Germany’s move was retaliation for alleged U.S. recruitment of spies there.
BERLIN – The German government on Thursday demanded the removal of the top U.S. spy in the country, the strongest evidence yet that mounting revelations about widespread U.S. intelligence operations in Germany have gravely damaged relations between once close allies.
The decision by Chancellor Angela Merkel to publicly announce the expulsion of the CIA’s Berlin station chief was seen as a highly symbolic expression of the deep anger and hurt that German officials have felt since the exposure of the U.S. espionage operations.
It is likely to force another reassessment inside the CIA and other spy agencies about whether provocative espionage operations in friendly nations are worth the risk to broader foreign policy goals. One such assessment was conducted last summer, when President Obama ordered a halt to the tapping of Merkel’s phone after it came to light because of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Current and former U.S. officials said that the Berlin station chief, who works undercover, has been in the position for about a year. It was his predecessor in the job, the officials said, who oversaw the recruitment of the German intelligence officer arrested last week who has reportedly told his interrogators he was spying for the CIA, touching off a storm of criticism of the United States. German investigators are also looking at a second case of an official inside the Defense Ministry who may have been working for the Americans.
The expulsion of a CIA station chief — the ranking U.S. intelligence officer in a foreign country — was a staple of the Cold War, but it is a move seldom made by allies.
“It’s one thing to kick lower-level officers out. It’s another thing to kick the chief of station out,” said one former CIA officer with extensive experience in Europe.
The closest precedent may be an episode in 1995, when the CIA station chief in Paris, his deputy and two other agency officers were expelled for trying to pay French officials for intelligence on France’s negotiating position in trade talks. Thursday’s move is potentially more significant, since the intelligence cooperation between the United States and Germany has historically been far closer.
The former official said that the move could be just the first sign that the Germans intend to escalate the monitoring of CIA operatives in the country — possibly increasing surveillance activities such as phone tapping and tailing U.S. spies.
It is extremely unlikely that Germany would ever become as hostile a location for U.S. spies as Russia — where the term “Moscow Rules” was coined to indicate the strict procedures used by undercover officers. Still, it could fall into a middle category of countries — Turkey, India and France among them — that are allies but are considered difficult operating environments for U.S. spies.
Despite the apparent effort to keep relations on an even keel, the development marked a low point in relations with a critical ally just as Obama needed stronger cooperation on issues from dealing with Iran’s nuclear program to bringing stability to Ukraine to forging a broad trans-Atlantic trade agreement.
As Merkel put it Thursday, the two countries have better things to do than “waste energy spying” on each other.
German officials have made it clear that their anger ran deeper than during the recent episodes. There is great frustration in Berlin that the Obama administration has not provided more information about a range of U.S. surveillance activities in Germany — including the tapping of Merkel’s cellphone.
German spokesman Steffen Seibert said Thursday that the decision to expel the CIA station chief “was made against the backdrop of the ongoing investigations” into U.S. spying activities “as well as the questions pending for months about the activities of the U.S. intelligence services in Germany.”
“The federal government,” he said, “takes these incidents very seriously.”