Germany expels US embassy official over spying row

The rift between Germany and the US grew deeper today as Angela Merkel’s government declared an American embassy official persona non grata and ordered his expulsion from the country. The official, an intelligence attaché who may or may not be the CIA’s station chief, provides the Germans a public target for their retribution after a second US spy was uncovered in the past few days:

A 31-year-old German intelligence official was arrested last week on suspicion of spying.

Reports on Wednesday said an inquiry had also begun into a German soldier.

“The German government has demanded that the American intelligence representative here in Germany leave the country,” said Clemens Binninger, an MP with the ruling Christian Democrat party.

One German legislator described the official to Europe Online Magazine as the CIA’s station chief in Berlin, although that will be a little difficult to confirm for obvious reasons [Update below]:

The chief US Central Intelligence Agency officer in Germany is to be expelled in a sign of Berlin‘s anger at two cases of possible US espionage uncovered in the past week, a senior German legislator said Thursday.

Earlier in the day, The Hill had noted the deterioration in US-German relations:

Relations between the United States and Germany sank to new depths on Wednesday as accusations emerged that a second German might have been slipping secrets to Washington.

The charge rubbed salt into wounds first opened by revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had eavesdropped on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone — a practice President Obama has renounced. …

Merkel has said reports that a German agent was handing information to the CIA, if true, would be a “clear contradiction” of trust between the two nations.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier added that the U.S.’s involvement in spying would make it “impossible for the political community to simply return to business as usual.”

U.S. Ambassador John Emerson has reportedly met with German officials multiple times in recent days to discuss the charges, and could be back for additional tongue-lashings if more revelations emerge.

Apparently, today is that day. The initial reports of a single spy were bad enough after the phone-tapping scandal last year, but suspicions that the US ran another mole within German intelligence forced Merkel into a diplomatic reaction:

News Wednesday that Germany is investigating new allegations that the United States bought secrets from a German official _ the second such probe to become public in a week _ delivered another blow to U.S.-German relations over what is now a year-old scandal of American spying on an ally.

“The American secret services are completely out of control,” said Hans-Christian Stroebele, the most senior member of Germany’s parliamentary committee investigating the National Security Agency’s activities in Germany. “They seem to think they are allowed to do everything, even in Germany.”

The most recent allegations revolve around NSA efforts to determine what Stroebele’s committee has learned. Last week, German authorities reportedly arrested a member of Germany’s foreign intelligence service for allegedly passing documents to the United States about Stroebele’s committee. Wednesday, the focus of the new investigation was a German military official.

Stroebele said the new spying efforts _ a year after it was revealed that the United States had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone and that the NSA was sweeping up millions of emails _ would prove costly to what had been a strong relationship between the nations.

One has to assume that the Germans are not so blinded by outrage here as the public stances might suggest, as they know well how the intelligence game is played. The French have been stealing industrial secrets for years, even though the two nations work much more closely together on the EU project than the US and Germany do in other areas. When these details about business-as-usual get made embarrassingly public, it forces everyone to make a public show of the outrage.

Removing a key link in the partnership through the mechanism of a diplomatic expulsion, though, goes a bit farther than contrived outrage. That’s a step one would expect to see between two antagonists, or two loosely-affiliated nations, not between close partners like the US and Germany. This may at least temporarily disrupt some of the intelligence sharing that has become key to Western security. Germany apparently feels that the risk of disruption is worth taking, which is a measure of their non-contrived anger over the revelations. Plus, Germany is probably going to conduct a mole-hunt or two, which will distract their intelligence services and potentially impact their effectiveness, and that’s bad news all over.

Normally, we’d see a tit-for-tat expulsion after this kind of move, but the Obama administration will likely let this slide. The US and Germany have too many common security interests to allow for a really serious breach to develop, and there should be some leeway given to Merkel under the circumstances. So far, the White House is keeping their collective lips sealed:

They’d be wise to let this blow over and replace the expelled attaché quickly.

Update: The Washington Post also says it’s the CIA station chief in Berlin:

Germany took the dramatic step Thursday of asking the top U.S. intelligence official in Berlin to leave the country, following two reported cases of suspected U.S. spying and the yearlong spat over eavesdropping by the National Security Agency.

The move reflects growing impatience in Germany at what is perceived as U.S. nonchalance about being caught spying on a close ally.

“The representative of the U.S. intelligence services at the United States embassy has been asked to leave Germany,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

“The request occurred against the backdrop of the ongoing investigation by federal prosecutors as well as the questions that were posed months ago about the activities of U.S. intelligence agencies in Germany,” he said. “The government takes the matter very seriously.”

That’s going to sting a bit.

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