The Three C’s of U.S. Espionage in Germany

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 …




24 comments on “The Three C’s of U.S. Espionage in Germany”
  1. goexcelglobal says:

    When it comes to Germany, I thought the “Three C’s” stood for Chaos Computer Club.

  2. Tim says:

    Well, add a fourth C to that: Commerical US interests….

    1. Niccolo Salo says:

      From what I’ve gleaned, the bulk of American espionage efforts in Germany have revolved around corporate/industrial intel even if that isn’t as sexy as security involving the NSA.

      There is a lot of anger in Germany about this as it’s one thing after another after another. Other than Der Spiegel, which is slavishly Atlanticist, the German press is going to town on this and parties in opposition smell blood in the water.

      This isn’t over yet by far, and I am quite sure that these are only the early chapters in a very long book that began with Snowden and which is working (at present, slowly) in Russia’s favour.

  3. n99 says:

    By that logic, Germany has every reason to run even bigger operations against the US.

  4. uwe says:

    This matter is not about espionage, in the German public’s eyes it is about sovereignity and pride. If you don’t believe this just imagine how the US publics reaction would be, if the press had found out that Canada or the UK had sifted constantly through all US data that they could access, backdoored hard-
    and software that they delivered to the US, bugged and eavesdropped as many US politcians as possible including POTUS, and recruited agents in the CIA, DoD and God knows where else. And then declared that they would go on with this but might possibly drop your president or at least the one that is currently in office from their target list.

    I guess there would be an outrage and Americans would demand from their government that they do something about this.This is what happens now. And frankly, if we are told that this is a panic or our reaction is histrionic and that we are somewhere between naive and outright stupid and that we are
    unable to do anything against US activities on our soil, this sound like the Athenians telling the Melians
    that “The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

    If the current German government would not react to this the SPD might move towards a coaliton with Greens and Reds and build a neutralist to pro Russian government. Merkel has to take this into consideration or give the SPD’s leftists an excuse for moving towards the former “peace movement” supporters (Greens) and the Communists (Die Linke, former PDS, former SED). But instead of helping her (and other NATO supporters) to handle this appropriately it looks like the US just keeps pileing on making a pro US position ever more untenable.

    If the US does not know this from all the intelligence it gathers and from all the analysts it employs then your taxpayers don’t get their money’s worth. Sometimes I wish we could have Condee Rice and John Kornblum back. At least Kornblum was a match for Grinin.

    And regarding our weakness to Russian espionage: True, but then again, it has been some time since a member of our services has made off to Moscow with an unknown (!) number of TS documents. And for every Felfe, Gast and Kuron I can give you a Weisband, Walker and Ames 🙂

    1. 20committee says:

      Good point at the end indeed 🙂

  5. 4MK says:

    We all know the real truth merkel is a SVR asset and always has been

  6. Bob says:

    So, John, you’re changing your stance: the ‘Snowden Operation’– whoever was running it– DID harm US/German intelligence relations. Do you care to update your assessment of what’s going on with ‘Operation Snowden’, in light of US-German rockiness? Is this rockiness why the Germans are letting Russian agents Poitras and Appelbaum stay?

    1. 20committee says:

      SnowdenOp combined with these events certainly has harmed US-German relations, well beyond intelligence matters.

      1. Bob says:

        Don’t make me beg, John. Why do the Deutsche tolerate these nasty Russian agents? As it stands, Berlin is letting them walk all over the USA. Are things that bad between Washington and Berlin?!

      2. 20committee says:

        They are getting, pretty bad, yes, I’m sad to say ….

    2. Niccolo Salo says:

      Hi Bob!

      What’s this about “Poitras and Applebaum”? Can you clarify whom you’re referring to and how they’re tied into Russian intel?

      1. Bob says:

        I think you’d better talk to John. He knows *all* about the Russians.

  7. Phineas Fahrquar says:

    Reblogged this on Public Secrets and commented:
    This is a very interesting discussion of why we might want to conduct intelligence operations inside the territory of our ally.

  8. Kein Mampf says:

    Do you believe that the iffy-at-best quality of the BND is based on WW2 and the fact that Germany does not want to appear as “mean” on the world stage?

    It just strikes me as odd that the Germans, who are thorough and precise at everything, do not do that in this case….

    1. 20committee says:

      The BND has a very German “Beamter” culture which, while highly efficient, is somewhat risk-averse. BfV is even more so.

    2. Christian Schulz says:

      The question is political IMO. Post-war german politicans have always kept both the military and the intelligence community (as pillars of “hard power”) on a very short leash because Germany’sself-image is that of an anti-power. We simply don’t do conventional power policy anymore and therefor its trappings aren’t that important to us (and, given the history with Gestapo and Stasi, we’re kinda spooked by the spooks).

  9. MarqueG says:

    Another bit of poignant analysis that makes your blog a must-read, John.

    Uwe’s point above about the politics involved is quite good, too, and a worthy response to grumpy Germany skeptics like myself. It is, in fact, appalling how badly the Obama administration handles traditional American allies and friends abroad — whether through incompetence, negligence, carelessness, or (to skirt conspiratorial thinking) corrupt motives. Worse still, the administration’s actions and, more often, failures to act permit our own intelligence services to dangle alone and unprotected in the wind of world events. Much like the administration is allowing America-friendly elements of German civil society to feel no special love or attention at times like these when they could use some form of strong moral and PR support.

    Another two-and-a-half years of this, and then we’ll have to see what can be built out of the ashes…

  10. Steve says:

    Since Mr. Brennan still has a job, then obviously his primary duties as assigned by the President are not those that one would traditionally associate with the Director of the CIA. So what exactly is the CIA being directed to do under this administration? May I suggest it is not closely related to national security or the protection of the Constitution against foreign and domestic enemies?

    1. 20committee says:

      You may suggest anything you like, it doesn’t make it so.

  11. Mike says:

    As Tim already stated at the beginning, the big picture is about Commercial US interests.
    The US are using any means at their disposal to fight the bad economy. It is very very unfortunate to say that the major threat is not coming from Russia !

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