Germany’s cybersecurity chief was sacked on Tuesday after a TV satire show accused him of having ties to Russian intelligence services, with the country on high alert over potential sabotage activities by Moscow.
Arne Schoenbohm, head of the Federal Cyber Security Authority (BSI), had been at the centre of intense speculation since the popular show accused him in early October of contacts with Russia.
He has now been relieved of his duties “with immediate effect”, an interior ministry spokesman told AFP on Tuesday, citing “the allegations revealed and widely discussed in the media” as one of the reasons behind the move.
The allegations “have permanently damaged the necessary public trust” in Schoenbohm as head of the authority, the spokesman said.
“This is all the more true in the current crisis situation regarding Russian hybrid warfare,” he added.
Schoenbohm was accused in the satire show on broadcaster ZDF of contacts with Russian secret services through an association he co-founded in 2012 known as the Cyber Security Council Germany.
One member of that association, Berlin cybersecurity company Protelion, reportedly operated under the name “Infotecs GmbH” until the end of March.
The report said this was a subsidiary of Russian cybersecurity company OAO Infotecs, founded by a former employee of the Russian KGB intelligence service.
According to other German media reports, Schoenbohm had maintained contact with the Cyber Security Council Germany until recently and the interior ministry had on August 24 approved a request for him to give a speech to the association.
The interior ministry spokesman on Tuesday said all allegations against Schoenbohm would be “thoroughly and emphatically examined and subjected to a detailed evaluation”.
– ‘Great annoyance’ –
The cybersecurity chief would be “presumed innocent” in the meantime, he said.
The Handelsblatt daily had reported that there was “great annoyance” within the government over the allegations.
A planned joint appearance by Schoenbohm and Interior Minister Nancy Faeser to present a cybersecurity report was cancelled last week.
Schoenbohm told Spiegel on Tuesday that as he had not heard back over the allegations, he had himself sought disciplinary proceedings to clarify the issue.
He added that he did not know “what the ministry has checked and what are the concrete allegations against me.”
Germany has in recent years repeatedly accused Russia of online espionage attempts.
The most high-profile incident blamed on Russian hackers to date was a cyberattack in 2015 that paralysed the computer network of the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, forcing the entire institution offline for days while it was fixed.
Russia denies being behind such actions.
Tensions between Russia and Germany have only intensified since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The BSI has warned that companies, individuals and critical infrastructure are at risk of being hit by Russian cyberattacks.
Last week, the rail network in the north of the country was temporarily paralysed by what operator Deutsche Bahn called “sabotage”, with some officials pointing the finger at Russia.
Important communications cables were cut at two sites, forcing rail services to be halted for three hours and causing travel chaos for thousands of passengers.
Moscow is also suspected of being behind explosions last month that set off leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, which connect Russia to Germany.