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German Chancellor Angela Merkel was told of the spy case Thursday, before she spoke by phone with President Obama.

Markus Schreiber • Associated Press,

German spy bust hints at U.S. link

  • Article by: Alison Smale
  • New York Times
  • July 4, 2014 - 9:51 PM

– In the latest turn in the yearlong tensions with Germany over U.S. spying, a German man was arrested this week on suspicion of passing secret documents to a foreign power, believed to be the United States. U.S. Ambassador John Emerson was summoned to the Foreign Office here and urged to help with what German officials called a swift clarification of the case.

The arrest came as Washington and Berlin were trying to put to rest a year of strains over the National Security Agency’s monitoring of Germans’ electronic data, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, and months after the collapse of Germany’s effort to strike a “no spy” accord with the White House.

While the White House and U.S. intelligence officials refused to comment on the arrest, one senior U.S. official said that reports in the German media that the 31-year-old man under arrest had been working for the United States for at least two years “threaten to undo all the repair work” the two sides have been trying to achieve.

The details of the latest case were murky. The media reports suggested that the man, a midlevel employee of the Federal Intelligence Service, was originally arrested on suspicion of spying for Russia. The Kremlin has markedly stepped up recruitment of German informants since the uprisings in Ukraine.

But according to the news reports and the account of the U.S. official, the man told his interrogators he had been working for the United States for some time.

German news reports said that his work included reporting on the investigations into the NSA’s activities in Germany, which are the subject of a parliamentary inquiry, but the U.S. official said he had no knowledge of whether that was the case. He spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The CIA and NSA both declined to comment.

Merkel was informed of the case Thursday, her spokesman said, just before she spoke to President Obama by telephone. But the White House described that conversation as one that was primarily about Ukraine and negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Neither German nor U.S. officials would say on the record whether the subject of the arrest came up during the call.

Obama unaware during call

But another senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the issue did not come up on the call, which was previously scheduled to discuss other matters, and that Obama was not aware of the case at the time of the call.

If the man had been spying for the United States for two years, as the German news reports say, his recruitment would have predated the disclosures by Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor, of the long-running tapping of Merkel’s cellphone.

After the Snowden disclosures, Obama ordered a complete review of spying on allies and partners. In an interview last week, the new director of the NSA, Adm. Michael Rogers, said that review had resulted in the termination of a number of spying operations, not because they were illegal but because they were unwise.

But in conversations with German officials over the past year, the Obama administration has made clear that its commitment extends only to Merkel herself and not other German officials. That was one of many sources of tension as the two countries, which traditionally share intelligence on terrorism suspects and nuclear proliferation, failed to reach a new accord.

The German Parliament is conducting an inquiry into the NSA’s activities in the country, and it heard its first testimony Thursday from two Americans who formerly worked for the agency. That testimony came hours after a 27-year-old student in Bavaria was identified by name as one of the spy agency’s surveillance targets.

Extraordinary meeting

The testimony Thursday was delayed in part by an extraordinary meeting between the inquiry panel and the control commission that oversees Germany’s intelligence services. The lawmakers were apparently informed of the arrest of the accused spy at that meeting; attendees were sworn to secrecy.

There was no immediate confirmation from the German government or the prosecutor’s office concerning the reports that the arrested man had been spying for the United States. A statement from the general prosecutor said he was detained Wednesday by officers from the federal criminal office, the senior police authority in Germany. It gave no details about his job.

On Thursday, the suspect appeared before a federal court in Karlsruhe, where the federal prosecutor’s office is, and was ordered held “on urgent suspicion” of unauthorized intelligence activities, the prosecutor’s office said.

Hans-Christian Ströbele, a member of Parliament from the Green Party who sits on both the intelligence oversight body and the NSA inquiry panel, said he had “no reason to deny” the reports. But he and the head of the inquiry panel, Patrick Sensburg of the Christian Democratic party, counseled caution.

Sensburg said that “some reports are simply false.” Ströbele said, “We must have patience and see whether information stands up to scrutiny.”

© 2014 Star Tribune