Spying for U.S. wasn’t his downfall

New York TimesJuly 12, 2014 

— The Cold War is long since over, the capital is no longer Bonn and few nations have exhibited a stronger reaction than Germany against the state of modern surveillance.

Yet recent weeks have brought fresh reminders that the Spy vs. Spy game goes on in Germany, which remains caught geographically and historically between Russia and the West. The espionage cases that have caused severe new strains between the United States and Germany grew, paradoxically, out of German concerns about renewed Russian intelligence activity. Based on German news reports and sketchy information provided by government officials on both sides of the Atlantic, the two cases also appear to be linked, at least tangentially.

The more troubling of the cases centers on a 31-year-old midlevel employee of the federal intelligence service who was arrested July 2. He was detained on suspicion of spying for Russia, but he astonished his interrogators by claiming to have passed 218 German intelligence documents to the United States.

That man, identified only as Markus R., first came on the radar of German counterintelligence on May 28, when he sent an email to the Russian Consulate in Munich offering information, the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported Saturday.

Since the Russian invasion of Crimea, senior German intelligence officials say the Russians had stepped up their activity in Germany to seek information on Berlin’s next steps, so counterintelligence was on alert for such contacts.

Markus R. was reportedly eager to impress the Russians and attached at least one intelligence document to his email: an anonymous denunciation of a Defense Ministry official as a Russian spy, which had crossed his desk at the federal intelligence headquarters near Munich, according to Süddeutsche Zeitung.

German counterintelligence officials sought to ensnare Markus by replying to him from a false Russian email address, suggesting a meeting. Markus apparently did not take the bait, and the Germans, casting about for more clues, forwarded the Gmail address used by Markus R. to the Americans to ask whether they recognized it.

“There was no reply” from the Americans, as the newsmagazine Der Spiegel put it. Instead, Markus shut down the email address.

Unsatisfied spy

His arrest and subsequent admission that he had actually been working for the United States infuriated the Germans and embarrassed the United States, especially given previous disclosures that the Americans had been eavesdropping on the communications of millions of Germans and had tapped the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Markus R., according to German news media accounts citing unidentified government and intelligence officials, had already been working two years for the Americans. He reportedly received 25,000 euros (about $34,000) for the 218 documents and for meeting his handlers three times in Austria, apparently to avoid detection.

But it seems he was not satisfied. Süddeutsche Zeitung, whose reporters have talked to Markus R.’s lawyer, depicted him as someone eager for more money. He apparently arranged a meeting with the Russians for July 19, prompting Germany counterintelligence to detain him – still under the impression they were dealing with a spy for Moscow.

But there was yet another twist in store. The anonymous denunciation of the German defense official that Markus had included in his email to the Russians turned out to be at the heart of a separate case that counterintelligence officials had been monitoring since August 2010, said Andre Hahn, a member of the parliamentary commission that oversees Germany’s intelligence services.

The defense official, who has not been publicly named, had come under scrutiny after investigators received an anonymous tip saying the official was working for the Russians. According to some news reports, the investigators also found evidence that the man had taken trips paid for by an American friend.

But the evidence was apparently thin. And it was not until this week, in the wake of Markus R.’s arrest and the diplomatic strains it caused with the United States, that the federal prosecutor sent police to raid the accused official’s home and office. A day later, Germany demanded that the top U.S. intelligence official in Berlin leave the country, a step rarely taken by one ally against another.

But a senior German official said Friday that there might not be enough evidence to prosecute the second official for spying for either Russia or the United States.

Trust shaken

The two sides are now beginning to turn to the task of repairing the German-American relationship.

The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, will meet Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday on the sidelines of one of several important American-German joint efforts: negotiations over limiting Iran’s nuclear capability. As Steinmeier said Friday, the expulsion of the U.S. intelligence official was an inevitable step once it became clear that the United States, long revered for championing democracy after the end of Nazi rule, was spying on Germany. “We need and expect a partnership based on trust,” he said.

For Hahn, who sits in parliament for the Left Party of former East German communists and Western leftists, the story proves that, like any good spy, you should never rule out anything.

“In both cases, we only started probing because people believed it involved the Russian secret service,” Hahn said. “For me, the discussions of the past few days have shown that we think the Russians and Chinese are willing to do anything. But in the Americans we placed literally blind trust, and this trust is now really shaken.”

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