Germany removes cyber chief accused of ties to Russia

BERLIN — The German government on Tuesday announced that it had removed the country’s cybersecurity chief after allegations emerged of links to Russian intelligence.

The Interior Ministry said it had decided that Arne Schönbohm, president of the Federal Office for Information Security, should step away from his duties “with immediate effect.”

The move comes after a German satire show this month accused Schönbohm of maintaining indirect contacts with Russian intelligence through the Cyber Security Council Germany, a body he helped found a decade ago.

Branding him a “cyber clown,” the program “ZDF Magazin Royale” pointed out that while running the government’s top cybersecurity agency, Schönbohm continued to maintain contacts with the foundation. That stirred controversy because of the foundation membership of Protelion, reported to be a rebranded German arm of the Russian cybersecurity firm Infotecs, founded by a former KGB agent.

The allegations “have permanently damaged the necessary public trust in the neutrality and impartiality” of Schönbohm in his position, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Britta Beylage-Haarmann said in a statement.

“This is all the more true in the current crisis situation regarding Russian hybrid warfare,” she added. However, she said, Schönbohm would be “presumed innocent” until the details have been “thoroughly and vigorously investigated.”

The removal is “not final” and subject to the results of the investigation, she said, citing German employment laws.

German officials have warned of an increase in Russian cyberwarfare, espionage and disinformation campaigns in the country amid Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Following the allegations, the Cyber Security Council Germany said it had ejected Protelion after it became aware of its links to Russian intelligence through a media inquiry. Council President Hans-Wilhelm Dünn said allegations that the wider organization could be influenced by Russian authorities were “absurd.”

But German press reports have pointed out that Dünn signed a cooperation agreement between his foundation and a Russian counterpart in 2019, after which Schönbohm asked subordinates to avoid associations with the foundation. Despite that, the government cyber chief gave a speech at a recent anniversary event for the council , Der Spiegel reported, though it added that the engagement was approved by the Interior Ministry.

Schönbohm told the German magazine last week that he had asked the ministry to initiate disciplinary proceedings himself to gain some clarity over the allegations.

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