Wirecard is an intelligence scandal
Interview with Cicero Magazine
Original Interview in German at Cicero Online
Is Wirecard an intelligence scandal? - "Such a political network does not come about by chance".
Jan Marsalek, ex Wirecard board member and glittering prime suspect with top contacts in politics and security agencies, is said to have fled to Moscow. The German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) has apparently known about this for months. In an interview, Left Party politician Fabio De Masi explains the intelligence entanglements and gives details that show that the scandal is more far-reaching than was previously known - and that a network of well-known politicians is involved.
INTERVIEW WITH FABIO DE MASI on 8 May 2022
For years, the payment service provider Wirecard was the German flagship company and the darling of the government. Yet the company had falsified balance sheets on a grand scale. Although there had been indications of this for years, the auditors let Wirecard have its way. A few weeks ago, the tabloid Bild-Zeitung revealed that Jan Marsalek, the right-hand man of Wirecard founder Markus Braun, had allegedly fled to Moscow - and that the German BND had known about it for months.
The financial expert Fabio De Masi sat in the Bundestag for Die Linke from 2017 to 2021. During this time, he made a name for himself with his energetic investigation of two financial scandals: In the Finance Committee of the Bundestag, he dealt with the Cum-Ex fraud, and as member of the Wirecard Committee, he investigated the failures of German authorities. Last year, he announced his retirement from politics in an open letter in which he accused his party of elitist aloofness.
Mr. De Masi, the former board member of Wirecard, Jan Marsalek, who is suspected of committing million-dollar fraud, is said to have a pronounced penchant for agent thrillers. With Wirecard, he was apparently able to live out his fantasies. How did he manage to arouse the interest of the secret services?
Wirecard grew up in the early phase of the Internet with payment processing for online gambling and pornography. At that time, there was not yet big business with online shopping as there is today with Amazon. Data transfer was slow, it took a long time for a website to build up. But with payment processing in online gambling and pornography, it was possible to make money from people's addiction. For example, through so-called dialers that installed themselves in the background of porn users and then led to high telephone charges when surfing the internet. Online gambling is used for money laundering by organised crime and terrorists because turnover can be easily manipulated. This made Wirecard interesting for the intelligence services. In addition, Wirecard was ideal for disguising payments itself, for example, for activities of the intelligence services abroad. I am convinced that Marsalek used this to cooperate with many intelligence services.
From what do you conclude that?
Where should I start? Two former German intelligence coordinators emerge in Wirecard's and Marsalek's environment. Klaus-Dieter Fritsche (CSU) and Bernd Schmidbauer (CDU). His escape aide was a high-ranking former agent of the Austrian Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Homeland Security), Martin Weiss. Another ex-constitutional protector from Austria and suspected Russian spy, Egisto O., is said to have accessed police databases for him. Both were at the centre of the so-called BVT affair in Austria about the infiltration of the Austrian constitutional protection service by Russian services. Marsalek once requested an entire customer record from Wirecard - according to his account for the BND (German external intelligence agency - Bundesnachrichtendienst).
You say he cooperated with many intelligence services - which ones besides the German and Austrian ones?
Marsalek faced prosecution in the US for online gambling payment processing, which is strictly sanctioned there. He was named in a request for mutual legal assistance from the USA to the Munich public prosecutor's office in 2015. Marsalek was in contact with former CIA agent and later Republican politician Gary Berntsen in 2016 because of these problems, who was supposed to help sort this out. The investigation in Munich was later dropped. Former Libyan intelligence chief El- Obeidi also worked for Marsalek.
Libya was in chaos after the bombings by France and Britain. Austria, with its oil company OMV, was dependent on Libyan oil. And Libya was the most important escape route for refugees across the Mediterranean after the Balkan route was closed. At the same time, Islamist forces were boosted by the turmoil of war. Marsalek also organised his own security policy dialogues with a local politician from the CSU Munich. There, it was sometimes about Ukraine and once also about Libya. Ex French president Nicolas Sarkozy, former prime minister of Bavaria Edmund Stoiber and high-ranking military officers such as the former military policy advisor to the German Chancellor, Erich Vad, came. Marsalek, with the support of a military officer and a high-ranking official of the Austrian Ministry of the Interior, tried to set up a militia in Libya with Russian mercenaries to ward off refugees.
Keyword refugees, Wirecard also wanted to introduce a Refugee Card for the federal state of Bavaria and Austria. What's that all about?
The former Vice-Chancellor of the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), Michael Spindelegger, lobbied for the Refugee Card, and the CDU politician Udo Schulze-Brockhausen briefed Marsalek on the progress in Bavaria. Schulze-Brockhausen was also connected to the Ukrainian oligarch Firtasch, for whom Marsalek organised an account at the Wirecard Bank after other banks no longer wanted him because the USA wanted him extradited from Austria. Refugees should only be able to dispose of cash benefits digitally with the Refugee Card. Of course, this data would also have been interesting for secret services.
It all sounds like something out of a bad spy movie.
It gets better. In 2018, Jan Marsalek waved classified documents from the International Chemical Weapons Organisation on the assassination of Russian ex-agent Sergei Skripal and the formula for the nerve agent Novichok around in front of British financial investors.
You have to explain the background briefly.
Novichok is a nerve agent that was developed in Soviet Union laboratories during the Cold War and is alleged to have been used in the Skripal assassination - it was a big issue in the UK. Officers from the Russian military intelligence agency GRU are alleged to have applied the substance to the door handle of Skripal's house. When all this was still top secret, Marsalek waved the classified documents, which contained the Novichok formula on the one hand, but also the Russian statement on the Skripal attack, around in front of British traders.
How did he get hold of them?
A senior diplomat from the Austrian Foreign Ministry, Johannes Peterlik, is said to have requested the documents in his function as Secretary General at the Foreign Ministry and then handed them over to the suspected Russian spy Egisto O. That Marsalek bragged about it so openly, and that the Financial Times, according to its report, was able to see the documents as early as 2018, only suggests that he even wanted this to become public. If Marsalek is waving it around, the Russians can say, "Look. Just because it's a Russian poison doesn't mean we did it - everyone has the formula anyway!" I think Marsalek wanted to send a message to the Western intelligence agencies, "If you don't protect me on this criminal powder keg Wirecard, then I'll just work with Russia!" But the Financial Times didn't do him the favour and only reported on it in July 2020, when Marsalek was already on the run after the Wirecard insolvency.
What did the German security authorities know?
In the same month that Marsalek was bragging about the documents and nothing was yet public knowledge, retired intelligence coordinator Bernd Schmidbauer sought out Marsalek about Novichok. Marsalek's business partner, the constitutional protector Egisto O., was also being investigated by the German Federal Criminal Police Office for spying on Russia on German territory. But the German services allegedly want to have heard nothing, and Schmidbauer is said to have been with Marsalek only as a pensioner and private person. Who is supposed to believe that?
Couldn't Schmidbauer simply be in cahoots with corrupt officials from Austria? Without the knowledge of German authorities?
Schmidbauer has repeatedly emphasised, both in the affair about the Austrian Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the BVT scandal, and in the Nowitschok affair about Marsalek, that he had exchanged information with a network of former members of the security authorities. This makes perfect sense: Schmidbauer, as a private person, is not obliged to inform security agencies about Marsalek's activities, and the secret services can then pretend that they had no official knowledge. However, if Schmidbauer had only acted on his own account, the federal government - for example in the course of the BVT scandal in Austria under FPÖ interior minister Herbert Kickl - would have had to say: "That's an elderly confused gentleman who would like to be picked up from Vienna central station!"
Which she didn't do.
No. Schmidbauer gave interviews and met ministers of the Austrian government. He told the press about internal meetings of the Bern Club of Western domestic intelligence services in Helsinki, which wanted to kick out the BVT, and played it down. He literally referred to his "friends" in the German security authorities. Schmidbauer was apparently travelling with the approval of part of the secret services. Until autumn 2018, Hans-Georg Maaßen (the former head of the homeland security service in Germany that was fired over criticism of Angela Merkels refugee policy) was still president of the Office for the German Protection of the Constitution. In February 2019, the federal government even sent ex-intelligence coordinator Fritsche to Austria to support Kickl in reforming the BVT. Fritsche also worked for Wirecard. The Chancellery gave its approval for everything.
Why do the German secret services deny everything?
They don't want to admit that they worked with Marsalek because he was a Russian asset who has now left for Russia. Then the question would also arise why they let Marsalek leave the country and why they let Olaf Scholz and Angela Merkel lobby for Wirecard in China. And then there was also the dubious short-selling ban on Wirecard.
At the beginning of 2019, when reports of falsified balance sheets at Wirecard were already beginning to escalate, the financial supervisory authority BaFin imposed a two-month short-selling ban - in other words, an official ban on speculating on falling prices of the company, even though the Bundesbank was strictly against it. A highly unusual procedure that was interpreted as a government bailout, especially since the short-selling ban ended up on the table at the Finance Ministry with the then State Secretary Jörg Kukies and the then Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. To what extent could there also be a secret service connection in this story?
I can only speculate on that. There are conspicuous features, for example that Marsalek also made a statement in person to the public prosecutor's office that led to the short-selling ban.
Marsalek claimed to the public prosecutor's office that the news agency Bloomberg was blackmailing Wirecard for six million euros, otherwise they would go into critical coverage with the Financial Times. The key witness for this story was a British drug dealer who was later found dead. Based on this wild conspiracy theory, BaFin issued the only short-selling ban for a single company in the history of the Federal Republic.
What role does the Federal Government play in the whole story?
After the Nowitschok leak, which I am convinced the German security authorities knew about, the then Finance Minister Olaf Scholz personally negotiated in February 2019 as part of the German-Chinese financial dialogue that the Chinese market be opened to Wirecard. Wirecard was to be the first foreign company to receive a license for the entire Chinese financial market. That has never happened before. That was the great diplomatic success. The former chancellor also personally lobbied China's most powerful man again in autumn 2019 to merge Wirecard with a Chinese gambling provider that was later busted for money laundering. In summary, this means the security agencies must have known Wirecard was criminal, and yet they let the federal government lobby China. And before that, a short-selling ban was imposed based on a crude conspiracy story.
Why these attempts to bail out an obviously high-stakes company?
Perhaps it was hoped that all the holes in the balance sheets would be plugged when Wirecard entered the Chinese market. A bet on the future, then, start-ups have this motto: "Fake it until you make it". China is the market of the future, and there the government has lobbied for Wirecard in a way that it does not even for Deutsche Bank. The loan officer of the Ministry of Finance at the German Embassy in Beijing, who oversaw the German-Chinese dialogue, bought Wirecard shares himself. Even then, when the reports about falsified balance sheets became louder and louder. He was 100 per cent sure that this company had some kind of state guarantee. I wonder why?
This is also supported by the fact that on 25 June 2020, two days before the Wirecard insolvency, the Federal Ministry of Finance, in the shape of State Secretary Jörg Kukies, attempted to pressure the state-owned Ipex Bank, a KfW subsidiary, on the phone to extend and increase its loan to Wirecard. One day after the company announced that the famous 1.9 billion euros in escrow accounts probably do not exist. So far, the looking the other way and the rescue attempts have been justified primarily by an exuberant economic patriotism. According to the motto: Finally there is a kind of German Silicon Valley company.
That is certainly one aspect, but Wirecard was also an asset of our news services. I am firmly convinced that Wirecard is also an intelligence scandal.
In the Wirecard Committee last year, as part of the final report, you said: “This billion-dollar lie, this illusion factory Wirecard was also only conceivable because they organized a political network.” Who else belongs to this network?
Do you know that payment processing for online gambling outside Schleswig-Holstein was illegal in Germany for a long time?
So you are saying that Wirecard is the reason why it is no longer so?
Under pressure from black-green-ruled Hessen, Schleswig-Holstein, where a Jamaica coalition is in power, and Bavaria, a major liberalisation was pushed through nationwide. A state treaty. And now guess who was to become the central processor for all online gambling in Germany?
Exactly. Such political entanglements have a pattern. Hans-Georg Maaßen, the former president of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, was a consultant for System 360, a company owned by ex-BND chief August Hanning. This company in turn did business with Tipico - a betting company whose franchisees repeatedly appear in press reports on money laundering. Hanning, in turn, was a member of the supervisory board of the Latvian PNB Banka, which later slid into insolvency and was accused of systematically laundering money for criminal networks in Russia, together with ex-Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen. It is no coincidence that a former Bavarian police chief worked for Wirecard and was a strong advocate for the liberalisation of online gambling, although security authorities were always strictly against it.
You mean Waldemar Kindler.
Yes. Such a political network does not come about by chance.
You said in the preliminary interview that the interesting question is not why Jan Marsalek is now in Russia, but why he was able to flee so easily in the first place. Can you elaborate on that?
Marsalek was able to leave the country in the summer of 2020 in the company of an Austrian ex-agent and an FPÖ member of parliament, and he was still being allowed to look for his money in the Philippines (as he wrongly claimed) unmolested for almost a week - and that was shortly after BaFin and the public prosecutor's office knew that 1.9 billion euros were missing from the balance sheet. The question is therefore not whether we will ever get Marsalek back now that he is in Russia, but the real question is: why did German security authorities let him walk out even though they knew he was working with the Russians? Germany has thus made itself Putin's hand puppet.
When he's in Russia, he can come clean at any time. The security authorities must have considered that this would make them vulnerable to Putin's blackmail.
The security authorities did not want the public to know that they had covered up for a criminal enterprise and let themselves be led around by the nose by a Russian asset who bragged about the Novichok formula in public. So far, it is only publicly known that the BND did not respond to Russia's offer to talk to Marsalek in Russia - allegedly because it could have been a trap and the meeting could have been photographed to discredit the BND. At present, however, information is accumulating according to which the negotiations were already further advanced than has been publicly admitted so far. The Russian side is said to have already made concrete demands for Marsalek's extradition.
That would be a completely new dimension.
Indeed. In this respect, the German government must clarify this comprehensively. So far, however, it has been hiding behind the investigations of the public prosecutor's office in answers to questions from MPs in which I participated. This is grotesque. Neither the Chancellery nor the BND have informed the public prosecutor's office of their findings.
What would actually be the problem if the conversation with Marsalek had been photographed?
There would be no problem. This excuse is nonsense and an intellectual insult. It is precisely the task of secret services to track down Marsalek. The secrecy sows even more doubt. That is why I am making an official offer to the German government and Mr Marsalek at this point via the Cicero interview: If the Russian side is willing and officially confirms that it has Jan Marsalek, then I will be happy to meet him. I also have no problem if the conversation is recorded - he can calmly tell his whole story. Germany has no extradition treaty with Russia, so it would be completely unproblematic for Marsalek to share his findings.
But it could be problematic for the German government. Why should it take you up on your offer?
The German government certainly has no interest in it. But maybe Jan Marsalek? And after all, wanted posters with Jan Marsalek and the telephone number of the Munich police are hanging all over the country. The BND and the Chancellery must have kind of overlooked that. They did not inform the Munich public prosecutor's office about the offer to talk to Marsalek. If they had, the Bundestag's investigative committee would have had to be informed truthfully. The committee has denied any knowledge of Marsalek's whereabouts. The responsible department head in the Chancellery is now ambassador to the Vatican. He should start practicing confession. Because telling the untruth before a committee of enquiry is punishable by law.
We have talked a lot about the German authorities, but there are also conspicuously many Austrians involved in this story, including Jan Marsalek from Vienna. What is this intelligence connection between Russia and Austria?
Austria has been infiltrated by Russian networks, and that also applies to the security authorities. Austria is a small country with a party network in the security authorities. Since Austria is neutral and a hinge between East and West with many international organisations like the Atomic Energy Agency, it has always been a playground for agents.
What do you base that on?
The Financial Times recently called Austria an aircraft carrier of Russian espionage. Of course, not everyone in the security agencies belongs to this network. There are people who can be bought and there are people who, out of conviction, strive for strategic autonomy from the USA. I myself have always been in favour of taking Russian security interests into account in order to prevent a war like the one in Ukraine. But that doesn't mean you have to get into bed with Putin. Since the West's wars in the Middle East have strengthened Islamism, one or two constitutional protectors may be happy to see that Russia has, for example, crushed the IS in Syria, which got out of control in the fight against Assad and - this is also true - was financed by Western allies. But I also have concrete evidence of these Russian connection.
What is it?
The owner of the cyber security company that protected all the emails of ministers, the financial supervisory authority BaFin and even the Federal Criminal Police Office, Nico von Rintelen, had contacts to initiate business with Marsalek, his escape aides and the diplomat Johannes Peterlik, who is said to have spread the Novichok formula. He even invested in another company as a saviour in distress, in which Marsalek was also involved and for which the FPÖ MP who organised Marsalek's plane for the escape arranged the funding. Rintelen is a German descendant of Pushkin and a Russian tsar. More than that, he got his start-up capital for the company from a multi-million dollar block of shares in a Russian gas company, which he received for his work for the Putin-affiliated oligarch Leonid Mikhelson, who, curiously, is not sanctioned in the EU, unlike in Britain. I personally pointed out these risks to cyber security to both Olaf Scholz and Angela Merkel publicly in the investigative committee, because I had come across von Rintelen in an Austrian interrogation transcript.
How did you come across it?
It was a coincidental find because ex-intelligence coordinator Schmidbauer and the two BVT agents around Marsalek had exchanged information about me. This happened after I had publicly appealed for information about the whereabouts of Marsalek's escape aide, since the federal government was apparently not interested in it. The escape aide Martin Weiss was questioned about this by the public prosecutor's office and the transcript was then leaked to me.
How did Olaf Scholz and Angela Merkel react?
They acted clueless and surprised. Funnily enough, the Chancellor's mobile phone kept ringing in committee afterwards. Wolfgang Schmidt, then State Secretary for Finance and now Scholz's Head of the Chancellor's Office, still contacted me in the evening and said, "Olaf is very worried!" He wanted to know what clues I had. I then sent Schmidt screenshots. He still told me that after the NSA hacked the Chancellor's mobile phone, they were so happy to have commissioned a German start-up. I never heard from Schmidt about the matter again. After I left the Bundestag, however, a member of parliament asked me about it, and it came out that Schmidt was the state secretary who had been in constant contact with Rintelen. The federal government officially replied that any close relationship between Rintelen and Marsalek or the oligarch Mikhelson, whom he describes as his mentor, was irrelevant. Later, Der Spiegel, the Austrian magazine Zack Zack and Capital reported when we received evidence such as personal chats from Mr. Rintelen. In the end, von Rintelen sold the company.
As a layman, one slowly loses track of all the entanglements.
Sorry, but I have more. I'm not naming any people yet, but after the Wirecard committee I received an immoral offer from a former high-ranking employee from the military complex to join the advisory board of a company whose major shareholder, Cevdet Caner, had relations with Marsalek. The company is the Adler Group, which, like Wirecard, has become the focus of a British short seller and whose balance sheet has not been audited by the auditors KPMG. He always stressed that Marsalek was not in Russia. Therefore, I believe that the Wirecard scandal is an intelligence scandal. I am convinced that foreign intelligence services may have fed short sellers and the press on the one hand, and on the other hand networks in our security agencies tried to shield the criminal den with which they wanted to monitor financial flows and turn the big wheel. This all became very hot with the Nowitschok leak. And that's why Wirecard and the financial supervisory authorities preferred to talk about a conspiracy of Anglo-Saxon speculators against a solid German company.
That was also a popular narrative of politicians like Max Otte from the ultraconservative Werte Union. How are politicians dealing with the case today? Last year, the Wirecard Committee submitted its final report. Did it have an effect?
Often, a committee of enquiry only proves its worth years later. The exciting question is whether there are political forces that really address the issue of better combating money laundering and arming Germany for this purpose. Now, all of a sudden, everyone is all excited about the oligarchs because of the war. I'm fed up with mouth heroes in the Ukraine war. Where were all these people when it came to uncovering these networks? I now have to do the work of MPs from the sidelines and continue to ask questions through colleagues. I do this at certain risks to my security and without getting paid for it. I can no longer do that in the long run. Politicians want to sit this out and wear down the public. But the good news is: there are people who will never give up!
The interview was conducted by Ulrich Thiele.
Translation Fabio De Masi