German intelligence blunder exposes NATO secrets: a tale of carelessness and consequences

4 March 2024, 17:03

German Intelligence Blunder Exposes NATO Secrets: A Cautionary Tale of Carelessness and Consequences
German Intelligence Blunder Exposes NATO Secrets: A Cautionary Tale of Carelessness and Consequences. Picture: LBC/Alamy
Dr Alan Mendoza

By Dr Alan Mendoza

Intelligence crises usually arrive in one of two varieties...

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The first is the classic spy thriller genre, where an enemy agency goes to extreme lengths in order to infiltrate a rival intelligence organisation and undermine it subtly from within.

Such operations are years, even decades in the making. If executed correctly, the results can be devastating, as seen in the past century by cases such as the Cambridge Five, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, who gutted their respective agencies through their nefarious actions.

But history has also seen its fair share of unforced intelligence errors to match the conspiracies, where information has leaked less because of the abilities of an intelligence agency to extract it, and more because of ineptitude.

Step forward Germany’s intelligence chiefs, reeling from the embarrassment of having had a 38 minute audio recording featuring Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, the head of the Luftwaffe air force, released by the head of Russian state broadcaster RT, Margarita Simonyan, last Friday.

The conversation contained details of German plans for the delivery of Taurus missiles to Ukraine and possible Ukrainian targets in Crimea. Even worse, the Germans present discussed British and French methods for supplying Storm Shadow missiles and cryptically suggested that the UK “have several people on the ground.”

All this allowed Russian propagandists an entertaining weekend where they decried Western escalation of the Ukraine War and warned of dire consequences if the red line of NATO troops on the ground was breached.

Fortunately, World War Three is not going to break out over this issue. The UK Ministry of Defence has made clear that “people on the ground” did not necessarily refer to British troops. Even if UK military advisors were to be present in some capacity, this would hardly be a cause for increased Russian hostilities.

But even with this relief, this episode will have consequences. The Germans responded to the leak on Sunday by claiming that Vladimir Putin was trying to “destabilise” Germany with its publication, sowing divisions with an “information war”.

This is indeed correct, as the leak has been clearly timed to coincide with ongoing internal German debates about supplying vital military equipment to Ukraine, with a view to disrupting them.

The sad fact is that the Germans have likely brought this situation on themselves, and on all of us by extension, through their own carelessness.

It has been widely reported that meeting participants were relying on an unencrypted commercially available web service to keep their secrets. Details of the dial-in appear to have been widely circulated, with some participants apparently calling from hotel rooms.

The working theory has emerged that the Russians were able to listen in simply by joining the link.

If, as seems likely, cock-up rather than conspiracy was to blame, it will be of little consolation to Ukraine, which is now into the third year of a conflict forced upon it by Russian aggression.

Ukraine desperately needs advanced military kit to punch through the Russian line in what is increasingly a war of attrition. It would be truly tragic if a German slip-up led to a political decision to withdraw missile supply that impacts Ukraine’s chances of survival.

This, not an intelligence leak, would be Russia’s real victory. And Germany should avoid another unforced error by granting it.

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