Light shed on spycraft-statecraft conflicts.
WASHINGTON – When President Obama placed a call to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany last Thursday, he had a busy agenda: to consult with a close ally and to mobilize wavering Europeans to put more pressure on Russia to end its incursions in Ukraine.
What Obama did not know was that a day earlier, a young German intelligence operative had been arrested and had admitted that he had been passing secrets to the Central Intelligence Agency.
While Merkel chose not to raise the issue during the call, the fact that the president was kept in the dark about the blown spying operation at a particularly delicate moment in U.S. relations with Germany has led frustrated White House officials to question who in the CIA’s chain of command was aware of case — and why that information did not make it to the Oval Office before the call.
The details of this spying case remain murky. Intelligence officials have declined to comment, and it is still not clear what the German operative has told the authorities. But the episode sheds light on the tensions that arise from the colliding cultures of spycraft and statecraft — one driven by the need to vacuum as much sensitive material as possible; the other giving primacy to diplomatic objectives.
It also reinforces the dilemma that surfaced a year ago in the wake of revelations about National Security Agency surveillance practices from the rogue contractor Edward Snowden: whether the costs of spying on close allies outweigh the gains.
At the White House, senior officials have expressed concern that the latest allegations could set back relations with Germany just as Obama and Merkel are still struggling to move past the distrust generated by the Snowden disclosures, including the revelation that the NSA had tapped Merkel’s mobile phone.
What is particularly baffling to these officials is that the CIA did not inform the White House that its agent — a 31-year-old employee of Germany’s federal intelligence service — had been compromised. The agency may have been aware three weeks before the arrest that German authorities were monitoring the man.
A key question, one U.S. official said, is how high the information about the agent went in the CIA’s chain.