New details continue to emerge about the brewing SpyWar between Berlin and Washington, DC, over alleged U.S. espionage directed at the German government. While significant questions remain, it’s becoming clear that Markus R., the thirty-one year-old employee of the Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst — BND) who was spying for the CIA, fell well short of James Bond, having been caught by German counterintelligence when trying to sell classified materials to the Russians too. The second espionage suspect, a Defense Ministry official, although under suspicion, remains free, and that case may be misunderstood: time will tell.
What’s not in doubt is that Germany is a full-fledged panic about American spying that has already resulted in the departure of the CIA’s station chief in Berlin and will surely bring extra scrutiny to a lot of U.S. activities in Central Europe. Coming on top of the Snowden Operation, with its clear aim of harming U.S.-German relations, the timing of all this must be considered suspect as well as inopportune for the West. In response, German counterintelligence is conducting a molehunt for more U.S. agents who may be lurking in ministries and agencies, above all the BND, while new press reports that more than a dozen such spies exist promise that this story is far from over, and the already rocky relationship between Berlin and Washington, DC, may worsen further.
Given all this, it’s worthwhile to ask what exactly the U.S. Government secretly wants to know about Germany. The answer isn’t straightforward and it’s much more nuanced than most media treatments would have you believe. While the CIA isn’t likely to turn away German officials who volunteer their services to them, neither is there much active recruitment of German partners. In situations like this, where spy agencies work closely with each other — it’s called liaison in the trade — occasionally lines get crossed and information gets overshared in a manner than can veer into actual espionage, sometimes gradually. Personal relationships develop and, well, things happen; it should be noted that this is fully a two-way street.
Helpfully, Eli Lake over at The Daily Beast has written a nice article that explains what it is U.S. intelligence actually wants to know about Germany; it sheds light on things that are understood among spooks but not much among normals. The bottom line is that American espionage priorities in Germany can be boiled down to the Three C’s: Counterintelligence, Counterterrorism, and Counterproliferation.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, which we must not forget were staged from Hamburg, under the not-very-watchful eye of German intelligence — they managed to shut down the notorious mosque where Mohammed Atta and co-conspirators used to hang out … in 2010 — counterterrorism became the obvious priority, and so it has remained for years. After that debacle, German security agencies, above all the domestic intelligence arm, the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz — BfV), began to treat the terrorist threat more seriously, with considerable assistance from U.S. intelligence partners. Nevertheless that relationship can never be seamless, given politics and bureaucracies, and in reality counterterrorism operations in Germany (or most any partner country, for that matter) boil down to this. In the event that CIA or NSA (it’s more often the latter) gets information about possible terrorist activities in, say, Bielefeld, U.S. officials tell the Germans about it and there are then three possible responses from Berlin:
A) Great idea, let’s run a joint operation against them and figure out what’s going on (the preferred answer).
B) Thanks, but they’re not doing anything illegal under German law, so get back to us if you develop that sort of information (the lawyerly answer, and German security agencies are very lawyerly).
C) We know about this, and we’ve spent the last six months placing an agent inside this group, we’ll get back to you if we learn more (this may or not be true).
Any answer other than “A” may result in a U.S. operation on German soil, without German assistance, what spies term a “unilateral,” which always runs the risk of getting caught and something embarrassing happening. Per the old MOSSAD joke/curse: “May we read about you in the newspapers!” But in the post-9/11 world, U.S. intelligence has not been inclined to err on the side of caution when terrorism may be involved.
Then there’s counterproliferation, especially Iranian. Tehran has a lot of businessmen running around Germany, and some of them are not what they seem to be; many are engaged in efforts to circumvent international sanctions on their country, and U.S. intelligence particularly takes an interest in Iranians who are looking to buy materials that could support the construction of weaponry and, worse, weapons of mass destruction. There are perennial concerns about German export control officials not being sufficiently diligent, plus shady German businessmen who will illegally sell contraband to Iran for the right price. There’s a considerable Iranian intelligence presence in Germany, and they too can get involved in proliferation, when they’re not assassinating people in restaurants, so interest in this in Washington, DC, is understandably high, and has been for many years.
But we must not forget counterintelligence, which is a longstanding German weakpoint and, given rapidly rising Russian espionage in that country, something that U.S. spies rightfully fret over, given the very close defense and security relationship between Washington, DC, and Berlin. Some of this Russian outreach is overt, including former German chancellors who work for Russian state companies and celebrate their birthday with Vladimir Putin, and the Kremlin’s influence operations in Germany, particularly since the Ukraine crisis erupted, cannot be evaluated as anything less than highly successful. More than a few prominent German journalists are serving Russian intelligence, wittingly or otherwise.
But actual espionage, meaning the penetration of government ministries by spies, is a deep concern too, as it’s common knowledge that the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and military intelligence (GRU) have as many officers, including illegals (meaning deep-cover types posing as civilians without any ties to Russia), in Germany today as they had at the height of the Cold War. And West Germany’s counterintelligence record during the Cold War was frankly dismal, for many reasons. East Bloc services had no trouble penetrating West German institutions at the highest levels. To cite only some of the most famous cases: Heinz Felfe, the BND’s head of counterespionage, was revealed to be a Soviet spy in 1961, while Otto John, the very first director of the BfV, defected to East Germany in 1954, and 1974 saw the unmasking of Günter Guillaume, a top adviser to Chancellor Willy Brandt, as a spy for East Germany’s legendary Stasi. The Stasi in particular had no difficulty swiss-cheesing West German institutions with their agents, many of whom volunteered their services to them; in some cases, these Stasi agents changed the course of Germany history in unlikely ways that have only come to light in recent years.
Given the extent of attention paid to Germany by the SVR and GRU, U.S. intelligence would be foolish not to be watching this closely, especially because even closely allied spy agencies seldom spill the beans about penetrations, which are embarrassing to admit. Moreover, for all its skills in combating extremism and terrorism, particularly Neo-Nazis — with whom they have a complex relationship — the BfV has never been a first-rate counterintelligence service, despite serious efforts now being devoted to the Russian espionage threat. It is to be expected that German security agencies are currently penetrated by the Russians and their friends, as they have been since the Second World War.
None of this is to deny that U.S. intelligence has made mistakes here. Running agents inside a friendly spy service is always a gamble, and must be assessed based upon risks and rewards, as may not have been done here properly. At a minimum, it would have been wise to have put all these agents “on ice” when the Snowden Operation put the U.S.-German intelligence relationship in serious jeopardy. Above all, if media reports are correct and the CIA failed to inform the president of their BND agent Markus R.’s arrest in advance of Obama’s phone conversation with an agitated German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it is a puzzling mystery why CIA Director John Brennan still has a job at Langley.
Much more will emerge about these cases in coming days, but it’s important to maintain perspective about what U.S. intelligence really cares about. It would be unfortunate if the BfV’s scarce counterintelligence resources will now be devoted to blunting American espionage, as seems almost certain, rather than against the far greater Russian threat. But such are the ways of the SpyWar …