German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government expelled the top U.S. intelligence official in Berlin over allegations of espionage, escalating a conflict that one of her aides said has caused “grave” political harm.
The U.S. embassy official was asked to leave Germany after the Federal Prosecutor began investigating spying practices, according to the statement from Merkel’s Chancellery today.
“The government takes these activities very seriously,” Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s press secretary, said in the statement. A trustful relationship with the U.S. remains “indispensable” to Germany, “but for that, mutual trust and openness are necessary,” he said.
The dispute over alleged U.S. spying in Germany escalated a day after officials confirmed a second probe into espionage, compounding a rift over allegations that the U.S. National Security Agency conducted mass surveillance and hacked Merkel’s mobile phone. The expulsion follows repeated demands by Germany for the U.S. to cooperate in solving the cases.
German lawmakers were briefed by investigators in Berlin today on two cases of suspected espionage, the first involving a 31-year-old employee of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, or BND, charged with passing along classified documents. The second involves a suspect identified as a Defense Ministry employee, according to Spiegel Online.
Based on what’s known so far “the information obtained through this alleged espionage is laughable,” Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, said in a statement. “The political damage on the other hand is disproportionate and grave.”
The two probes emerged in the last week on top of a parliamentary inquiry into global surveillance by the NSA. Separately, federal prosecutors are looking into criminal activity in the suspected tapping of Merkel’s phone.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said that while Germany relies on American intelligence, the U.S. doesn’t have free rein to spy on one of its closest allies.
“That doesn’t mean the Americans should be allowed to hire third-class people as spies,” Schaeuble said in Berlin late yesterday. “This is so stupid -- it makes you want to cry.”
U.S. Ambassador John Emerson went to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin yesterday to discuss the allegations, five days after he was called in on the back of the first probe.
The events have provoked outrage among German officials who have decried spying among allies.
“I find it worse for a friendly state to spy on its friends than to expel this diplomat,” Florian Hahn, a lawmaker from Merkel’s CSU Bavarian sister party, said in an interview. “How big is our friendship really? The expulsion is justified.”
Some lawmakers are calling for further measures as the espionage fallout threatens to seep into other policy areas, such as cooperation with the U.S. on Russia sanctions and negotiating a U.S.-European trade agreement, known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
“We have to put still more pressure on the Americans to stop spying activity here in Germany,” said Andre Hahn, a lawmaker of the anti-capitalist opposition Left party on the intelligence oversight panel. “In our view, suspending the free-trade agreement with the U.S. is a necessary step.”