Germany boots US spy. How much does America eavesdrop on its allies?

The US has a long history of spying on its friends. Tensions between the US and Germany were raised last year by Edward Snowden's revelations of US eavesdropping on its European allies.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
People walk past the US Embassy in Berlin July 10, 2014. Germany asked the top US intelligence official at the Berlin embassy on Thursday to leave the country, a highly unusual step reflecting the deep anger within Angela Merkel's government at the discovery of two suspected US spies within a week.

Germany on Thursday asked the top US spy in Berlin to leave the country. This move, drastic in diplomatic terms, followed reports of two suspected cases of US espionage against its longtime NATO ally.

Tensions between the two countries were raised last year by NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations that the US actively eavesdropped in Europe on adversaries and friends alike.

The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel “takes the matter very seriously,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement Thursday.

In separate cases over the last 10 days, one man has been arrested and an investigation against another has been launched amid suspicions they have been working in Germany for the Central Intelligence Agency.

According to German news reports, one of the men worked in the Defense Ministry’s political department, dealing with international arms issues. The other was a midlevel employee of German intelligence itself. He’s suspected of passing dozens, if not hundreds, of sensitive documents to the US in exchange for money.

While this might seem a lesser scandal to the US, in Germany espionage is a particularly sensitive topic. That’s a legacy of both World War II and the Cold War, when the East German Stasi recruited hundreds of informers in the West, and even penetrated the top ranks of government aides. In 1974 West German Chancellor Willy Brandt resigned following revelations that one of his personal assistants was a spy for the East German state.

This is what Chancellor Merkel was referring to when she told reporters this week that Germany and the US have “very different approaches” to the role of intelligence agencies.

If it is true that the US is spying on Germany, would that be surprising?

Not really. It is a truism of intelligence work that nations do not have friends, they have interests. Even in allied nations, the US maintains overt intelligence operatives, who conduct liaisons with counterparts while gathering information in many other ways, some of which border on outright spying.

And US espionage against allies has been exposed before. In the early 1960s, two lower-level NSA employees, William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, defected to the Soviet Union. Among their revelations was that the US was eavesdropping on its friends.

“The United States successfully reads the secret communications of more than forty nations, including its own allies,” said the pair in a statement released to the press in September 1960.

During the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1943, Army cryptographers worked overtime deciphering cables from key nations, according to intelligence expert and author James Bamford. Among their findings: France, a key ally, was desperate to maintain its role as a major power on the world stage.

“The San Francisco Conference served as an important demonstration of the usefulness of peacetime signals intelligence,” wrote Mr. Bamford in his book “Body of Lies.”

More recently, secret State Department cables made public by Wikileaks have indicated that the US has continued to tap into UN communications systems, including those used by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

“The UN is not the only target. The cables reveal that since 2008 the State Department has issued at least nine directives to embassies around the world which set forth ‘a list of priorities intended to guide participating US government agencies as they allocate resources and update plans to collect information,’ ” wrote the Guardian in its story on the Wikileaks revelations in 2010.

This hints at the culture of espionage, in which more information is better, and all information is best. This is not limited to United States efforts. Remember that former US civilian intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard was sentenced to 30 years and remains imprisoned because he passed classified information to Israel, a US ally.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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