Authorities in Germany have arrested a 31-year-old German man on suspicion of spying for a foreign power, in a case that may further strain already testy relations between Germany and the US over intelligence issues.
An official statement from the German federal prosecutor’s office about the arrest did not identify the foreign country involved, but German news media reported, quoting government sources, that the man had confessed to passing information to the US.
US ambassador to Germany John Emerson was summoned on Friday by the Foreign Ministry in Berlin “in connection with an investigation by the federal prosecutor,” according to a ministry statement.
It said the ambassador was asked “to help in the swift clarification” of the case.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was informed of the arrest on Thursday, according to her spokesman, Steffen Seibert.
Seibert said that the chancellor spoke to US President Barack Obama by telephone late on Thursday, but he would not say whether the spying case came up.
A brief White House statement about the conversation made no mention of the matter, and White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to comment on it.
The Suddeutsche Zeitung daily newspaper said the suspect was an employee of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, which routinely deals with foreign intelligence matters. The paper said that the man was at first suspected of spying for Russia, which German intelligence officials say has markedly stepped up recruitment of German informants.
Citing unidentified German officials, the newspaper and the two public broadcasters that team up with it on investigative projects said the arrested man told authorities he was approached several times by US agents and passed information to them on at least one occasion.
Relations between Washington and Berlin have been tense since last summer, when news weekly Der Spiegel reported that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was monitoring the electronic data of millions of Germans.
The magazine cited some of the documents from the trove of the former security contractor Edward Snowden. German news media outlets have continued to dribble out related revelations in recent months.
When it emerged in October last year that Merkel’s cellphone had been tapped by the NSA, a furor erupted. Since then the German government has been under pressure to secure a new agreement with the US that would curb or at least regulate US intelligence activity in Germany, where the history of Nazi and communist regimes makes people particularly sensitive about any state snooping on citizens.
The German parliament is conducting an inquiry into the NSA’s activities in the country, and it heard its first testimony on Thursday from two US citizens who formerly worked for the agency. That testimony came hours after a 27-year-old student in Bavaria was identified by name as one of the spy agency’s surveillance targets, the first German other than Merkel to be named in that way.
The testimony on Thursday lasted late into the evening, delayed in part by an extraordinary meeting between the inquiry panel and the control commission that oversees Germany’s intelligence services.
The lawmakers were apparently informed of the arrest of the accused spy at that meeting; attendees at such sessions are sworn to secrecy.