Is Germany overreacting to allegations of U.S. espionage?

GWEN IFILL: Germany announced today that it is kicking America's top spy out of the country after new allegations of U.S. espionage. Local media there have reported that a German Defense Ministry worker who dealt with international security issues was also being investigated because of his close contacts to U.S. spies.

And last week, a 31-year-old intelligence employee was arrested on suspicion of spying for foreign powers, reportedly the CIA, since 2012. The allegations come on the heels of last fall's revelation that the U.S. was intercepting the Internet traffic of millions of German citizens, and tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone.

Before the expulsion request was made public today, the chancellor told reporters that Germany and the U.S. have — quote — "very different approaches to intelligence."

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL, Germany (through interpreter): Spying on allies is a waste of energy in the end. We have so many problems, and I think we should focus on the important things. Just look at the challenges posed in Syria regarding ISIS. If you look at the fight against terrorism, there are huge problems. That is of the highest priority, from my point of view, and not spying among allies.

GWEN IFILL: The White House and State Department didn't respond directly to questions about the expulsion request.

Joining me now to discuss whether the U.S. should or shouldn't be spying on allies, Annette Heuser, the executive director of the Washington office of the Bertelsmann Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to promote transatlantic cooperation, and Mark Lowenthal, a former vice chairman at the National Intelligence Council, a government agency that advises the intelligence community.

Annette Heuser, is Angela Merkel's response to this latest breach, is it overreaction on one hand or is it her responding to what she sees as a betrayal?

ANNETTE HEUSER, Bertelsmann Foundation, I think there is no doubt right now that not only Angela Merkel is angry and outraged and disappointed, but the entire political cast in Berlin and what has happened today, sending a high-level U.S. citizen who is the head of the surveillance services in Germany home back to the U.S. is a very unusual step that tells you how serious these latest spy incidents are taken by the German government.

GWEN IFILL: Mark Lowenthal, how unusual is it to expel someone that high-ranking?

MARK LOWENTHAL, Former Vice Chairman, National Intelligence Council: It's unusual among the allies. It's not unusual between hostile powers. We and the Russians, we have done this.

Clearly, Ms. Merkel is sending a message. I think she's overreacting.


MARK LOWENTHAL: Because she's a little disingenuous, first of all. Countries spy on each other, including allies.

And she's not going to tamp this down by sending a senior intelligence officer home. She is going to make it worse. But this has a lot to do with her domestic problems, domestic politics.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let's get back to that.

Annette Heuser, you hear that, that Mr. Lowenthal says this is an overreaction, this happens all the time.

ANNETTE HEUSER: It's a very unusual reaction among allies to take such a step as the chancellor has taken today.

And to respond to the latest allegations by saying everyone is spying on everybody is a very easy answer to a very complex political problem here. And don't forget, Berlin was waiting for a very solid response from the White House for days right now. And so far, Berlin has nothing received but radio silence.

So what else should you do, other than taking these steps, sending someone home who is a high-level official in order to signal to your allies, in this case to the White House and Washington, that the government has definitely crossed a line here and that Germany, in this case Berlin, is expecting a solid answer.

GWEN IFILL: How deep a split is this, really, do you think?

MARK LOWENTHAL: We will get over it. The Germans will get over it. We will get over it.

But I would contrast Merkel's response to President Hollande's response in France when the Snowden story broke. He said, this is absolutely unacceptable, and that was the end of it. That was the response of a more mature power, if I can put it that way.

I think this will not be the be-all and end-all of German-U.S. relations. But it's a domestic problem for the chancellor, and so that is why she has taken this action.

GWEN IFILL: What about that, Annette Heuser, about the domestic problems? You said it was a complex political problem. Is that an international problem you're talking about or a domestic concern?


And the United States has to understand that the U.S. position and perception on its intelligence services is not shared by everyone in the world, in particular not by its close allies and certainly not by Germany. The Germans are much more sensitive when it comes to the activities of their own intelligence services and even more so when it comes to the activities of other intelligence services, as we have seen right now.

And, therefore, it's first and foremost a perception problem between Berlin and Washington right now. And I feel right now that Washington didn't get the memo that this is a very serious incident for the German government and that the cracks that the NSA scandal has caused in the transatlantic relationship are on the way to even getting worse right now.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let's talk about what's on the table that we need — the U.S. needs Germany for, be an interlocutor involving Ukraine or even Syria or Iran? Germany is always at the table.


But there's a German word, (SPEAKING GERMAN), alliance worthiness, and in the view of a lot of senior American officials, they are not alliance worthy. You may remember Secretary of Defense Gates in his last meeting at NATO basically read them the riot act and said we can't have an alliance where some members opt in and opt out.

When we took the Libya case to the U.N., it wasn't that the Germans support — wouldn't put in military force. They wouldn't vote for us. So allies come and go. They pick and choose. So to say that you can't do this to an ally, there are issues that we have with the Germans where we are uncertain about their policy. And that will sometimes necessitate getting information through other means.

GWEN IFILL: Annette Heuser, what about that? Is Germany alliance worthy? Is it an unreliable ally on these issues?

ANNETTE HEUSER: I think there can be no doubt at all that Germany is a very, very serious and solid partner of the transatlantic alliance and a friend of the United States still.

And the fact that, in some cases, Germany has a different position in foreign politics than the United States doesn't mean it's not a solid ally. And for decades right now, the U.S. has forced us and supported us and developed German and European foreign and security policy. But the moment we have nuanced and different perceptions regarding Ukraine and how to deal with Vladimir Putin, for instance, we are not seen as a solid ally anymore.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you both this question. Is it worse if the president did know about some of these latest incidents or that he may not have known about them?

MARK LOWENTHAL: Either is not good. It's not clear. There have been press stories that he didn't know.

I don't think you typically tell the president every time you're running a human operation, if in fact there was a human operation. There are certain human operations you will say is the risk worth the gain in a sensitive area? It really depends. It also depends how long this was going on.

It is interesting that these both were revealed in the same week. It's not accidental. The Germans didn't just trip over this last night and expose it. I think they have been sitting on this for a while and they played this like a trump card because they have not been getting satisfaction out of the Snowden investigation.

GWEN IFILL: Annette Heuser, timing and knowledge, what do you say to that?

ANNETTE HEUSER: We can only speculate at this point, but the fact is that the damage has been done to the transatlantic relationship right now.

And I would say the ball is in the field of the White House to respond and so far there hasn't been a solid and sufficient response from the administration in Washington.

GWEN IFILL: And, in any case, Germany is not going to get its fondest wish immediately that it gets this no-spying agreement?

MARK LOWENTHAL: No, that's not going to happen.

GWEN IFILL: You agree with that, Annette Heuser?

ANNETTE HEUSER: Yes, absolutely.

The Germans have swallowed two big pills, first no-spy agreement after the NSA scandal, and the second Germany big pill to swallow was that Germany will be not a part of the "Five Eyes" Club, and therefore have started a cyber-dialogue with the United States that just took place a couple of weeks ago.

And immediately after, there were new spy allegations from the U.S. side in Germany, and this was really, really bad timing. And I would say, right now, we can't afford this in the transatlantic relationship.

GWEN IFILL: Annette Heuser of the Bertelsmann Foundation, and Mark Lowenthal, former counselor to the DCI, among other things, thank you both very much.