BERLIN — The United States has recalled three CIA agents at Germany's insistence in a fresh sign of tension between the two allies over the scale and purpose of U.S. intelligence-gathering in Germany.
The repatriation of the three Americans, described as a married couple and their supervisor working under cover out of the U.S. Consulate in Munich, came after they were accused of using false pretenses to recruit German citizens for unspecified economic espionage, German officials said.
It marked only the second time since World War II that Germany has made public that it had sought the removal of American spies. Both cases have occurred in the past two years.
While the details of the alleged spying were not known, German officials said the Americans had violated long-standing practice by failing to make their activities known to Germany's domestic intelligence agency. The state television network ZDF, which first reported the action Tuesday night, said that the three agents were not accredited as diplomats, as is customary for intelligence personnel, and that only one of them actually worked at the consulate in Munich.
The decision reflects a growing consensus in Germany over the need to reassert sovereignty in a country that, until reunification in 1990, was technically still under occupation by the four victorious World War II powers--the United States, Britain, France and Russia. As part of that sentiment, there is growing support for the drastic curtailment of the continued large U.S. intelligence presence here, which at the height of the Cold War exceeded 25,000 people, including CIA, military and National Security Agency employees.
The CIA's presence in Germany is thought to be less than 100 agents today, a sharp reduction from the Cold War years, when the CIA station here was the agency's largest in the world, according to a former CIA official. There are also an estimated 1,000 NSA personnel still working in the country.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government agreed not to expel the three agents, but only with the understanding that the Clinton administration would order their withdrawal, which was carried out over the past five months, German officials said. The U.S. Embassy in Berlin and CIA officials in Washington declined public comment.
As economic rivalry escalates among the Western allies, some Germans fear that the United States is employing its agents and eavesdropping facilities in pursuit of commercial advantages. The United States denies using its assets to snoop on trade and technology, and it insists that any intelligence-gathering on German soil is directed against mutual threats such as terrorists, weapons smuggling, and money laundering by criminal syndicates.
CIA officials say the agency does not engage in "industrial espionage"--stealing foreign trade secrets to benefit U.S. companies.
Ernst Uhrlau, Schroeder's advisor on security matters, said he is convinced that "no American espionage is taking place that is directed against German interests." But other German intelligence experts have expressed concern about the large and continuing presence of "friendly services."
Germany's main counterintelligence agency has recently undergone a major restructuring that has shifted its eastward focus from the Cold War days toward a more vigilant attitude against all foreign espionage operations, including those of the U.S. as well as Russia. Over the summer, the government expelled several Russian spies accused of stealing economic and space technology secrets.
"There is no question of equating the United States with Russia, because we have a special partnership with Washington and we want to keep it that way," said a senior German diplomat. "But we believe that the size and resources of the American intelligence community are vastly overrepresented in our country and should be reduced in a big way."
The friction between the two allies concerns different judgments about targets as well as methods. In the days when Germany shared the U.S. priority of thwarting a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, there was no question of challenging the purpose of gathering information on a common enemy. But now, German officials tend to express greater skepticism about the objectives of their U.S. counterparts.
For example, a major CIA target in Germany is said to be watching the movements of Iranian intelligence agents in Frankfurt, which is purported to serve as Tehran's base of operations in Europe. But German officials take a more benign view and perceive Iran as a potential partner that can be encouraged to moderate its attitudes toward the West through a broader web of economic ties.
In 1997, Germany ordered a U.S. diplomat to leave after he was accused of trying to suborn a senior official in the Economics Ministry into providing information about German companies that exported high-technology items to Iran.
It was the first time that a U.S. diplomat had been expelled from postwar Germany on spying charges, and normally the matter would have been handled with discretion. But German officials say it became a public embarrassment because then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government was angry that the U.S. was dragging its heels on earlier promises to reduce its presence in Germany.
U.S. and German officials say intelligence cooperation has improved since Schroeder took power last year. But Berlin is still frustrated that Washington is not moving fast enough to scale down its spy operations. And Schroeder is said to be personally angry that the U.S. has refused to hand back top-secret archives from East Germany's foreign spy operations that were acquired by the CIA after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.