According to the television station ZDF, which broke the story last night, the three CIA spies left the country last month, with the CIA's bureau chief in Munich. So that the affair could be kept quiet, Washington was asked to recall its operatives. None of them had been properly accredited to Germany. The television station did not say what their offence had been, but it is conceivable they were caught spying on Germany's own spying operations. The Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, is based at the Munich suburb of Pullach, where it had been set up by the Americans at the onset of the Cold War.
But relations between the two outfits have been less than cordial for a long time. The Americans believe their German colleagues are incompetent, and there are many German insiders who would not disagree with that view.
Apart from the embarrassing security lapses during the Cold War, when East German agents penetrated Bonn's highest echelons with ease, the BND was caught napping on German industry's links with hostile Third World powers. The US ended up having to bomb a Libyan chemical weapons plant built entirely by German firms, a project of which the German government appeared to know nothing. Germany's Middle East connections provoked the only previous known case of a US spy being expelled. In March 1997, a US diplomat was kicked out for trying to recruit a senior official of the Economics Ministry in Bonn. He had been trying to procure a list of companies supplying high technology to Iran.
It is, of course, perfectly natural that friendly agencies should spy on one another. There are estimated to be about 100 undercover agents in Germany, keeping an eye on things the Germans would rather keep secret from their closest allies. Increasingly, as political rivalries ebb away in a mono-polar world, the economic domain becomes the real battlefield among nations. There are undoubtedly many industrial secrets in Germany that American competitors would love to get hold of and commercial espionage has become a key task for the modern spy. How much economic espionage is being pursued by the public sector, which used to confine its interest to military hardware and power structures, can only be guessed at.
America is believed to use its superiority in computing to break the complex codes that companies adopt when transmitting commercially sensitive data. The US, Britain and other Western countries also run the Echelon system, which eavesdrops on electronic communications across the world. For years it has been suspected that the United States National Security Agency uses it to gather commercial intelligence. The Americans deny this. The former US spy chief, Bobby Inman, says it is for "fair trade issues and trade violations - that sort of thing".
All the money at stake is enough to turn former friends into enemies. But relations between Germany and the US are also clouded by an episode in the dying days of the Cold War, when the CIA stole from Berlin a large quantity of Stasi documents from under the noses of their West German colleagues.
Thanks to "Operation Rosebud", as this caper was called, the CIA now has the names of a lot of West Germans who had been on the Stasi payroll. There are rumours that a few leftist politicians are listed, including some within the current government in Berlin.Reuse content