The U.S. flag is displayed July 10 outside the U.S. embassy in Berlin a few hours after Germany expelled the U.S. secret services station chief in an escalating row over alleged American spying against its long-time European ally. (John MacDougall / AFP)
BERLIN — Germany announced Thursday it is kicking out Washington’s top spy in Berlin, a dramatic response from a key U.S. ally to a yearlong spying dispute over eavesdropping on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone calls that flared anew this week.
The immediate trigger for Thursday’s move was the emergence of two new cases of alleged American spying. More deeply, it appears to reflect a Germany at the end of its patience with what it sees as a pattern of American disrespect and interference in a nation that has cherished traditions of privacy.
U.S. officials described Germany’s move as extraordinary. A former U.S. official said he couldn’t remember a time in recent history when an intelligence official was asked to leave a country. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss intelligence issues publicly.
The spy saga began last year with reports that the National Security Agency targeted Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone and conducted mass surveillance of Internet traffic in Germany. Those allegations have resulted in a criminal investigation and the creation of a parliamentary panel tasked with probing the NSA’s activities in Germany.
“The representative of the U.S. intelligence services at the United States embassy has been asked to leave Germany,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.
“The request occurred against the backdrop of the ongoing investigation by federal prosecutors as well as the questions that were posed months ago about the activities of U.S. intelligence agencies in Germany,” he added. “The government takes the matter very seriously.”
Shortly before the announcement, Merkel told reporters that Germany and the United States had “very different approaches” to the role of intelligence agencies.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest wouldn’t comment on Germany’s decision but said the U.S. takes intelligence matters “very seriously.”
“I don’t want you to come away from this exchange thinking we take this matter lightly,” he said, adding that the U.S. and Germany continue to have a strong partnership.
Federal prosecutors said Wednesday that police raided properties in the Berlin area on “initial suspicion of activity for an intelligence agency.” They did not elaborate. Afterward Seibert told reporters that the case involved “a very serious suspicion” of espionage.
German media reported that the man being investigated Wednesday worked at Germany’s Defense Ministry in a department dealing with international security policy, and had aroused the suspicion of Germany’s military counter-intelligence agency because of his close contacts to alleged U.S. spies.
Last week, a 31-year-old German intelligence employee was arrested on suspicion of spying for foreign powers since 2012. German media have reported that he spied for the CIA and came to authorities’ attention when he recently offered his services to Russian officials in Germany by email.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he could not comprehend why the U.S. would spy on his country: “We speak to each other all the time, and nobody keeps their views secret,” he said in an interview published Wednesday by the Saarbruecker Zeitung.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the political fallout outweighed any harm done to Germany by the alleged spying.
“If the situation remains what we know now, the information reaped by this suspected espionage is laughable,” de Maiziere said in a statement. “However, the political damage is already disproportionate and serious.”
Geir Moulson in Berlin, and Nedra Pickler and Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.