BERLIN — Germany’s relations with the United States plunged to a low point Thursday, with the government demanding the expulsion of the chief U.S. intelligence official stationed here because, it said, Washington has refused to cooperate with German inquiries into U.S. intelligence activities.
“The representative of the U.S. intelligence services at the United States Embassy has been asked to leave Germany,” a government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in a statement.
German officials have been frustrated in their efforts to receive clarification from Washington since last summer, when it was reported that the National Security Agency had been monitoring the digital communications of millions of Germans. The government tamped down that uproar, but fury flared anew when it was revealed last fall that the NSA had been monitoring Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone.
Although President Barack Obama has offered assurances that the United States will no longer spy on leaders such as Ms. Merkel, two cases of suspected U.S. espionage that have come to light in the past eight days have sparked a fresh round of outrage.
“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,” Mr. Seibert said. “The government takes the matter very seriously.” Mr. Seibert said Germany continued to seek “close and trusting” cooperation with its Western partners, “especially the United States.”
As is usual with intelligence matters, the U.S. Embassy had no comment on the expulsion request. But in a statement, the embassy also said it was essential to maintain close cooperation with the German government “in all areas.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to comment on the development, but said Secretary of State John Kerry would be talking soon with his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “Our relationship with Germany is extremely important,” she said. “We’ll continue our dialogue through senior officials in the days and weeks ahead.”
As Ms. Merkel put it Thursday, the two countries have better things to do than “waste energy spying” on each other.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a close Merkel ally, said the latest espionage cases did not reflect well on the Americans. “With so much stupidity, you can only weep,” he said late Wednesday. “And that is why the chancellor is ‘not amused.‘”
Reluctant as German leaders may have been to act, and however conscious they are that the United States holds most of the cards in their alliance, pressure built so sharply this week that they apparently believed that they had to do something. This leaves Ms. Merkel, and her government, in the unusual position for Germans of not knowing clearly what the next step is.
Clemens Binninger, a member of Ms. Merkel’s center-right party, said the move was “a political reaction of the government to the lack of willingness of U.S. authorities to help clear up any questions” arising over the past year in connection with U.S. surveillance of Germany and its leaders.
Mr. Binninger spoke after a session of the parliamentary control commission that oversees German intelligence activities, which he heads. The commission, whose proceedings are secret, was briefed Thursday by Gerhard Schindler, head of the Federal Intelligence Service, on the two suspected cases of espionage.
The first case, concerning a midlevel employee of Mr. Schindler’s agency who was arrested last week, is far more serious than the second, in which “very many questions” linger, Mr. Binninger told reporters after almost three hours of talks with Mr. Schindler. No arrest has been made in the second case.
On Wednesday, police searched the Berlin office and apartment of the man in the second case, who is suspected of being a spy, federal prosecutors said. They declined to give further information, but the German media reported that the suspect worked for the Defense Ministry. A ministry spokesman confirmed that it was involved in an investigation. Mr. Binninger and other members of his commission said there was still no evidence of espionage.
The arrested intelligence employee, who has been identified only by his age, 31, apparently fed U.S. agents 218 documents, some consisting of many pages, from five large files to which he had access, Mr. Binninger said. Over the past two years, he copied the papers, took them home and then scanned them and put the files on a USB stick, Mr. Binninger added. Asked by reporters about security controls, he said the intelligence service did not have the right to check all 5,000 employees as they come and go from the agency’s headquarters near Munich.
The parliamentary commission said it had asked to see all the documents given to the Americans, but Mr. Binninger said initial accounts indicated that they were relatively harmless, depicting day-to-day business rather than deep secrets. That assessment was seconded by Mr. Schäuble and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, who suggested that the material was nothing important.
Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, whose office is busily investigating the spying accusation against the Defense Ministry employee, said common sense alone would suggest that there could not possibly be enough to gain from paying spies for information to offset the damage to a valuable alliance.United States - North America - Europe - Barack Obama - Western Europe - John Kerry - Germany - Angela Merkel - Germany government - Steffen Seibert - Frank-Walter Steinmeier - Thomas De Maiziere