BERLIN – German authorities have arrested a suspected double agent accused of spying for the U.S. on a parliamentary panel investigating NSA surveillance, media reports said Friday.
The suspect is an employee of Germany’s foreign intelligence service who was passing information to U.S. spies, said the reports, which threaten to undermine efforts to repair U.S.-German ties after last year’s revelations of widespread U.S. snooping.
The federal prosecutor general confirmed that a 31-year-old German was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of acting for a foreign intelligence service, without specifying which one.
“At the present time, we are issuing no further information on the proceedings,” a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor’s office said.
Several German media outlets said the suspect was working for a U.S. intelligence agency and had at least once reported on the German parliamentary panel examining claims by fugitive U.S. intelligence official Edward Snowden.
Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Berlin will wait for the police investigation before reacting but added that spying for a foreign intelligence service is not something “we take lightly.”
“If because of this consequences must be taken, then they will be taken. But we are not yet at that stage,” he told reporters.
Chancellor Angela Merkel was informed of the case Thursday, he said. He declined to say whether she had discussed the matter with U.S. President Barack Obama in a telephone call the same day that was focused on Ukraine.
False information given?
According to public broadcaster NDR, the man was initially arrested on suspicion of seeking contact with Russian secret services and, in questioning, apparently admitted having handed information to a U.S. agency.
Investigators did not rule out that the suspect had given false information, said NDR, which worked closely with two other media organizations on the initial report.
Bild daily said that between 2012 and 2014, the man had taken more than 200 German intelligence service documents and saved them onto a USB stick.
At clandestine meetings in Austria, he sold secret documents to U.S. agents for €25,000 ($34,000), it claimed, adding that in searches of his and his partners’ homes, investigators found at least three documents related to the parliamentary panel, among other things.
Berlin set up the panel in April to assess the extent of spying by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and its partners on German citizens and politicians, and whether German intelligence had aided its activities.
Last month, federal prosecutors also said they had opened a criminal investigation into alleged illegal U.S. snooping on Merkel’s mobile phone.
Germans were outraged by the revelations last year that the NSA had allegedly eavesdropped on Merkel’s conversations, as well as about wider U.S. surveillance programs of Internet and phone communications.
The revelations strained ties between Washington and Germany, a key European ally, which both countries’ leaders have been at pains to repair.
“Should this suspicion be confirmed, it would be outrageous” and require “tough diplomatic consequences,” opposition Green Party lawmaker Konstantin von Notz told business daily Handelsblatt.
Newsweekly Spiegel Online quoted senior Social Democratic lawmaker Thomas Oppermann as saying that, should the suspicions be confirmed, “that is an unheard-of attack on our parliamentary freedom.”
In testimony before the parliamentary panel in the past week, the first witness, former NSA senior official turned whistle-blower William Binney accused the service of seeking dictatorship-style surveillance of the entire population.
Binney, who resigned in 2001 after more than 30 years with the agency, also said the NSA had worked closely with Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency.