American spies, double agents and the diplomacy of intelligence gathering
By Tom Rogan World Last updated: July 6th, 2014
US embassy in Berlin (Photo: ALAMY)
For an intelligence service, losing an agent is the second worst thing that can happen. The worst thing, of course, is losing one of your own officers.
In that context, for America, the news from Germany is far from ideal. On Friday, we learnt that the German government has apparently arrested one of its intelligence officers for spying for the United States. The suspect, a 31-year-old employee of the BND (Germany's rough equivalent to the UK-SIS or US-CIA), has apparently confessed. Uncomfortably for Obama, the German press is reporting that the accused may have provided information on a parliamentary inquiry examining NSA operations. In the aftermath of the Merkel spying scandal – in which the NSA tapped the German Chancellor's mobile phone – the Obama Administration has been desperate to reduce tensions.
Still, assuming the German reporting is accurate, there are three further takeaways from this story.
First, it's possible that the CIA was responsible for recruiting this agent. While most of the recent news surrounding espionage has focused on NSA operations, the CIA is the lead US spy agency for recruiting foreign agents. These sources are "handled" by intelligence officers who are trained to protect their identities and then provide relevant information back to staff operations officers in Virginia. In turn, the staff officers then provide that information to the analysts. In obvious terms, if the CIA was involved, it will mean that another US agency has now been embarrassed by a compromised operation. All this being said, it's also possible that the NSA was responsible. As Marc Ambinder has noted, there's an entire category of NSA intelligence sources to which Snowden did not have access. These sources are classified as "exceptionally controlled information" (Top Secret-ECI). In short, they're the most secret mechanisms of the US government's intelligence apparatus. A human source would come under this classification orbit.
Second, this story again illustrates that the US continues to spy on Germany and other presumptive allies. As I've suggested before, there are a number of compelling reasons why the NSA spies on Europe. Where the US-UK intelligence relationship is bound to the close connections of US-UK government policy, states like France and Germany pursue notably different foreign policies to the United States. In simple terms, spying is a recognition of those divergences.
Third, this is another example of the great contradiction in intelligence operations. On the one hand, policymakers like President Obama require accurate information on the deliberations of foreign governments. Beyond the dream world of multilateralism, states ultimately act in their own self-interests. This is a fact. On the other hand, when an intelligence operation is compromised, as appears to have happened here, the diplomatic ramifications can be extremely serious. In the days ahead, it's likely that Obama and the US Embassy in Berlin will have to make some very difficult phone calls.