Germany alarmed about potential Russian interference in election: spy chief

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany is alarmed that Russia may seek to interfere in its national elections next year, the domestic intelligence chief said, echoing concerns raised in the United States before Donald Trump’s presidential election victory.

Hans-Georg Maassen, Germany's head of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt fuer Verfassungsschutz) addresses a news conference in Berlin, Germany, June 28, 2016. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

German officials have accused Moscow of trying to manipulate German media to fan popular angst over issues like the migrant crisis, weaken voter trust in moderate mainstream government under Chancellor Angela Merkel and breed divisions within the European Union so that it drops sanctions against Moscow.

Intelligence officials have also pointed to Russian support for eurosceptic, anti-immigrant parties in Germany and across the EU. Last week, Merkel said she could not rule out Russia interfering in Germany’s 2017 election through Internet attacks and misinformation campaigns.

Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the domestic BfV intelligence agency, cited the high-profile case last year of a German-Russian girl who Russian media said was kidnapped and raped by migrants in Berlin, a claim later refuted by German authorities.

“This could happen again next year and we are alarmed,” Maassen told Reuters in an interview late on Tuesday. “We have the impression that this is part of a hybrid threat that seeks to influence public opinion and decision-making processes.”

He said it was important to publicly expose such campaigns. “When people realize that the information that they are getting is not true..., then the toxic lies lose their effectiveness.”

There was no immediate response from the Kremlin to a written request for comment on Maassen’s remarks.

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France’s intelligence service has also warned of possible Russian intervention in its spring 2017 election campaign.

Russian officials have denied all accusations of manipulation and interference intended to weaken the EU.

U.S. intelligence officials warned in the run-up to the Nov. 8 presidential election of efforts to undermine the credibility of the vote that they believed were backed by the Russian government. Kremlin officials denied any such effort.

German and other European security officials have accused Russian media in the past of launching what they call an “information war” against Germany, the EU’s pre-eminent political and economic power.

Merkel’s government has maintained dialogue with Moscow but tensions have mounted over Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria, and over its alleged attempts to sway German media.

Earlier this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov irked his German counterpart by raising the case of the German-Russian girl and accused Berlin of “sweeping problems under the rug”. The Berlin public prosecutor’s office said a medical examination determined that the girl had not been raped.

The case underscored the mutual suspicion that officials from both countries say extends to the highest levels of government, fueled by opposing visions for Europe and the Middle East. Those differences have led to clashes at diplomatic negotiating tables, in cyberspace and in the media.

Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow; editing by Mark Heinrich