German authorities carried out raids in Berlin on Wednesday as part of an espionage investigation that placed new strain on US-German relations and raised concern in the Obama administration of a broader crackdown on US spying.
Federal prosecutors in Germany said police had searched an apartment and an office in Berlin in a probe that is apparently focused on a suspect with ties to the country's military. The raids came days after an employee of Germany's foreign intelligence service was arrested and accused of selling secrets to the CIA.
"We have investigations in two cases of suspected espionage, a very serious suspicion," Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for the German government, told reporters in Berlin. He said no arrests had been made in the later case, according to the Associated Press, but provided no additional details.
US officials said the back-to-back cases have complicated diplomatic relations with Germany at a time when the United States is relying heavily on support from Berlin to curb Russian aggression in Ukraine and address other security threats.
"It's causing disruption in the relationship," said a US official briefed on the espionage developments who, like others interviewed for this article, declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "The Germans are pretty upset about it."
The public exposure of the cases was also seen in Washington as a potential effort by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to pressure the United States into an agreement to impose new limits on spying. Merkel was outraged last year when documents leaked by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden showed that her cellphone had been a long-standing surveillance target of the United States.
Seibert stressed the importance of Germany's relationship with the United States, but alluded to the anger among German citizens over the scope of US eavesdropping operations in Europe.
"There is a profound difference of opinion between Germany and the US when it comes to the question how security and the right to freedom can be brought into a balance," Seibert said.
The White House, the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
The overnight raids this week targeted a man who worked for Germany's defense ministry, according to German news reports. The newspaper Die Welt said the suspect was a soldier, citing anonymous sources.
Officials last week arrested a 31-year-old employee of the BND — Germany's intelligence agency — reportedly accused of selling documents to the CIA, including details on a parliamentary panel examining Snowden-related claims of German cooperation with US spy agencies.
German prosecutors believe the man turned over more than 200 documents during a two-year period, the AP reported.
"The German government is in contact with the American side on many levels; the federal prosecutor and the investigators are continuing their work," Seibert said at Wednesday's news conference. "We need to wait for them to complete their work before we can speak of possible consequences."
The reaction raised concern among some US officials that the cases could unravel efforts over the past year to repair the rift that had developed with Germany after the Snowden leaks.
"We've spent a lot of time trying to repair relations with Germany and there has been a lot of head-shaking across the administration at how the CIA could have undone this," said a senior Obama administration official.
The official described Merkel as a "very good partner" with President Barack Obama on the conflict in Ukraine and other issues, but said the public statements by German authorities related to the espionage cases has caught some US officials off guard.
"There's obviously some motive behind making this public," the official said.
For years, Germany has sought to be included in a group of countries with whom the United States has a non-espionage pact. Those nations include Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
The Obama administration and that of George W. Bush both resisted such entreaties, in part because many US intelligence officials believe that there are too many areas where German and US security interests diverge.
"The Germans do lots and lots of stuff and don't tell us everything they do," said a former senior US intelligence official who worked extensively with the BND. US policymakers turn to the CIA and other agencies for deeper understanding of issues, including whether there are gaps between the two countries in their commitment to efforts to block any nuclear weapons ambitions by Iran, the former official said.
The crackdown may also reflect political dynamics in Germany, where critics of Merkel have taken advantage of the Snowden leaks to cast her as weak for failing to grasp or prevent such extensive US espionage.
The arrest and raids are driven in part by "this business that they want a no-espionage agreement," said the former US intelligence official. "But it's also being driven by internal politics" and the perception that the Snowden disclosures "made them look incompetent."
The arrest and raids in recent days have also generated concern that Germany may not be finished rounding up alleged US spies. After the Snowden leaks, the CIA evaluated operations in Europe and put some on hold because of fears of exposure and ensuing tension with Germany and other allies, a second former US intelligence official said.
The latest developments also exposed an apparent lapse by the CIA to keep the White House apprised of setbacks in Germany.
A US official acknowledged that when President Obama spoke with Merkel on July 3, he had not been made aware that a CIA informant had been arrested there the day before, a situation reported by the New York Times. Merkel did not raise the issue during the call.
Still, the US official said, "there is no friction or tension between the White House and CIA on this matter."
Sarah Larimer and Greg Miller – The Washington Post
Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.
Image: Soeren Stache / AFP / Lehtikuva