German authorities announced the second investigation into espionage within a week as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman signaled an escalating rift between the U.S. and Germany over intelligence practices.
The federal prosecutor’s office said it’s investigating a possible espionage case after the Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported that a German working in a military-related area was suspected of spying for the U.S. The chancellery is in contact with U.S. officials, said Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s press secretary.
“We have a very profound difference of opinion on a very important question,” Seibert told reporters in Berlin today. The Defense Ministry is involved in the inquiry and is taking the case “very seriously,” ministry spokesman Uwe Roth said.
Five days after a spy probe raised the possibility of a double agent in German intelligence and triggered public condemnation of U.S. practices, the latest investigation risks adding to mistrust between the two allies after revelations of mass surveillance and the hacking of Merkel’s mobile phone.
When Merkel visited President Barack Obama at the White House in May, she said “there are differences of opinion on what sort of balance to strike between the intensity of surveillance” and privacy rights, though it was “very good” that the dispute would be addressed in U.S.-German talks.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he wouldn’t confirm or deny anything about the latest allegations.
“There’s a long-standing tradition of White House press secretaries when asked about intelligence matters to decline to comment,” Earnest told reporters today.
Earnest said the national security relationship between the two countries is important, especially as Obama and Merkel have had regular conversations about a unified U.S.-European Union stance toward Russia regarding Ukraine.
“Those relationships are critical to American national security and they’re critical to U.S. national security,” he said. “That’s also why we’ll take the necessary steps to resolve this situation appropriately.”
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said he’s concerned that the possible spying by U.S. may damage transatlantic relations.
“This does indeed worry me,” Schaeuble said at a panel discussion in Berlin with writer Navid Kermani. “This can’t be in our interest.” Hiring third-class informants in Germany “is so stupid it makes one cry because that breeds the kind of sentiment” that can hurt relations with the U.S, he said.
The Karlsruhe-based prosecutor’s office said police had searched rooms and offices in the Berlin area of an unidentified male under preliminary suspicion of engaging in espionage. No arrest was made, Marcus Koehler, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor, said by e-mail.
The prosecutor and Merkel’s government didn’t confirm media reports that the man is suspected of being a U.S. spy.
U.S. Ambassador John Emerson went to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin today to discuss the allegations, five days after he was called in on the back of the first probe.
Federal prosecutors said last week that a 31-year-old German national was in custody on suspicion of espionage. Bild newspaper and Sueddeutsche said he was an employee of the BND, the country’s Federal Intelligence Service, who may have sold secret documents to American agents.
Deputy German Foreign Minister Stephan Steinlein “made it urgently clear to the American ambassador how important it is in our view that the U.S. government participates actively and constructively in clarifying the accusations at hand,” ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer told reporters today.
Merkel was earlier asked at a press conference about a report in Spiegel Online that U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan had contacted the Chancellery.
“I can only say that talks are taking place, but I can’t say anything about the outcome,” Merkel said in Berlin.