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US-German relations reach breaking point

Spying scandal drives Berlin toward Moscow

July 10, 2014 1:30PM ET

In the midst of a sharp escalation of violence in Ukraine, there looks to be a profound breakdown in the working relationship between Washington and Berlin due to a suddenly revealed espionage scandal that has led to alarmed remarks and punitive action by German authorities. On Thursday, Germany expelled the Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Berlin.

“The government takes the matter very seriously,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said.

The scale of the scandal revealed so far is astonishing. A 31-year-old German national who worked in the foreign relations department of German’s intelligence agency, the BND, was arrested last week and charged with passing information to the U.S. since at least 2012.

Then on Wednesday, news broke that the U.S. was using more than one source in the BND, and that the authorities are looking at a Defense Ministry suspect. 

In response to the BND case, German President Joachim Gauch expressed dismay on German television over the weekend: “If it really should be confirmed that an intelligence agency hired an employee of one of our intelligence agencies in this way, then it’s really time to say, ‘Enough already!’”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel — now under pressure from the German left for “moral cowardice” in dealing with Washington on spying — remarked on Monday that, if the allegations prove true, it would be a “clear contradiction of what I consider to be trusting cooperation” with the U.S.

The unnamed suspect in the BND is said to have used a disguised weather app in his computer workstation to direct information overseas by checking on the weather in New York. He also met with American agents in Austria two or three times. One report says he was paid 25,000 euros at least once. The German magazine Der Spiegel reported that the suspect collected hundreds of documents on a memory stick. According to Wall Street Journal reports, the haul totaled 218 documents.

European reports indicate that the Germans discovered the suspect when he contacted Russian agents and offered to sell information. At first, German investigators believed the suspect was working for the Russians, and U.S. intelligence was asked to help with the pursuit. Once arrested, the suspect immediately set the record straight that he was an American intelligence hireling. The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that the suspect says he was approached multiple times by the National Security Agency and was asked for information specifically on the German parliamentary inquiry of NSA surveillance.

Berlin responded by summoning the U.S. ambassador, Clinton-era White House assistant and American financier John B. Emerson, to the Foreign Ministry last Friday to demand “clarification.”

If the suspicions of the participation of American intelligence agencies are confirmed, then this is a political development in which we can't simply continue with business as usual.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier

German Foreign Minister

The spying discovery is especially troubling to the Germans because it follows the revelations just last spring that the NSA was spying on Merkel’s BlackBerry. When Merkel visited President Barack Obama in early May, as I reported, there were hard words about U.S. snooping. There were also promises that it was a one-off and would not continue; however, Washington refused to sign an agreement with Berlin not to spy.

Adding to the dismay for Merkel, Obama did not apologize for the BND penetration when he spoke with the chancellor on July 3, the day after the arrest.


My information from sources in Berlin and Moscow is that the news is much worse than the immediate focus on BND penetration. The breakdown in trust comes at the very moment that Washington was laboring to hold Germany to its plan in Ukraine to support the Kiev offensive to defeat the rebels and secure the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts without triggering Russian military intervention. 

The Kremlin has its own plans. The images of Ukraine’s grinding civil war, of terrified women and children in flight, of journalists slain by explosions, of shell-ripped apartment towers and burning vehicles, are building up sizable domestic pressure on President Vladimir Putin to act to defend the victims of Kiev’s attacks.

At the same time, the Kremlin is not in a hurry to solve the crisis. Putin calculates that the worse it looks in Ukraine, the more likely the Europeans will be disposed to solve the civil war by agreeing to the Russian compromise of a decentralized Ukraine.

Putin’s plan from the first days of annexing Crimea was to wait for Washington to exhaust itself with military remedies and for the Europeans to grow exhausted with Washington’s heavy-handedness. Moscow waits for Washington to pay for Kiev’s rebellion and to pay off Kiev’s natural gas debts to Russia’s Gazprom. Moscow waits for Washington to be left holding the debt-ridden, agricultural western Ukraine of Maidan heroes and its anti-Russian factions.

In sum, the Kremlin sees an opportunity for a comprehensive advantage over the U.S. by setting the NATO partners against each other and by presenting the Russian forces as peacekeepers in the Black Sea basin.


The scandal of the BND turncoat makes the Moscow plan all the more likely to succeed.

Berlin holds the whip hand in the EU. The way Berlin goes, Paris, London, Rome and the other NATO members will follow. Berlin’s inclination since well before the Ukraine crisis was to move closer to Moscow in the “Common Eurasian home” narrative that Merkel and Putin favor, according to which cooperation between Germany and Russia could lead to domination of the Europe-Asia super-continent.

The only offset to such a  Berlin-Moscow alliance has been the Obama administration’s hostility toward the Kremlin. But now the security ties between Berlin and Washington look to be at extreme risk of severing.

"If the suspicions of the participation of American intelligence agencies are confirmed,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Monday, “then this is a political development in which we can't simply continue with business as usual.”

Midweek, the Obama administration did not allay Berlin’s suspicions when it offered different versions of the White House involvement in the BND case.

An unnamed US official asserted to the American media that Obama was unaware of the spy suspect’s arrest when the president spoke with Merkel on July 3. 

CIA Director John Brennan has now briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA involvement and the hard questions of White House foreknowledge. And yet there was no clarity from reports by either Chair Dianne Feinstein or ranking member Saxby Chambliss on whether the CIA and the White House shared operational details of the BND operation.

A National Security Council speaker clouded the issue even more suggestively: “We’re certainly not going to discuss who knew what and when in regards to the allegations.”

What is certain is that Berlin officials are enraged and await Merkel’s return from a trip to China to begin reviewing the matter.

What is also certain, according to what I am told of Berlin’s thinking, is that a restoration of trust between the two allies may well have to wait until at least 2017.

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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