Germany Holds Spy Suspect as U.S. Espionage Reports Swirl

German authorities are pursuing an espionage probe against a man identified by media as a German intelligence officer who may have passed secrets to the U.S.

Federal prosecutors said yesterday that a 31-year-old German was arrested on July 2 on suspicion of spying for an unidentified foreign power. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, called the case “a serious matter,” declining to elaborate.

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, citing government officials it didn’t identify, reported today that the man in custody is suspected of informing U.S. agents about an inquiry by German lawmakers into the National Security Agency.

The emergence of a double agent on top of two German probes into NSA surveillance and espionage threatens to compound a U.S.-German rift after allegations that the NSA spied on citizens and hacked Merkel’s mobile phone. U.S. Ambassador John Emerson was called in to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin today to help with “an investigation” by federal prosecutors.

“I expect this issue to be thoroughly clarified,” Thomas Oppermann, the parliamentary caucus leader of the Social Democrats, told reporters in Berlin. If allegations that the U.S. sought information on the probe prove true, “this would be an unheard-of attack on the freedom of our parliament.”

Merkel, who governs in a coalition with the Social Democrats, and President Barack Obama spoke by phone yesterday to discuss the conflict in Ukraine and call for a cease-fire. Seibert said the German parliament’s intelligence oversight committee has been informed of the allegations.

Covert Meetings

“This is a serious matter, that’s obvious,” Seibert said. Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, declined to comment.

The man, a support technician for Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency, met U.S. agents at least three times in Austria between 2012 and 2014 and gave them hundreds of secret documents for which he was paid 25,000 euros ($34,000), Bild newspaper reported, citing security officials it didn’t identify. The documents were seized on a thumb drive containing 218 stolen files and a laptop at the suspect’s home, Bild said.

The man was approached several times by U.S. intelligence and at least once passed along information on the NSA committee, Sueddeutsche said. He was initially suspected of making contact with Russian spies and told investigators about involvement with American agents, according to the report. Public broadcasters NDR and WDR also reported the story.

’Urgent Suspicion’

Deputy Foreign Minister Stephan Steinlein “asked the U.S. ambassador to cooperate with a swift clarification” of the charges, the ministry said in an e-mailed statement.

The Federal Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment, referring to yesterday’s statement on the arrest of the man on “urgent suspicion” of espionage.

The NSA inquiry in Germany’s lower house of parliament, or Bundestag, received testimony yesterday for the first time since convening in March. Lawmakers heard evidence critical of the NSA from William Binney, a former NSA analyst, and Thomas Drake, a senior NSA employee who was involved in a leak investigation.

Federal prosecutors in Germany are pursuing a separate probe into possible hacking of Merkel’s phone.

“The suspicion of concrete espionage activity against the parliamentary investigative committee is grave and must be pursued as a serious crime,” Konstantin von Notz, the Green party lawmaker on the committee, said in a statement.

Roderich Kiesewetter, who sits on the committee for Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said he was “astounded” that the information had been leaked.

“This public spectacle hurts the work of the investigation,” he said in a phone interview.