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Behind German spy cases, twists worthy of films

BERLIN — The Cold War is long since over, the capital is no longer Bonn, the “small town in Germany” of John le Carré fame, and few nations have exhibited a stronger reaction against the modern surveillance state.

Yet recent weeks have brought fresh reminders that the Spy vs. Spy game goes on in Germany, which remains caught geographically and historically between Russia and the West.

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The espionage cases that have caused severe new strains between the United States and Germany grew, paradoxically, out of German concerns about renewed Russian intelligence activity.

Based on German news reports and sketchy data from government officials on both sides of the Atlantic, the two cases also appear to be linked, at least tangentially.

The more troubling case centers on a 31-year-old employee of the federal intelligence service who was arrested July 2. He was detained on suspicion of spying for Russia, then shocked interrogators by claiming to have passed 218 German intelligence papers to the United States.

That man, identified only as Markus R., came on the radar of German counterintelligence on May 28, when he sent an e-mail to the Russian consulate in Munich offering information, the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported Saturday.

Since the Russian invasion of Crimea, senior German intelligence officials say, the Russians had stepped up their activity in Germany, seeking information on Berlin’s next steps, so counterintelligence was on alert for such contacts.

Germany has demanded that the top US intelligence official in Berlin leave the country — a step rarely taken by oneally against another.

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Markus R. was reportedly eager to impress the Russians, and attached at least one intelligence document to his e-mail: an anonymous denunciation of a defense ministry official as a Russian spy that had crossed his desk at the federal intelligence headquarters, according to Süddeutsche Zeitung.

German counterintelligence officials sought to ensnare Markus by replying to him from a false Russian e-mail address, suggesting a meeting. Markus apparently did not take the bait, and the Germans, casting about for more clues, forwarded the Gmail address used by Markus R. to the Americans, asking if they recognized it.

“There was no reply” from the Americans, as the newsmagazine Der Spiegel put it. Instead, Markus shut down the e-mail address.

His arrest and subsequent admission that he had actually been working for the United States infuriated the Germans and embarrassed the United States, especially given previous disclosures that the Americans had been eavesdropping on the communications of millions of Germans and had tapped the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Markus R., according to German news media accounts citing unidentified government and intelligence officials, had been working already for two years for the Americans, reportedly receiving about $34,000 for those 218 documents, and meeting his handlers three times in Austria, apparently to avoid detection.

It seems he was not satisfied. Süddeutsche Zeitung, whose reporters have talked to Markus R.’s lawyer, depicted him as someone eager for more money, who apparently arranged a meeting with the Russians on July 19, prompting counterintelligence to detain him — still thinking they were dealing with a spy for Moscow.

But there was yet another twist in store. The anonymous denunciation of the German defense official that Markus had included in his e-mail to the Russians turned out to be at the heart of a separate case that German counterintelligence officials had been monitoring since August 2010, said Andre Hahn, a member of the parliamentary commission that oversees Germany’s intelligence services.

The defense official, who has not been publicly named, had come under scrutiny after investigators received the anonymous tip saying the official was working for the Russians. The investigators, according to some news reports, also found evidence that the man had taken trips paid for by an American friend.

But the evidence was apparently thin, and it was not until last week, in the wake of Markus R.’s arrest and the diplomatic strains it caused with the United States, that the federal prosecutor sent police to raid the man’s home and office.

A day later, Germany demanded that the top US intelligence official in Berlin leave the country, a step rarely taken by one ally against another. But a senior German official said Friday that there might not be enough evidence to prosecute the second official for spying for either Russia or the United States.

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