1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Diplomatic earthquake

Gero Schliess / cdJuly 11, 2014

The US government has not spoken out directly about the expulsion of its top CIA official in Germany. According to Washington insiders that's partly because Obama's officials cannot agree on how to respond.

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel Photo: Peer Grimm/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"This is a wake-up call for the US government - to make it clear how serious things are in Germany. That realization is slowly working its way through Washington," said Michael Werz, a Washington insider at the nonpartisan think tank, Center for American Progress.

He told DW that Washington observers have whispered of a "shockwave" sent through the Obama administration after Berlin's decision to expel the Washington's highest CIA official in Germany. In the US, the feeling is one of being an "enemy state," with officials comforting themselves by interpreting the move as an overreaction by the German government that can be explained away by domestic pressures. Those pressures have been building on Chancellor Angela Merkel ever since revelations by Edward Snowden were published.

Washington's official line, however, has been one of silence, stressing in general terms how important Germany is to the US as a security partner; the White House declined DW's request for a specific comment on the issue at hand, saying it does not provide information on intelligence issues.

The CIA has reacted similarly.

The spokeswoman for the US' National Security Council, Caitlin Hayden, merely told DW that intelligence cooperation with Germany was important and in the interest of both countries.

Keeping the ball low

Still, it's not to be expected that a US response will come in dramatic terms. The US obviously wants to calm things down and keep the issue as muted as possible. In doing so, Washington gains time to adjust to the new level of escalation in this confrontation with their European ally and formulate its position. Of which there are, one hears, many varying ones within the Obama administration. The State Department worries of considerable damage and is calling for more restraint. Intelligence factions are opposed to that idea.

A eye looking through a keyhold
US-German relations reached a low point after a series of spy scandals came to lightImage: picture alliance/ZB

In any case, "The lack of understanding and the dismay in Berlin at the operations is relatively large here," says Michael Werz, who is on familiar terms with many inside the White House. Expelling intelligence officials is an act usually associated with countries with which the US does not maintain friendly relations.

Worse than during the Iraq war

"The German side escalated the situation - that was intentional - but we know that it can't go much further," Werz warns. The bilateral relationship, he says, is perhaps even more tense than it was surrounding the Iraq war. "Back then, you could still say: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld - these are the evil Americans." Today, he says, disappointment with Obama is widespread.

Critical voices have also come from the US Congress. In an interview with DW, Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio. "We have to ensure that the president and the government understand how deep this goes," he said shortly after the announcement of the second espionage case. For Republican Congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, American espionage activities in Germany were cause for concern that scarce intelligence resources are being misdirected in the face of real threats elsewhere.

In American media, recent developments have received attention, but at a far lower intensity than in Germany. International broadcaster CNN covered it as top news, with the Washington Post and New York Times giving top slot on their websites to the expulsion.

Spying instead of cooperation

Though the NSA affair and the newest espionage revelations have often been popularly lumped together, experts in the US differentiate between the two, Herz says. Listening in on the German chancellor's telephone was inexcusably "stupid," as former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Berlin on Sunday (06.07.2014) promoting her book.

Still, Werz says, "The fact that [US] intelligence agencies try to clarify, within the framework of a very close working relationship, whether information from Germany corresponds to the facts, is something that's seen here as very normal - also among friends."

The New York Times soberly noted that German-American relations have reached their low point with the expulsion of the CIA's representative from Berlin. Experts on Germany in Washington view the events more dramatically: President Obama, they fear, is on the verge of losing Germany.