Everything You Need to Know About the Very Awkward Allegations That the U.S. Has Been Spying on Germany

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Photo: Pool/2013 Getty Images

While citizens of the United States were blowing things up for the Fourth of July and the German national team was crushing its way to the World Cup final, something of actual consequence was happening between the two countries. Last week, an employee of Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (known there as BND) was arrested on suspicions of working with the CIA. Now a second similar but unrelated investigation is under way, and German leaders are not pleased.

Because this is the international intelligence world, details are still scarce, but the facts on the ground so far include a dummy weather app for communicating with the CIA, a turncoat with a speech impediment, and an uncomfortable Independence Day sit-down, so things are shaping up nicely, at least in terms of narrative.

Who's this badass character sneaking the U.S. secrets from our ostensible ally (or frenemy)?
He's no Jason Bourne. According to The Guardian, the 31-year-old BND employee "is said to have a physical disability and a speech impediment." He hasn't been named, but reportedly got in touch with the CIA after emailing the local U.S. embassy — not exactly the dramatic recruitment of an asset. As for gadgets, the Americans gave the guy a computer:

At a meeting in a Salzburg hotel, the CIA then equipped the BND employee with a specially encrypted laptop, which allowed the agent to keep in touch with the US secret service on a weekly basis: every time he opened a programme disguised as a weather app, a direct connection was established with a contact in America.

The Guardian claims he was paid about 25,000 euros for 218 confidential documents. According to Reuters, the man "admitted passing to an American contact details concerning a German parliamentary committee's investigation of alleged U.S. eavesdropping disclosed by Edward Snowden."

Speaking of Snowden ...
That's what makes this whole situation extra delicate: After Snowden's documents revealed that Washington was monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone, the U.S. has had to grovel and pledge loyalty to get back in her good graces. "If the allegations are true, it would be for me a clear contradiction as to what I consider trusting cooperation between agencies and partners," Merkel said earlier this week.

German Chancellor Anegela Merkel (R) and U.S. President Barack Obama (L) arrived to a press conference on June 19, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Obama is visiting Berlin for the first time during his presidency and his speech at the Brandenburg Gate is to be the highlight. Obama will be speaking close to the 50th anniversary of the historic speech by then U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Berlin in 1963, during which he proclaimed the famous sentence: "Ich bin ein Berliner". Photo: Timur Emek/Getty Images

How did the rest of Germany take it?
About as well as can be expected — in public, most people in positions of power have decided to reserve judgment until more information is available. But that doesn't mean there hasn't been some awkwardness behind closed doors. From the New York Times:

Perhaps the most striking sign of the strained relationship was Germany’s decision to summon the American ambassador, John B. Emerson, to the Foreign Ministry on the Fourth of July, just before the American Embassy’s holiday party for hundreds of guests. The newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported that the ambassador had smiled and greeted guests, but that the tension was noticeable: “It was as it has so often been recently when official America meets official Germany. The facade was perfect, but behind it there was little accord.”

Stefan Kornelius, an editor at the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and "usually a pronounced Atlanticist," according to the Times, said the U.S.'s behavior was "either stupid or shameless." And President Joachim Gauck, while mostly just a figurehead, said if proven to be true, "then that is really a gamble with friendship, with a close alliance. Then we really have to say, ‘Enough.'"

How did this alleged spy get caught anyway?
"After the CIA had apparently lost interest in him, he had offered his services to the Russian general consulate in Munich, inadvertently catching the attention of the German counter-espionage agency," The Guardian reports.

And there's another one of these fools?
Maybe. An employee of the German defense ministry had his home searched on Wednesday morning "under suspicion of secret agent activity." Germany's Die Welt newspaper claims this one is a soldier who'd been in regular contact with U.S. intelligence agency personnel, while Süddeutsche Zeitung says this case is "more serious" than the BND guy.

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, June 7, 2011, as part of an official visit. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images) Photo: SAUL LOEB/2011 AFP

Why is President Obama allowing this to happen at all?
He's been quiet on the issue thus far, but according to the Times, Obama didn't even know what was going on during his call with Merkel about other issues last Thursday.

What is particularly baffling to these officials is that the C.I.A. did not inform the White House that its agent ... had been compromised, given his arrest the day before the two leaders spoke. According to German news media reports, the agency may have been aware three weeks before the arrest that the German authorities were monitoring the man. 

"The relationship that the United States has with Germany is incredibly important," said White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Monday. "All of those things are high priorities not just to this administration, but to this country. So we're going to work with the Germans to resolve this situation appropriately."

But was it worth the diplomatic headache?
Probably not. "There's only so much that spying on the Germans is going to get you," a former CIA official told the Times. "It's not like the Germans are planning to establish relations with Iran."