No Firing Squad for CIA in German Spy Fiasco

Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly announced the expulsion of the CIA’s Berlin station chief over the spying scandal Thomas Peter/Reuters

CIA officials who oversaw one of the most embarrassing screw-ups in the spy agency’s recent history are not at risk of being punished, a U.S. intelligence officials says, but the agency’s internal watchdog will launch a “routine” review of the events that prompted Germany, a close ally, to expel the CIA’s station chief there.

According to a high-ranking former CIA legal official, the spy agency’s inspector general will seek to question anyone involved in the affair, including senior Obama administration officials who in the past year gave the CIA permission to recruit moles in the German government.

Germany has launched a wide-ranging probe of U.S. espionage activities in the country in the wake of its early July arrests of two national security employees, one in the BND, the country’s spy service, and another in the defense ministry, on suspicion of supplying documents to the CIA. As many as 20 more Germans are suspected of spying for the U.S., according to news reports. On July 10, German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly announced the expulsion of the CIA’s Berlin station chief.

No one  in the CIA is blaming the spy agency’s unidentified station chief or the top operations official, Frank Archibald, for the mess, a top U.S. intelligence official told Newsweek. “I don’t see anyone thinking that he did anything wrong here,” the official said on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation. “There really isn’t any backlash on this. There certainly hasn’t been any discussion of it here.”

One reason, the official said, is that Archibald, head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, or NCS, was out of the picture running the agency Latin American operations branch when the faulted German operations began.

As for the Berlin station chief, “that person will be fine as well,” the official said.  

According to the former CIA legal official, “an IG investigation is the norm in the wake of a flap like this.” It would include questioning “the entire NCS chain of command.” To question President Obama’s aides, the IG would need the approval of the White House counsel. “In past investigations, sometimes [the White House] has agreed to let folks be interviewed, sometimes not,” he said. In any event, the probe “typically takes months, not weeks.”

Letting the incident slide without internal repercussions would be in sharp contrast to the handling of a similar incident in Paris 18 years ago, in which the CIA station chief and four of his operatives were expelled after they were caught spying on French trade negotiations. The station chief, Dick Holm, a storied operative who survived a disastrous plane crash in the Congo in 1962, retired before the IG investigation, which uncovered lax security in Holm’s operations, was completed. His immediate boss, European operations chief Joseph DiTrani, was suspended but went on to become director of the CIA’s National Counterproliferation Center.

Prior to this German debacle, the White House was well-informed of the CIA’s activities in Berlin, said the senior U.S. intelligence official. After last summer’s NSA spying revelations by Edward Snowden, “there was a huge policymakers’ scrub on where certain activities are going to take place and where they’re not, and what kind of activity is going to take place what isn’t.”

In that scenario, “policymakers” would include President Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Secretary of State John Kerry and his underlings. Obama, of course, is the top policymaker, but not likely briefed on the details of routine espionage operations.

The CIA doesn’t decide on its own “where it’s going to do stuff and where it’s not,” he added. “It’s really up to policymakers—the administration, the White House. It’s up to them to weigh the risks versus the gain, because they’re the ones who get the gain. We’re given boundaries—These kind of activities in these kind of countries—but there really has to be guidance from policymakers to decide whether the information we’re giving them is worth any trouble that could come from that country if you get caught.

“The policymakers,” he added, “surely knew the kind of stuff the agency was doing. No one is out there saying the agency is doing things rogue. Absolutely, policymakers know where the agency is doing things and where it is not.”

Jeff Stein writes SpyTalk from Washington. He can be reached by encrypted email at spytalk(at)

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