Authorities have arrested three West German computer "hackers" on suspicion that they carried out international electronic espionage and sold sensitive data to the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB, judicial officials said Thursday.
The ARD television network--which made public the breakup of the spy ring after one of its affiliates carried out a 10-month investigation--said the hackers helped the KGB gain access to computer data banks of the Pentagon, the nuclear arms laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The KGB also received computer passwords and other materials from nuclear, space and commercial electronic data banks in West Germany, France, Switzerland, Britain and Japan, ARD said.
"If current suspicions are confirmed, what we very surely have is a new quality of espionage against our data systems," Gerhard Boeden, Bonn's chief of domestic counterespionage, said in an interview with ARD.
Existing Western computer systems are "not sufficiently" secured, said Boeden, who is president of the Federal Constitutional Protection Office. The agency is roughly equivalent to the FBI.
Spokesmen for the Interior Ministry and the federal prosecutor's office did not deny the detailed ARD report. But they provided only sketchy information on grounds that an investigation is still under way.
A government spokeswoman in Bonn on Thursday evening declined to comment on a report by the West German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur quoting unidentified government security sources as saying the case is "extremely grave."
In Washington, the Pentagon issued a one-sentence statement saying: "Until possibly affected components of the Department of Defense have had a chance to analyze the report, we have no reaction."
The hackers apparently provided the Soviets with opportunities to obtain North Atlantic Treaty Organization military secrets and information about sensitive high technology, the German news agency quoted the sources as saying.
ARD described the affair as the most serious case of Soviet Bloc espionage to be discovered in West Germany since 1974, when Chancellor Willy Brandt resigned after a close personal aide was found to be an East German spy.
Two men have been arrested in Hanover and a third in West Berlin, judicial officials said. Authorities have searched at least six residences in West Berlin, Hanover and Hamburg and confiscated a substantial quantity of evidence, they said.
ARD reported that two KGB agents obtained top-secret computer data from the three hackers in exchange for money and drugs.
The KGB is believed to have used computer passwords and other information obtained from the hackers to penetrate the U.S. Defense Department staff data bank OPTIMIS and U.S. military supply depot computers, ARD said.
It also was suspected that the Soviets penetrated computers of the West European nuclear research center CERN in Geneva; the European Space Agency; the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, West Germany; the French arms and electronics company Thomson, and other West European and Japanese electronics companies, ARD said.
It said the hackers are believed to have helped the Soviets obtain access to Western technology for manufacturing silicon chips, which are the central components of modern computers.
The group of hackers first met in Hanover in 1985, ARD said. Later they began cooperating with two KGB agents, at first freely and later under pressure and threats from the Soviets, it said.