- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
This story has been updated.
The German government has taken the extraordinary step of ordering the top U.S. intelligence official in the embassy in Berlin to leave the country, a German government spokesman announced Thursday. It was a strong and rare official rebuke, and the clearest signal that tensions over U.S. spying on the German government are threatening the historically strong ties between the two allies.
The expulsion of the official, who wasn’t named, follows the revelation last week that a 31-year-old German intelligence service employee has allegedly been giving classified government files to the United States, including documents about Germany’s own investigation into U.S. spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel, which was exposed by Edward Snowden. The expulsion of the most senior American intelligence official in Germany, known as the chief of station, seems unprecedented.
"It remains essential for Germany to work closely and trustingly with Western partners, especially with the United States, for the safety of its citizens and forces abroad," Steffen Seibert, a German government spokesman, said in a statement. "But trust and openness is necessary for this from both sides."
The White House had no comment on what spokesperson Caitlin Hayden described as a "purported intelligence matter."
"However," Hayden added, "our security and intelligence relationship with Germany is a very important one, and it keeps Germans and Americans safe. It is essential that cooperation continue in all areas, and we will continue to be in touch with the German government in appropriate channels."
Earlier this week, Merkel said that if the allegations of American spying on German soil turned out to be true, "it would be for me a clear contradiction as to what I consider to be trusting cooperation between agencies and partners."
Expelling a station chief signals that trust is broken. "When they throw out the chief of station, that’s a very strong indication that the Germans are ticked," said a former senior U.S. intelligence official, adding that he couldn’t recall the Germans ever taking such an action. "It sends that message to the U.S. But it also lets Merkel send a message to the people on her left, who are outraged about the spying Snowden exposed, and to keep them under control, too."
In response to American spying, the German interior minister said the country should step up its own spying on Washington, and German politicians and commentators are calling on the Obama administration to confirm whether the mole in the heart of German intelligence is, in fact, a spy for the Americans.
CBS News reported that an Obama administration official acknowledged that the German man, who also hasn’t been identified, was recruited by the CIA. An agency official declined to comment. The Obama administration was reportedly expected to acknowledge publicly that the German was an American agent in an effort to smooth over the tensions between Washington and Berlin. But Thursday’s announcement by the Germans seems to indicate that the relationship has reached a new low point.
"This is an effort by the German government to signal to their U.S. counterparts, ‘Enough is enough,’" said Thorsten Benner, the co-founder and director of the Global Public Policy Institute, an independent think tank in Berlin. "Spying on allies comes with real costs for the relationship, in terms of an erosion of trust and a growing anti-Americanism among the German public."
Benner said that the Germans expelled the station chief — a "mini nuclear diplomatic option" — because German officials weren’t getting a satisfactory response from the Americans about their U.S. spying complaints. "They were hearing nothing but platitudes and stonewalling from Brennan & Co., and no acknowledgement that this needs to stop," he said, referring to CIA Director John Brennan. The message that German government officials are hearing, Benner said, is that "the U.S. government refuses to take this seriously."