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Austria plans overhaul of intelligence agency

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VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria announced plans on Tuesday to overhaul its main domestic intelligence agency after a controversy in which the far-right interior minister was accused by political opponents of trying to purge its ranks.

The police raided offices of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT) early this year as part of an investigation into five officials on suspicion of failing to handle sensitive information properly.

That led some allied countries to fear that intelligence they had given to Austria might have been compromised.

There have been allegations in the Austrian media and by the political opposition that the officials under investigation are close to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (OVP), which ran the Interior Ministry for decades.

The far-right Freedom Party took over control of the ministry as part of a coalition deal with the OVP last year. Interior Minister Herbert Kickl has denied suggestions there has been any purge of staff.

“Today is day one of a new start for the protection of the state and constitution in Austria,” Kickl told a news conference announcing a reform process to be mapped out this year and carried out by mid-2019.

The news conference was Kickl’s first public appearance with a newly reinstated Peter Gridling, the head of the BVT, whom Kickl had suspended for being one of the five officials under investigation.

An administrative court recently overturned that suspension, meaning Gridling can resume his duties.

“We are currently in a very difficult phase,” said Gridling, who will lead the overhaul.

“There is great uncertainty among BVT staff. We want to lift that uncertainty. We want to work with staff to get this process started.”

Kickl said the overhaul would involve strengthening “internal controls and the internal security system” and would be informed by the prosecutors’ investigation, but did not elaborate.

“There is a certain need for improvement,” he said.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; editing by Andrew Roche)

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