Germany publicly told the top U.S. spy official there to leave on Thursday, a rare and forceful act illustrating deep anger over revelations of American espionage that are disrupting one of Washington’s chief alliances.
The action came amid investigations into foreign spying by government workers and open questions over U.S. surveillance in Germany, a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
In the two cases that came to light over the past week, an employee of the Federal Intelligence Service, known as the BND, and an official at the Defense Ministry are being investigated on suspicion of passing secrets to the U.S., people briefed on the matters say.
Officials and high-ranking members of parliament on Thursday described deep frustration in the German government that the U.S., despite months of discussion over the need to patch up relations, hasn’t seriously addressed the latest allegations.
“U.S. policy has simply been to stonewall, to answer no questions, and to leave Germany alone with this problem,” said Hans-Christian Ströbele, an opposition member of the special parliamentary committee that was briefed by senior German security and government officials on Thursday. “There is substantial anger in the government.”
In one example of the frustration, a top German intelligence official told the committee that a call from Central Intelligence Agency chief John Brennan earlier this week shed little light on the current investigations, according to people present at the briefing.
The official said Mr. Brennan offered little but platitudes about the value of the trans-Atlantic alliance and expressed frustration about the bad press, according to the account, earlier reported by German magazine Der Spiegel.
In Washington, officials declined to comment about Germany’s action or the allegations of U.S. spying, while repeating that they valued their alliance with Berlin.
“Any sort of comment on any reported intelligence acts would put at risk U.S. assets, U.S. personnel and the United States national security,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “We do continue to be in touch with the Germans at a variety of levels, including through law enforcement, diplomatic and even intelligence channels.”
Relations between Germany and the U.S. are now at their lowest point since the run-up to the Iraq war, when then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder loudly opposed military intervention. The difference this time is that Ms. Merkel has been a strong proponent of working with the U.S. on issues as diverse as the Ukraine crisis and a new trans-Atlantic free-trade agreement, despite growing anti-American attitudes at home.
The question now is how deeply the row over U.S. spying—a particularly sensitive issue in Germany because of its experience with mass surveillance under Nazi and Communist regimes—will affect other issues in which the two countries cooperate.
Ms. Merkel’s spokesman, in announcing that the representative of U.S. intelligence agencies had been instructed to leave, said the government would seek to continue working with Washington.
“It remains essential for Germany to work closely and trustingly with Western partners, especially with the U.S., for the safety of its citizens and forces abroad,” the spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said. “But trust and openness is necessary for this from both sides.”
Ms. Merkel remained under pressure to take further steps to penalize the U.S. Opposition politicians intensified calls this week that she suspend negotiations for a trans-Atlantic free-trade agreement favored by businesses in the U.S. and Europe but viewed skeptically by most Germans. Gregor Gysi, parliamentary chief of the opposition Left Party, said kicking out the U.S. official was “one obvious first consequence, but really only one” of the espionage affair.
“It’s a symbolic act, albeit a significant one, that is mainly directed at the German people,” Norbert Röttgen, a top ally of Ms. Merkel in parliament, said of telling the U.S. official to leave. “Nobody in a position of authority here wants to do any more damage.”
Despite Thursday’s events, the seriousness of the alleged spying that emerged in the last week remained unclear.
The evidence against a midlevel Defense Ministry employee whose home and office were searched on Wednesday wasn’t strong enough for him to be arrested, people briefed on the investigation said. But investigators continued to examine whether he passed along classified information to a U.S. contact, the people said.
German authorities also continued investigating a low-level BND employee who was arrested last week on suspicions of seeking to spy for the Russians and who subsequently admitted that he had been selling secret documents to the U.S. Those documents were “less delicate” than what the Defense Ministry official had access to, according to a statement issued by the conservative bloc allied with Ms. Merkel in parliament.
Despite the ongoing investigations, top German officials have expressed shock that the U.S. didn’t rein in espionage activities here after last year’s outrage over revelations of National Security Agency programs, including the monitoring of Ms. Merkel’s cellphone.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, one of Germany’s longest-serving and most popular politicians, said in a televised appearance Wednesday evening that the country needed U.S. intelligence help to defend itself against terror threats. But he described the alleged American attempts to spy via German government employees as “idiotic.”
“So much stupidity makes one want to cry,” Mr. Schäuble said.
Source: Wall Street Journal