In the summer of 2011, the CIA station chief in Berlin asked one of the most powerful intelligence officials in Germany to go on a private walk with him, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reports. The American spy had an important message to convey: one of Germany’s own senior officials was leaking information to the press.
The suspected leaker, Hans Josef Vorbeck, had been in contact with Spiegel, the station chief told the German official, Günter Heiss. Head of Division 6, Heiss is responsible for coordinating Germany’s intelligence services. Vorbeck was his deputy.
At the time, Vorbeck was responsible for managing German counterterrorism efforts. Following the meet-up, Vorbeck was discreetly transferred to a less prestigious post, overseeing historical archives for the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence service.
For four years, the conversation that led to Vorbeck’s demotion remained secret. It has now become public, thanks largely to a German intelligence inquiry launched in the wake of Edward Snowden’s historic leak of top-secret NSA documents. The walk — and its implications for U.S.-German relations — were detailed Friday by Spiegel.
Obama administration officials told the magazine that the disclosure of the alleged communications between Vorbeck and its journalists was prompted by national security concerns. The fact that the Americans were willing to expose an ongoing surveillance operation underscored the seriousness of the threat posed by the leaks, sources in Washington told Spiegel. Intentionally or not, the sources said, the disclosure put the Germans on notice — the Americans were watching.
“People around the world — regardless of their nationality — should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security,” Ned Price, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said in a statement to The Intercept. “We also have made clear that we take their privacy concerns into account.”
“While we are not going to discuss specific targets, we have repeatedly made clear that the United States does not collect intelligence for the purpose of suppressing or burdening criticism or dissent, or for disadvantaging persons based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion,” Price added. “Signals intelligence is collected exclusively where there is a foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose to support these missions and not for any other purposes.”
The revelations, the latest in a series of disclosures detailing the fraught and intertwined intelligence relationship between German and American entities, offer an example of how the Obama administration, known for its aggressive approach to national security leaks at home, similarly asserts itself in leak cases abroad.
Spiegel, the same periodical the two officials discussed that summer day in Berlin, describes how it came into the crosshairs of the U.S. government.
Between about 2004 and 2009, the magazine published several scoops exposing controversial U.S. counterterrorism operations, such as the CIA’s extraordinary rendition of German Islamic extremist Mohammed Haydar Zammar to Syria, where he was subjected to torture at the hands of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. These reports triggered a political backlash in Germany and prompted a parliamentary committee to investigate the CIA’s practices.
In late 2010, Spiegel cemented its status as a source of irritation for the U.S. government. Along with a number of other major news outlets, the magazine worked to publish thousands of classified cables provided by WikiLeaks. The cables detailed evidence of potential war crimes committed by U.S. forces in Iraq and revealed the grinding day-to-day toll of the United States’ war in Afghanistan. The U.S. government responded to the leaks by launching a Department of Justice investigation.
Several months later, in the summer of 2011, the CIA apparently identified an alleged source of leaks within the German government and tried to shut it down. Citing CIA and NSA documents, as well as three independent government sources in both Berlin and Washington D.C., Spiegel reported Friday that it has confirmed the CIA station chief specifically identified the magazine and Vorbeck at the center of the alleged leaking during the 2011 conversation in Berlin.
Testifying before a German parliamentary committee investigating NSA surveillance Thursday, Heiss confirmed that he had received the 2011 tip from the CIA, but that the information was not “concrete enough” to take steps against Vorbeck beyond his reassignment.
According to Spiegel, Heiss visited CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia in June 2011, following his Berlin walk with the station chief. During conversations there, Spiegel was mentioned specifically, according to internal memos the magazine reviewed.
Vorbeck maintains that media relations — including background conversations and public appearances as an official representative of the chancellery — were part of his job responsibilities. As such, he does not deny having ties to members of the press. “I had contact with journalists and made no secret about it,” he told Spiegel. “I even received them in my office in the Chancellery,” he added. “That was a known fact.”
The Obama administration has developed a reputation for aggressively investigating journalists and their confidential sources in cases involved leaked national security information — serving subpoenas for phone records linked to reporters at major news organizations investigating sensitive CIA stories, dragging a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist through a multi-year legal battle in an effort to reveal an alleged government source, and applying the Espionage Act to target whistleblowers leaking to journalists more times than every previous administration combined.
Exactly how the U.S. intelligence community learned of the alleged communications between Vorbeck and Spiegel is unclear. According to the magazine, chancellery officials, in the early days after the 2011 walk, considered how the CIA might have obtained its information. They had two ideas: one, the agency had an informant either inside the chancellery or the magazine; or two, the Americans had relied on electronic surveillance. They determined the latter was more likely. Who the target of the surveillance was — Vorbeck, Spiegel’s journalists or wider collection of German government officials — is an unanswered question.
“Each of these acts would represent a violation of German law,” Spiegel noted in its report today.
But Spiegel reports that the chancellery did virtually nothing to uncover how the Americans learned of the alleged communications between a high-ranking German official and members of the German press. Neither the actors in question, nor the appropriate bodies for oversight, were contacted about the suspicions raised by the CIA, including those tasked with reining in German intelligence agencies and those charged with guarding against counterintelligence and protecting the German constitution.
Instead, Spiegel reports that Vorbeck, whose job involved talking to the press, was reassigned with no opportunity to defend himself. Then, two years later, when evidence of U.S. surveillance in Germany emerged through the NSA leaks, German officials publicly declared themselves shocked that the Americans would do such a thing. Responding to the apparent lack of action on the part of the chancellery, Spiegel filed a federal complaint Friday.
The magazine also noted that German law requires intelligence matters of “considerable importance” to be reported to the Bundestag’s Parliamentary Control Panel, which holds classified hearings in an effort to oversee the nation’s intelligence agencies. The panel, Spiegel reported, received no answers as to why Vorbeck was removed and was never informed of the CIA’s warning regarding his alleged communications with reporters.
News of the CIA tip-off comes at a delicate time for relations between the U.S. and Germany. Home to Ramstein Air Base — one of the largest U.S. military installations abroad — Germany has played a crucial supporting role in the United States’ global war on terror. In April, The Intercept, in a partnership with Spiegel, confirmed that Ramstein serves as a key node in Washington’s controversial targeted killing operations.
Cooperation aside, recent years have also seen the relationship between the U.S. and Germany marked by moments of public tension. In 2013, leaked NSA documents indicating that the U.S. intelligence agency had eavesdropped on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone strained relations between the countries. A German probe into the alleged surveillance was recently dropped. On Wednesday, however, leaked NSA documents published by WikiLeaks and the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, included a list of nearly 70 phone and fax numbers purporting to show that U.S. surveillance of its longstanding ally has in fact included a broad circle of German officials beyond the chancellor.
On Thursday, the State Department confirmed that ambassador John B. Emerson had traveled to Germany to meet with chancellery staff members, but did not answer specific questions posed by The Intercept as to whether the meeting bore any relationship to the alleged leaking, pointing instead to general comments from spokesperson John Kirby.
“We’re not going to comment on specific intelligence allegations or the veracity of leaked documents, but as we’ve also said, we do not conduct foreign intelligence activities unless there’s a specific and validated national security purpose, and that applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike,” Kirby said Thursday.
“We continue to enjoy a long and very productive friendship with Germany based on shared values and a history of cooperating to advance our interests around the globe,” he added. “Nothing’s going to change about that.”
The CIA declined to respond to a request for comment.
Photo of the United States embassy in Berlin, Germany. (Adam Berry/Getty)