Zwei verdeckte Männer vis-à-vis zur Illustration des Arbeitsfelds „Spionage- und Proliferationsabwehr“, Keyvisual Spionageabwehr

How do foreign intelligence services operate?

Intelligence collection from within legal residencies

In Germany, many countries have diplomatic and consular representations, with some of them housing so-called legal residencies, meaning the basis of a foreign intelligence service for which an official (e.g. embassy, consulate general) or semi-official (e.g. press agency, airline) representation in the host country serves as cover. The intelligence officers purportedly operating there as diplomats or journalists either overtly or covertly collect intelligence of their own accord or provide support to intelligence operations that are directly controlled by the services' headquarters in their home countries.

Intelligence services obtain a great deal of their information from open sources. They specifically analyse dailies, news magazines and specialist publications in the relevant target country. Intelligence officers also cultivate interesting contacts, and gain the desired information using careful questioning.

If relevant target persons have access to interesting or sensitive information, intelligence officers will intensify the contact and add conspiratorial elements to the approach. For instance, the agent handlers will move the meetings to neutral places such as restaurants and ask the contact to treat the conversation confidentially. The thus far overt means of extracting information will then be extended by specifically tasking the contact to procure information. The intelligence officers give the target persons the impression that they are especially important and grant them material benefits such as presents or invitations to restaurants.

Due to their significance, some of these contacts are transformed into classic agent running operations. In this context, the agent handler will increase the precautions for personal meetings and will specifically instruct the agent to obtain especially sensitive information. This kind of contact will make even unsuspecting individuals realise the true nature of this relationship.

For example, an intelligence officer accredited as a diplomat to the Russian Consulate General in Bonn (North Rhine-Westphalia) ran an agent from a neighbouring country. Following the preliminary proceedings by the Generalbundesanwalt (GBA, Public Prosecutor General), the agent handler had to leave Germany in September 2014.

Intelligence collection activities under central control

Numerous intelligence services, however, run intelligence collection operations directly from the services' headquarters in their own countries. Agent handlers travel abroad at short notice to meet agents there.

Russian intelligence services continue to use "illegals" – in many cases intelligence officers who have been infiltrated under false identities into their target countries for long-term espionage missions. The counter-intelligence authorities have particular difficulty in identifying intelligence officers acting under such a cover. Despite the high costs and the enormous operational efforts involved, the Russian intelligence services maintain this strategy, as indicated by the identification of more than 15 illegals in the NATO member states, including Germany, since 2006.

In July 2013, a married couple who had acted as "illegals" were sentenced to several years' imprisonment by the Stuttgart Higher Regional Court for 'intelligence activities on behalf of a foreign secret service' in a particularly serious case. This couple had been living here for more than 20 years under a false Austrian identity.

Cyber attacks

Intelligence services regard attacks on IT systems as a significant and suitable method to collect intelligence. For further information, click HERE.

Making contact via social networks

Intelligence services also seize the opportunities offered by social networks. They often contain a wide variety of personal information on potential targets’ biographies, vocational trainings, occupations, friends, colleagues, and managers.

Intelligence services select individuals who seem to be interesting, and contact them claiming to be head hunters or scientists for example, and offer them work opportunities and a salary. The targets are then invited to the service’s home country, e.g. China, where attempts to entangle them in intelligence activities are made. They may be asked, for instance, to write reports and analyses against payment.

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Anti-terrorist Hotline: +49(0)221/ 792-3366

Anti-terrorist Hotline: +49(0)221/ 792-3366

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