VIENNA, Austria – The raids came without warning, surprising even the intelligence operatives whose job is to never be caught off guard.
On the morning of Feb. 28, police stormed offices of Austria’s main domestic intelligence agency and carted off some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets in open crates and plastic bags. Top spy service officials working from home that day were greeted by officers threatening to break down their doors.
The extraordinary decision to target the agency responsible for defending the country from a multitude of threats, including right-wing extremism, had been made by the service’s new bosses: members of the far-right Freedom Party.
The reason? Defending the totalitarian North Korean regime from an Austrian espionage operation, among others cited in the search warrant. Critics saw absurd pretext for a politically motivated stab at an independent institution that could threaten the party’s agenda. More than five months later, the impact continues to ripple across this central European nation of 9 million — and far beyond.
In a country whose geopolitical positioning between East and West has long made it a nest of spies, the hometown service has been left in disarray. “It’s paralysis,” the veteran said. “How could you work in such an environment?”
Intelligence services across the West, meanwhile, have looked on in dismay — and have chosen to protect their own secrets by freezing Austria out.
“We used to have very deep and good cooperation,” said a top European intelligence official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But since the raids, we have stopped sharing highly sensitive information. We’re worried it might get into the wrong hands.”
The raids and their aftermath reflect a messy emerging reality across Europe as parties once relegated to the fringes take power.
In Greece, Italy, Poland, Hungary and Austria, anti-establishment parties with positions on either the far left or far right have taken hold of governments, either in whole or in part. Many are closely linked to Russia, and some have ties to extremist groups that have been associated with violence.
A place in government gives these parties control of influential state institutions that are supposed to be above politics, including the courts, military and intelligence agencies.
But as Austria has shown, those theoretically independent institutions are vulnerable to political meddling — or at least the appearance of it. In the trust-is-everything realm of intelligence work, that raises tricky questions for allies, which must decide whether they can risk continued cooperation.
The Freedom Party came to power in Austria at the end of last year as the junior partner in a coalition with the center-right. The party was founded by former SS officers in the 1950s, and has ridden anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric to new heights of popularity in recent years.
The party has a formal cooperation agreement with President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, and the close ties show. Austria was a notable holdout when European Union nations banded together in March to expel Russian diplomats to protest the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal. Top Austrian officials, meanwhile, have spoken out against the E.U.’s Russian sanctions. On Saturday, Putin was a guest of honor at the wedding of Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl of the Freedom Party.
The Freedom Party had been in government before, in the early 2000s. But this is the first time it has been given control of the highly coveted Interior Ministry, which is responsible for law and order in Austria and is home to the country’s main domestic intelligence agency, known as the BVT.
Among the BVT’s work in recent years has been sniffing out Russian influence, notably attempts at election interference. The agency also has tracked Islamist extremists and investigated the activities of violent far-right groups, including Islamophobic and anti-Semitic hate crimes. Much of that work requires cross-border cooperation, especially with European allies.
Information from those investigations, among many others, was among the troves of intelligence seized by police in the February raids. To critics, the raids were nothing less than an attempt to quash intelligence work that ran counter to the party’s interests.
“Your actions intimidated those officials who are supposed to fight the extremist right,” Christian Kern, a former center-left chancellor, told Interior Minister Herbert Kickl during a parliamentary debate. “It’s a signal that will embolden the rightist scene.”
Kickl and his allies have publicly defended the raids, noting that a state prosecutor had sought a warrant and that a judge signed it. Seized documents were turned over by the police directly to the prosecutor.
The raids, he said, were in line with the rule of law. “It’s time we turn to the facts and leave aside the conspiracy theories,” Kickl said.