European aerospace and defense company Airbus has dismissed 16 employees in a division handling German military projects, including a department manager, without notice, after it was revealed that they were suspected of involvement in industrial espionage.
All of the fired employees were suspected of spying on corporate secrets and of illegally obtaining confidential documents on future projects of the German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr).
Airbus is one of the major suppliers of the German Armed Forces; it regularly wins contracts to provide the Bundeswehr with new airplanes and helicopters, as well as for retrofitting existing equipment.
The company first alerted the German authorities about some “irregularities” within its handling of sensitive information back in September. At that time, the Munich Prosecutor’s Office also opened its own investigation into the case, which it said is still ongoing.
The case, however, dates back to autumn 2018, when an employee asked his supervisors and the legal and compliance department whether he should have access to a classified document he had just received. What came next was a massive inspection involving an audit of some 1.5 million documents and staff interviews.
Some 90 people initially fell under suspicion of illegally obtaining and possessing confidential documents, including some data on the Bundeswehr’s military contracts, such as those on communication systems for the troops. Eventually, employees of the Munich-based Program Line Communications, Intelligence and Security (CIS) ended up being suspected of“misappropriation” and “abuse”of some customer documents.
In September, prosecutors also opened an inquiry into “betrayal of business and trade secrets,” as well as “illegal acquisition and transfer of confidential information.” The Bundeswehr also said it was aware of the situation and has taken a disciplinary measure against an unnamed person within the Armed Forces.
It remains unclear, however, how the suspects got the classified documents and whether they’d actually sought to use them to strengthen the company’s bid on future contracts or pass on the documents they obtained to any third party. While Munich prosecutors have assured journalists that no “secret” documents were affected, and Airbus chose to take a “proactive” action, the incident could still put a strain on its relations with Berlin.
Some German MPs, who were briefed on the matter by the Defense Ministry in September, argued that the company cannot enjoy the German government’s trust anymore.
“Normally, a company would now be barred from being awarded [state] contracts,” Tobias Lindner, a defense policy spokesman within the Green Party’s parliamentary faction, said at the time.