, rather than a diplomat, and was suspected of having worked for “foreign agents” since November. One person familiar with the investigation described the suspect as a “contractor” at the embassy.
“On at least one occasion, he passed on documents he had obtained in the course of his professional activities to a representative of a Russian intelligence service,” Germany’s chief federal prosecutor’s office said in a statement. “The accused received an as yet unknown amount of cash in exchange for him passing on information.”
The suspect’s apartment and workplace have been searched and he is facing charges relating to engagement in “intelligence agent activity” under German law.
MI5 – the UK’s domestic spy agency which has led the British side of the investigation – had been tracking the suspect for months before his arrest.
The German foreign ministry said the government was taking the allegations of Russian intelligence operations in Berlin “very seriously”, adding: “Spying on a close ally on German soil is not something we can accept.”
In a statement, the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism command said that primacy for the investigation remains with German authorities but that British officers will “liaise with German counterparts” as inquiries continue.
The Met’s counter-terrorism command is responsible for probing allegations relating to alleged breaches of the Official Secrets Act.
The UK Home Office confirmed that “an individual who was contracted to work for the government” had been arrested by the German authorities. “It would not be appropriate to comment further as there is an ongoing police investigation,” a spokesman added.
The suspect appeared at the federal court of justice in Karlsruhe on Wednesday where he was remanded in custody. One British official said it was most likely that he would face trial in Germany, rather than being extradited back to the UK.
During the cold war, Berlin became a centre for competing intelligence operations as the US and its western allies faced off against Soviet spies from the east.
Germany has been the target of Russian covert activity in recent years. In June, the federal prosecutor arrested the research assistant of a science professorial chair at a German university on allegations of passing information to a Russian secret service officer in exchange for payment.
The German authorities last year announced that a 2015 hack of the Bundestag was carried out by agents from Russia’s GRU military intelligence services, which led Berlin to issue an arrest warrant for GRU agent Dimitri Baden. Moscow denies all accusations that it has hacked foreign governments.
The most shocking incident was the 2019 killing of a former Chechen rebel leader in Berlin’s Tiergarten park. The gunman is on trial charged with the killing under contract by “agencies of the central government of the Russian Federation”.
The UK’s tense relations with Russia worsened after the 2018 attempted poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. British police accused Russian intelligence officers of having planted the deadly nerve agent, which caused the death of a UK national who had become contaminated with traces found in a perfume bottle.
Since then, the UK government has come under fire from parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee for failing to devote enough resources to countering the risk from Russia.
A report containing these criticisms was eventually published nine months after being submitted to Downing Street by the committee, prompting criticisms that ministers had suppressed its findings until after the 2019 general election.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow home secretary, described the incident in Berlin as “yet another example of the real threat posed by Russia”. He said it was “unacceptable that Conservative ministers have been so slow to enact the measures necessary to protect the UK, including implementing the recommendations of the Russia report.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021