Hunting American Spooks: Germany Prepares Further Spying Clampdown

The United States Embassy in Berlin: The expulsion of the CIA's head in Germany last week marks a significant escalation in the scandal surrounding American spy operations in the country. Zoom
DPA

The United States Embassy in Berlin: The expulsion of the CIA's head in Germany last week marks a significant escalation in the scandal surrounding American spy operations in the country.

The latest revelations of US spying on Germany have unleashed unprecedented levels of distrust in Berlin. The government has already expelled the CIA's chief here and may soon be planning additional measures as it seeks answers from Washington.

It was an unusual invitation that took four members of a German parliamentary control committee to London early last week. For the ninth time, lawmakers in the so-called "Five Eyes" countries tasked with supervising their respective intelligence services were meeting in the British capital. They had faced serious accusations of spying within the last year. This time, the British, Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders had invited their somewhat disgruntled German counterparts to join the group.

A casual reception was being held at the British Foreign Office to herald the beginning of the conference. On Monday evening, a limousine appeared at St. James's Hotel near Hyde Park to pick up the German delegation. But due to an error on the driver's part, the German parliamentarians were taken to the wrong destination. Realizing that they would be late by then, the lawmakers decided to skip the reception.

The unexplained absence of the Berlin guests was the source of some anxiety among the Five Eyes delegates. Had they boycotted the reception because of the latest unpleasant surveillance scandal?

Three days and yet another spy affair later, the German government offered an unambiguous response. Last Thursday, it took the unprecedented step of asking the senior CIA representative in Berlin, known as the chief of station, to leave Germany. Some 13 months after the beginning of the NSA scandal, it was the Germans' brusquest response yet to the Americans' blatant spying activities in their country. In taking this step, Chancellor Angela Merkel was sending the message that her views on the matter are now more in line with those of German President Joachim Gauck: She is fed up.

At the same time, the government hoped that its diplomatic bombshell could improve its position in a scandal that doesn't seem to want to end. Derision of Germany's coalition government, which pairs Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats with the center-left Social Democrats -- for being underhanded and overly compliant with US President Barack Obama's wishes has expanded beyond the ranks of the opposition. The ritual outrage coming from the chancellor and cabinet members after each new affront by the NSA, the CIA and others had long been exhausted. At least the expulsion of the CIA official suggests some gumption on Berlin's part.

Will Moves in Berlin Sway US Government?

It remains an open question whether the step will be enough and if it will make a lasting impression on the Americans. Further curiosities from the mysterious world of espionage have already come to light, with new rumors circulating almost daily in Berlin's government district. But just because some of it sounds more like a John le Carré novel than fact, it doesn't mean that it's necessarily made up. Moreover, all the details of the two presumed cases of espionage have yet to emerge, and there is speculation that there could be a shocking connection between the two.

The man who set the spy scandal in motion has two names. At the Federal Prosecutor's Office in Karlsruhe, he is known by his real name, Markus R. But at the BND, Germany's Federal Intelligence, he used his working name, Markus L.

He is short and stocky, has a moustache and wears glasses. His coworkers in the Areas of Operations/Foreign Relations department had to be patient when they spoke with him, because the presumed CIA mole has a speech impediment. The man, who is from a town near Chemnitz in the eastern state of Saxony, never finished high school or attended a university. In addition, he has been handicapped since childhood as a result of vaccination damage.

The extent of this impairment is what his attorney, Klaus Schroth, now wants to have examined in a psychiatric opinion. He says his 31-year-old client strikes him as "not having the qualities and personality structure one normally associates with espionage activities." However, the man who would later become a spy completed the BND's standard "seven-point security review" with flying colors. Apparently it did him little good.

On May 28, Markus R. sent an email to the Russian Consulate in Munich. In it, he offered his services as an informant, and included three internal, BND documents as a sample. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) intercepted the email, and then the BND's Internal Security department pursued the case, with the involvement of the Federal Prosecutor's Office and the Federal Criminal Police Office.

Secret Meetings in Austria

Finally, police arrested Markus R. on Wednesday of the week before last. In his nine-hour interrogation, he apparently told the astonished investigators he had already been working for an American intelligence agency for two years. That relationship had also begun with an email, which he had sent to the US Embassy in Berlin, he explained. R. talked about clandestine meetings in Austria, at which he had allegedly been paid a total of €25,000 ($34,000).

In his testimony, R. incriminated two US contacts he claimed to have met. He said that they had introduced themselves by their first names, and that their conversations were informal. The men were presumably using code names. Based on R.'s descriptions of the two men, along with clues and telephone numbers he provided, the federal prosecutor's office is now trying to identify the US agents, but has been unsuccessful so far.

According to information SPIEGEL has obtained, the operation against the BND was not managed from the US Embassy in Berlin. Apparently the CIA was running its German informant from the US Embassy in Austria. In addition to diplomats, CIA employees work at the picturesque building on Boltzmanngasse 16 in Vienna, and they were apparently the ones who secretly met the BND mole in Salzburg and paid him for classified documents.

Managing sensitive sources from a neighboring country is an old trick in intelligence circles, designed to minimize the risk of the agent himself being exposed. But in this case the modus operandi is also potentially harmful for the CIA officials. If German prosecutors investigating the case succeed in identifying the officers who managed the BND mole, they will lose their diplomatic immunity in Germany. If that happened, the Federal Prosecutor's Office could request a warrant for the Americans' arrest.

Markus R. is suspected of having handed over five files of material to the Americans. As the person in charge of filing and cryptography in his department, he had access to highly classified documents. It is believed that Markus R. smuggled hard copies of at least 218 documents out of his office, scanned them at home and edited them to conceal the source.

The documents are believed to have included descriptions of sensitive activities, such as instructions to the BND issued by the Federal Chancellery, as well as the minutes of meetings between BND President Gerhard Schindler and his foreign counterparts. According to insiders, the cache encompasses "a wide range of documents, from incredibly boring to highly sensitive."

Are Spying Cases Connected?

The latter category includes a document that could explain why yet another case of spying rocked Berlin only a few days after the BND mole was exposed. It was an inquiry the Federal Criminal Police Office sent to the BND in the spring of 2014, requesting information about an official in the German Defense Ministry named Leonid K. -- a second German now suspected of spying for the United States. When investigators discovered this letter in the possession of the BND official they had already taken into custody the week before last, they must have realized that someone could have warned Leonid K.

On the morning of July 9, officers raided the office of the presumed second US informant in Berlin's Bendlerblock complex, as well as his apartment in the nearby city of Potsdam. Suddenly the spy scandal had expanded from the intelligence community to an important ministry within the German government.

Even as investigators searched the 37-year-old's office at the Defense Ministry and seized his work computer, senior ministry officials and military officers in Berlin were receiving little yellow notes with the alarming message that a spy had been discovered within their ranks.

German counterintelligence had in fact had Leonid K. under observation for some time. In 2010, while he was working as a political adviser to the German commander of the Kosovo Force (KFOR), an anonymous tipster accused him of being an informant for the Russians. When the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BFV), which is responsible for counterintelligence in Germany, and the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD) turned their attention to the senior lieutenant in the reserves, they came across another suspicious contact of the German adviser.

He had apparently had a good relationship with an American in Kosovo who was working for the US government in the Balkans to help build the local intelligence service. Because of his assignment, the investigators assumed he was a member of US intelligence and suspected he could be K.'s key contact.

There were indications to support this theory over the years, but never any hard evidence. Nevertheless, K.'s resumé alone must have made him seem like the perfect source for foreign intelligence agencies. After studying in Berlin, the eastern German city of Frankfurt an der Oder and at the University of Oxford, he worked repeatedly as a political adviser abroad, with access to military officials in various countries. He spent several years in Kosovo, working at various times for both European Union and NATO officials there.

Suspect Denies all Allegations

The outgoing native of Germany's southwestern Swabia region, whose aristocratic demeanor prompted some to liken him to former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, was known to boast to Defense Ministry officials about his international contacts, his experiences far away from Germany and his command of five foreign languages. He preferred traveling with political delegations to places like Uzbekistan over his mundane tasks at home, where he worked as an adviser compiling country profiles for senior ministry officials.

Over the years, he stayed in touch with his old contact in Kosovo. In fact, K. flew to Istanbul several times to meet with the American. These spontaneous trips attracted the attention of German counterintelligence, where it was known that the young political scientist was plagued with money problems. The investigators decided to tap K.'s phone.

Not everything was going well for him professionally. After his stints in Kosovo, K. began looking for a new job. He applied for a position as a consultant to the German parliament, the Bundestag, and had an unsuccessful interview with the German Society for International Cooperation, before landing a job at the Defense Ministry in June 2013. When his American friend suddenly transferred €2,000 to his account in the same year, it raised yet another red flag with German counterintelligence. Nevertheless, German agents still lack solid evidence that K. revealed classified secrets to foreign agents.

When he was questioned last week, he expressed complete surprise and vehemently denied all allegations. He claimed that the American colleague had been a close friend over the years, and that he had merely borrowed the €2,000 from his friend for a wedding, a debt he insisted he had already repaid.

Oddly enough, all contact between K. and his American friend abruptly ended in February 2014. Whether American intelligence services, alarmed by the activities of the BND mole, warned K. and he was therefore able to destroy evidence is one of the questions the Federal Prosecutor's Office must now address. It is quite possible that the somewhat cold trail leading to Leonid K. was only revived recently by the BND case. At any rate, K. still remains at large, as federal prosecutors have no strong suspicions that he has committed a crime.

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