In a move that sounds as if it was ripped from a Cold War thriller, American ally and NATO member Germany on Thursday demanded that the top U.S. intelligence official stationed in Berlin leave the country over new allegations of U.S. spying.
It is the first time an American intelligence chief has been expelled from a NATO country since 1995, when one was expelled from Paris over allegations of economic espionage.
The German government did not identify the American by name. But the description of the top American intelligence official could apply only to the Central Intelligence Agency’s chief of station, who generally operates under diplomatic cover from an embassy.
U.S. officials offered only limited comment. White House press secretary Josh Earnest, in Texas with President Barack Obama, said Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had not spoken since July 3, before news broke that German authorities were investigating two new cases of U.S. spying.
Earnest said Germany and the United States continue to cooperate “at a variety of levels.”
“The strength of our national security relationship with Germany is important to American national security. It’s also important to the national security of the Germans,” he said.
In a statement issued late Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Berlin said that officials were aware of the German request that the intelligence official leave Germany. But it said there would be no comment on intelligence matters.
“However, our security relationship with Germany remains very important: it keeps Germans and Americans safe,” the statement said. “It is also essential that our close cooperation with our German government partners continue in all areas.”
The demand for the official’s departure was the most forceful response yet from an outraged German government to a growing U.S. spy scandal that began last year with the discovery that the National Security Agency was monitoring the communications of millions of Germans, including listening in on Merkel’s cellphone. Over the past week, German authorities have said they are investigating two new instances of spying, including one that targeted the parliamentary committee probing NSA eavesdropping.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert announced the departure demand in a statement. “The representative of the U.S. intelligence services at the embassy of the USA has been told to leave Germany,” the statement said. “This request was made against the backdrop of an ongoing investigation by the German federal prosecutor and the questions that have been raised for months concerning the actions of the U.S. secret services in Germany.”
The request came one day after German officials announced an investigation into a low-level German military official suspected of selling military secrets to the United States. The announcement of that investigation came less than a week after a low-level German Foreign Intelligence Service official reportedly admitted selling to the NSA secret details of the parliamentary committee’s probe.
“The government takes these activities very seriously,” Seibert’s statement said. “It is essential and in the interest of its citizens and its forces abroad for Germany to collaborate closely and trustfully with its Western partners, especially the United States. But mutual trust and openness is necessary.
“The government is still prepared to do so and expects the same of its closest partners.”
The two spying investigations come at the end of a year in which Germans have had to digest a long series of reports of American spying in Germany. The allegations began with the release of documents by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that revealed the breadth of U.S. espionage operations in Germany.
U.S. officials, including Obama, have tried to assuage growing German anger, particularly after the revelation that the NSA had been intercepting Merkel’s cellphone for years. In January, Obama even issued a statement saying that “we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.”
But the revelation of the new U.S. spying efforts renewed expressions of anger and disbelief from German officials.
Speaking to journalists on Thursday, Merkel said the reports of U.S. spying reminded her of “Cold War times, when you mistrusted each other.” She also said the spying efforts defied common sense and that spying on allies was “a waste of energy.”
Other German politicians said the ejection of the American official was not enough and that Germany should do more to send a strong message.
Among the retaliatory steps that should be considered, said parliamentarian Burkhard Lischka, was a hold on talks on the already struggling Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnerships trade pact, intended to increase commerce between the European Union and the United States.
“For more than a year we have been asking questions and failing to get a response,” he said.
The announcement came after an emergency session of the German Parliament’s supervisory committee on secret services. The normal duties of the committee are to oversee the German secret services, but the American spy scandal in Germany has reached dramatic levels in recent days.
Clemens Binninger, chairman of the committee, said the ejection of the U.S. official was a reaction to more than a year of allegations of American spying on German citizens and government institutions. The United States has “failed to cooperate on resolving various allegations, starting with the NSA and up to the latest incidents,” he said.
The intelligence official was not, however, declared “persona non grata,” a status of being unwelcome that would prevent his return to Germany.
Even so, there was no doubt that the German action was extraordinary. While Americans accused of spying have been kicked out of countries with which the U.S. has testy relations, they are rarely kicked out of nations with which the U.S. is on friendly terms. Since the end of the Cold War, Germany has expelled Iranian, Libyan and Syrian diplomats – odd company for the United States.
Public sentiment, however, is running strongly against the United States. “The United States treats Germany like an enemy,” Falk Steiner, a German public radio commentator, said while on the air Thursday.
Der Spiegel columnist Jakob Augstein on Thursday likened the American treatment of Germany during the spy scandal to the way a disinterested dog owner treats his pet.
“We thought it was love, but that was a mistake,” he wrote. “The bitter truth is that between the Americans and us there is a master-dog relationship.”
He went on to note the United States is happy enough when the German dog is fetching sticks, but it bores easily. And the Germans, thus far, have accepted that.
“But even a German dachshund will eventually discover his pride,” he concluded.