German spy agency seeks more powers amid Russia's suspected financing of far right

FILE PHOTO: Merkel attends opening ceremony of new spy agency headquarters in Berlin

By Sarah Marsh

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's domestic spy agency urged Berlin on Monday to give it more powers to monitor financial flows amid growing concerns over potential Russian financing of regional far-right parties ahead of European parliamentary elections.

While Germany's interior ministry said in February it was working on adapting existing legislation to this effect, the issue has gained fresh urgency following a report that a lawmaker for the far-right Alternative for Germany party had received money from a pro-Russian news portal.

"I would hope to have more authority" to monitor financial developments, the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency Thomas Haldenwang told a news conference.

"This would affect all areas (of security) because the efficacy of protagonists' actions depends of course also on how much funds they have, but we are especially interested in the financial streams in the right-wing extremist scene."

Germany´s security agencies have been hobbled by bureaucracy in part due to the country´s totalitarian past and resulting wariness of state encroachment on individual privacy, critics including former officials say.

Two previous heads of the foreign intelligence agency said last year the German security apparatus was degenerating into a “toothless watchdog, muzzled and hobbled with an iron chain”.

With security threats on the rise in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and amid growing Chinese rivalry, they and others say it is time to tackle those restrictions and give spy agencies more power to do their job.

Haldenwang's plea came the same day three Germans were arrested on suspicion of working with the Chinese secret service to hand over technology that could be used for military purposes.

"(Other agencies) are using the most modern communication methods with the most modern encryption technology, and we need to be able to act on the same level as our counterparts," Haldenwang said.

"It is up to lawmakers to find the right balance between guaranteeing freedom on the one hand and security on the other."

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Bernadette Baum)