Not since the Cold War have Washington and Berlin – then riven by the Iron Curtain – engaged so publicly in accusations, expulsions and recrimination over a spy scandal.
New revelations of ongoing U.S. spying in Germany, nominally a close ally, sparked outrage Thursday in Berlin.
“In the Cold War maybe there was general mistrust,” fumed Chancellor Angela Merkel, after Germany ordered the CIA station chief in Berlin to pack up and get out. “Today we are living in the 21st century. Today there are completely new threats.”
Ms. Merkel who grew up in the Soviet-controlled side of divided Germany where living in fear of the ruthless Stasi secret police was the norm, sent a blunt message to President Barack Obama, saying angrily that “spying on allies … is a waste of energy.”
The order to leave, usually reserved for adversaries ousting spies posing as diplomats, underscored Berlin’s fury with the Obama administration after two more U.S. spying operations were unearthed in less than a week.
German counterespionage agents announced Wednesday that the Central Intelligence Agency had been running a covert operation inside Germany’s Defence Ministry, paying traitors to steal military secrets. Only days earlier, another German was arrested for allegedly passing secret documents to a U.S. operative.
Relations between the two governments had already soured since documents leaked last year by U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden revealed widespread spying on Germans, including intercepting and recording Ms. Merkel’s private cellphone.
Germany made no secret that it regards the ongoing U.S. snooping as a betrayal of trust between close allies.
The decision to tell the CIA chief to leave was made “in light of the ongoing investigation by the chief federal prosecutor and questions that have been raised for months about the activities of U.S. intelligence services in Germany,” Steffen Seibert, the German government spokesman, said.
“Mutual trust and openness are necessary,” he added, with a distinct absence of diplomatic niceties in the statement ordering the top U.S. spy to leave.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest ducked questions about U.S. spying but attempted to defuse the matter, saying, “I don’t want you to come away from this exchange thinking we take this matter lightly.” He would not comment further, saying “any sort of comment on any purported intelligence activity would place at risk U.S. assets, U.S. personnel and the United States’ national security.”
After the bugging of Ms. Merkel’s phone was revealed, Berlin demanded a “no-spy” pact and an apology from Mr. Obama. The President hastily ordered spying on Ms. Merkel to be stopped but made no public apology.
The call for a “no spy” pact was ignored, at least publicly. But earlier this week, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that no countries, including America’s closest allies, were off-limits for U.S. spying. Ms. Clinton, the presumptive Democratic front-runner to succeed Mr. Obama in the Oval Office, told the German news magazine Der Spiegel: “The United States could never enter into a ‘no spy’ agreement with any country – not you, not Britain, not Canada.”
Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, under the so-called Five Eyes agreement with the United States, share the highest levels of intelligence but Ms. Clinton’s comment indicated that the Obama administration didn’t regard it as a “no spy” pact.
Pressed by Der Spiegel as to whether Ms. Merkel deserved a public apology from the President, Ms. Clinton said she was no longer in government but added, “I’m sorry.”
That likely won’t satisfy many Germans for whom the legacy of invasive spying by their own totalitarian and fascist regimes – during Communist postwar rule and the prior Nazi era – still casts dark shadows.
Senior German ministers were even harsher than Ms. Merkel in denouncing the ongoing U.S. spying. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said there was “disproportionate and serious political damage” compared to the scant advantage gained by the spying. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said, “This is so stupid, it can only make you weep.”
Neither Germany nor the United States divulged the name of the CIA’s top spy in Berlin, which, during the Cold War was a hotbed of espionage, spy exchanges and clandestine operations.