WASHINGTON – The German government ordered the CIA’s top officer in Berlin to leave the country Thursday in an extraordinary escalation of a conflict between the two allies over American espionage.
The move amounts to a high-profile expression of German anger over alleged CIA operations uncovered by German investigators in recent weeks, as well as continued public outrage over the exposure last year of widespread U.S. surveillance programs whose targets included Chancellor Angela Merkel.
A spokesman for the German government, Steffen Seibert, confirmed the expulsion of the CIA station chief in a statement that made clear Berlin regards U.S. espionage efforts as a breach of trust.
The decision means the United States will be forced to withdraw an officer who oversees U.S. spying programs in Germany but also serves as the main point of contact with German intelligence services – exchanging information on subjects such as terrorist plots and Iranian nuclear ambitions.
In ordering the CIA station chief to leave, Germany resorted to a form of retaliation that is occasionally employed by determined espionage adversaries – such as the United States and Russia – but rarely by such a close ally.
I can’t recall ever getting to the point where a friendly service actually ejected somebody, said John Rizzo, who spent more than three decades at the CIA and served as its acting general counsel.
The Germans must feel compelled to do this for political reasons because there are certainly ways to convey one’s displeasure without taking this kind of overt step.
Former officials described the outgoing CIA station chief as an agency veteran, a German speaker who has held a series of overseas posts as well as assignments at headquarters in the agency’s European division.
Before ordering him out, Germany had to make a calculation of what they were going to lose – they get a substantial amount of intelligence from us, said a senior former U.S. intelligence official who worked closely with Berlin and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Former U.S. officials said the agency pulled back on certain spying operations last year amid concern about the fallout from the Edward Snowden leaks.
At the same time, the former officials said, the latest arrest and raids indicate that Germany has stepped up its defenses and efforts to root out U.S. spies.
The decision to ask the CIA station chief to leave came one day after German authorities carried out raids at an apartment and office in Berlin as part of a reported investigation of an individual with ties to the German military suspected of working for U.S. intelligence.
Last week, German police arrested a 31-year-old employee of the German foreign intelligence agency, or BND, accused of selling secrets to the CIA.
In Berlin on Thursday, Merkel described spying on allies as a waste of energy.
Merkel has been criticized by some Germans for failing to respond more forcefully to the Snowden disclosures, which prompted Germany’s parliament to launch an inquiry into the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs on German soil.
Last week’s arrest of an alleged CIA informant may have been particularly galling to German officials because the suspect is accused of selling information to the CIA on the progress of that very parliamentary probe, according to reports.
Hans-Christian Strobele, an official in Germany’s Green Party and member of the parliamentary inquiry described the CIA expulsion as a necessary symbolic act to show our friends on the other side of the Atlantic how serious this matter is.