TIME intelligence

CIA Says ISIS Ranks May Have Tripled

ISIS Mosul Iraq Islamic State
Demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans as they carry the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq on June 16, 2014. AP

Foreign fighters, including Americans, appear to be pouring into Syria to support the terrorist group

The number of combatants fighting under the banner of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) could be three times larger than intelligence officials previously believed, according to a new estimate from the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA estimates that ISIS, the Islamist terrorist group that has declared a caliphate in the large swath of Iraq and Syria which it now controls, “can muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria, based on a new review of all-source intelligence reports from May to August, an increase from our previous assessment of at least 10,000 fighters,” a CIA spokesperson said. That estimate accounts only for individuals fighting with ISIS itself, not with any affiliated group.

The new estimate reflects a sharp uptick in recruitment over the summer “following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate,” the CIA spokesperson said.

The CIA believes more than 15,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries—at least 2,000 of whom are Westerners—have traveled to Syria to join ISIS ranks. A dozen or more could be Americans, the CIA believes.

A U.S. intelligence official cautioned that the CIA’s estimate is not a precise figure and reflects a broad approximation based on limited intelligence. “The gap between the low and high points indicates there is uncertainty about the exact number of fighters in (ISIS),” a US intelligence official said. “Given the changing dynamics of the battlefield, new recruits, and other factors, it is difficult to assess the precise number of individuals in a terrorist group that is evolving and practices good operational security.”

TIME animal behavior

What Are Animals Thinking? (Hint: More Than You Suspect)

The mind of an animal is a far richer, more complex thing than most people know — as a new TIME book reveals

Let’s be honest, you’d probably rather die than wake up tomorrow morning and find out you’d turned into an animal. Dying, after all, is inevitable, and there’s even a certain dignity to it: Shakespeare did it, Einstein did it, Galileo and Washington and Twain all did it. And you, someone who was born a human and will live your life as a human, will end your life that way too.

But living that life as an animal — an insensate brute, incapable of reason, abstraction, perhaps even feeling? Unthinkable. Yes, yes, the animals don’t recognize the difference, and neither would you. If you’re a goat, you possess the knowledge of a goat, and that can’t be much. But there’s more to it than that.

Human beings have always had something of a bipolar relationship with the millions of other species with which we share the planet. We are fascinated by them, often dazzled by them. They can be magnificently beautiful, for one thing: the explosive color and frippery of a bird of paradise, the hallucinatory variety of the fish in a coral reef, the otherworldly markings and architecture of a giraffe. Even the plain or ugly animals — consider the naked, leathery grayness of the rhino or elephant — have a certain solidity and equipoise to them. And to see an animal at what appears to be play — the breaching dolphin, the swooping raptor — is to think that it might be fun to have a taste, a tiny taste, of their lives.

But it’s a taste we’d surely spit right out, because as much as we may admire animals, we pity them too: their ignorance, their inconsequence, and their brief, savage lives. It’s in our interest to see them that way — not so much because we need to press our already considerable advantage over them; we don’t. But because we have certain uses in mind for them. We need the animals to work for us — to pull carts, drag plows, lift logs and carry loads, and stand still for a whipping if they don’t. We need them to entertain us, in our circuses and zoos and stage shows. And most of all, we need them to feed us, with their eggs and milk and their very flesh. A few favored beasts do get a pass — dogs, cats, some horses — but the rest are little more than tools for our use.

But that view is becoming impossible to sustain — as a new TIME book reveals. The more deeply scientists look into the animal mind, the more they’re discovering it to be a place of richness, joy, thought and even nuance. There are the parrots that don’t just mimic words but appear to understand them, for example, assembling them into what can only be described as sentences. There are the gorillas and bonobos that can do the same with sign language or pictograms. Those abilities are hard to dismiss, but they also miss the point; they are, in many way, limited gifts — animals doing things humans do, but much less well.

A better measure is the suite of behaviors the animals exhibit on their own: crows that can fashion tools, lions that collaborate on elaborate hunts, dolphins and elephants with signature calls that serve as names, and cultural norms like grieving for their dead and caring for grandchildren. There are the complex, even political societies that hyenas create and the factory-like worlds of bees and ants. There are the abiding friendships among animals, too — not just the pairs of dolphins or horses or dogs that seem inseparable but the cross-species loyalties: the monkey and the dog, the sheep and the elephant, the cat and the crow, members of ordinarily incompatible species that appear never to have thought to fight with or eat one another because, well, no one told them they had to.

Animals, the research is proving, are creatures capable of reflection, bliss, worry and more. Not all of them in the same ways or to the same degrees, surely, but all of them in far deeper measures than we’ve ever believed. The animal mind is nothing like the wasteland it’s been made out to be. And if it’s not the mind you’d want to have as your own, it’s one that is still worth getting to know much better.

(The Animal Mind is now available on newsstands.)

TIME intelligence

New Post-Snowden Leaks Reveal Secret Details of U.S. Terrorist Watch List

Edward Snowden, displayed on television screens, asks a question to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a nationally televised question-and-answer session, in Moscow, Thursday, April 17, 2014.
Edward Snowden, displayed on television screens, asks a question to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a nationally televised question-and-answer session, in Moscow, Thursday, April 17, 2014. Pavel Golovkin—AP

The documents are not as highly classified as the materials released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden

The U.S. government believes that someone other than former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has recently leaked secret national-security documents to the media, an official confirmed Tuesday.

The documents, published by the Intercept on Tuesday, detail the growth of federal terrorist watch lists. They were drafted after Snowden fled prosecution in the U.S. for Russia, when he no longer had access to classified intelligence networks.

CNN first reported that the government has assessed a second source of the documents. Classified as “secret” with instructions not to reveal them to foreign nationals, the documents would have been available broadly throughout the intelligence community and the military on the classified SIPRNet, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, the system predominantly used by former Army Private Bradley Manning to collect documents to pass to WikiLeaks.

That network is open to a vastly larger audience than the top-secret-level JWICS, the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, which was used by Snowden to gather as many as a million documents on some of the nation’s most sensitive surveillance programs. So far, just a couple of documents have been published, making it impossible to determine whether the source of the leak simply passed the Intercept a small number of documents or a larger contingent on the order of the previous leaks.

The published documents describe government efforts using the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), a database used by federal state and local law-enforcement agencies to identify and track known or suspected terrorist suspects. The database has been subject to public debate and federal litigation, because of the secretive process that determines inclusion on this list.

The leaked documents say TIDE included more than 1 million people in June 2013, after Snowden had fled the country. The documents also detail use of the database in tracking possible combatants in the Syrian civil war and in providing security at events, like the Boston and Chicago marathons. A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the possible source of the leak.

TIME intelligence

CIA Apologizes for Snooping on Senate Staff Computers

CIA Director John Brennan speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on March 11, 2014.
CIA director John Brennan speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., on March 11, 2014 Carolyn Kaster—AP

In a dramatic reversal from the agency's earlier position

Updated at 3:24 p.m.

A report from the CIA’s inspector general faulted agency employees for improperly accessing Senate staffers’ computers during an investigation into Bush-era CIA interrogation practices.

The report, released Thursday by the agency’s Office of the Inspector General, represents an admission that CIA employees improperly accessed computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff to review top secret documents as part of a probe into harsh interrogation practices. Staffers were given access to special computers in a neutral facility with access to documents through a closed CIA network. By agreement, the agency was not supposed to have access to the computers used by Senate staff in the facility — an agreement the agency violated, according to the inspector general’s report.

In a reversal of his previous public comments on the matter, CIA director John Brennan apologized for the overreach.

“The Director subsequently informed the SSCI Chairman and Vice Chairman of the findings and apologized to them for such actions by CIA officers as described in the OIG report,” CIA spokesperson Preston Golson said in a statement. According to the statement, Brennan will form an “Accountability Board” to review the report’s findings and make recommendations, which “could include potential disciplinary measures and/or steps to address systemic issues.”

The report is a vindication for Intelligence Committee chairperson Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein sent shockwaves through Washington with a long tirade on the Senate floor in March lambasting the CIA for accessing Intelligence Committee staffers’ computers.

“Heads should roll, people should go to jail, if it’s true,” said Feinstein in her speech. At the time, Brennan strongly defended the agency against Feinstein’s allegations.

Feinstein struck a conciliatory tone in remarks regarding the report Thursday.

“The investigation confirmed what I said on the Senate floor in March — CIA personnel inappropriately searched Senate Intelligence Committee computers in violation of an agreement we had reached, and I believe in violation of the constitutional separation of powers,” Feinstein said. “Director Brennan apologized for these actions and submitted the IG report to an accountability board. These are positive first steps. This IG report corrects the record and it is my understanding that a declassified report will be made available to the public shortly.”

The White House offered a vigorous defense of director Brennan’s role at the helm of the CIA.

“The fact of the matter is, director Brennan is somebody who over the course of the last five and a half years has played an instrumental role in helping the President make the kinds of decisions … that have decimated the leadership of core al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he currently is operating in a very difficult environment to ensure the safety of the American public,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday. “He is somebody who has a very difficult job, who does that job extraordinary well.”

The Justice Department announced earlier this month it would not launch a criminal probe into Feinstein’s allegations. A Senate investigation into the incident is ongoing.

TIME intelligence

Senate NSA Reform Bill Earns Cautious Praise From Privacy Advocates

NSA Surveillance-Privacy Report
The National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md., June 6, 2013. Patrick Semansky—AP

Senator Leahy’s USA Freedom Act carries stronger reforms than a version passed out of the House earlier this year

Advocates for reform of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance activities cautiously hailed the USA Freedom Act, put forth in the Senate on Tuesday, as a major step in reforming controversial programs at the agency.

“We commend the Senate Democratic and Republican co-sponsors of this version of the USA Freedom Act, which significantly constrains the out-of-control surveillance authorities exposed by Edward Snowden,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union. “While this bill is not perfect, it is the beginning of the real NSA reform that the public has been craving since the Patriot Act became law in 2001.”

Introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, the USA Freedom Act would impose new restrictions on so-called bulk surveillance of American cell-phone records and Internet traffic, banning the practice of vacuuming up all cell-phone metadata from a particular area or phone-service provider, for instance. The legislation also places restrictions on what business records the government can collect, imposes new transparency requirements on the government, and creates a position of a special privacy advocate to represent civil-liberties interests in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secretive body that oversees NSA surveillance activities.

Many in the technology industry, where business has been threatened by investors skittish at NSA snooping on Internet traffic in the U.S., have joined calls for serious NSA reform. Privacy advocates contend that the exposed surveillance efforts also weaken security protocols of American companies.

The bill “would go a long way toward stemming the costs of the NSA’s spying programs and restoring trust in the American Internet industry,” said Kevin Bankston, policy director with the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “But ensuring that a strong version of USA Freedom becomes law is only the first step toward repairing the damage that the NSA has done to America’s tech economy, its foreign relationships, and the security of the Internet itself.”

Compared with similar legislation passed in May by the House, also called the USA Freedom Act, the Leahy bill goes significantly further in curbing what civil-liberties groups see as extraconstitutional overreach by the NSA since passage of the 2001 Patriot Act gave the spy agency broad new surveillance powers. Privacy advocates pulled support for the House bill before it came to a vote, after substantial changes to the measure gutted the bill of key reform provisions. It’s unclear if the Senate will take up the Leahy bill before the November midterm elections.

TIME National Security

Government Spying Hurts Journalists and Lawyers, Report Says

A Human Rights Watch and American Civil Liberties Union report suggests NSA snooping prevents sources talking to journalists and compromises the relationships between defense attorneys and their clients

Updated at 4:51 p.m.

National Security Agency surveillance in the U.S. has seriously hurt the ability of journalists to cover national security issues and of attorneys, particularly defense lawyers, to represent their clients, according to a new report out Monday.

Based on interviews in the United States with 46 journalists, 42 practicing attorneys, and five current or former senior government officials, the report seeks to document the tangible impact of NSA surveillance on Americans revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

In particular, the report cites the degree to which the Obama administration’s tough crackdown on unauthorized leaks, in combination with revelations about the extent of government surveillance on Americans’ cell phones and online communications, has caused sources to vanish for national security reporters.

“Sources are worried that being connected to a journalists through some sort of electronic record will be seen as suspicious and that they will be punished as a result,” said study author Alex Sinha, a fellow at Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, which jointly issued the report. “As a result sources are less willing to talk to the press about anything, including unclassified matters that could be of significant public concern,” he said.

“I had a source whom I’ve known for years whom I wanted to talk to about a particular subject and this person said, ‘It’s not classified but I can’t talk about it because if they find out they’ll kill me,’ [figuratively speaking]” longtime National Security Correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers Jonathan Landay said for the report.

“It’s a terrible time to be covering government,” Tom Gjelten, a National Public Radio employee for more than 30 years, said. TIME was not listed among the news outlets from which reporters, many of whom chose to remain anonymous, were interviewed for the report.

Defense attorneys, who represent clients charged with a wide variety of offenses including terrorism, drug and financial crimes, among others, described how U.S. government surveillance has forced them to take extraordinary and often cumbersome measures to protect the privacy of sources and clients.

Such measures might include the use of complex encryption technologies, disposable “burner” cell phones, so called “air-gapped” computers, which are never connected to the internet as a precaution against hacking and surveillance, and in some cases abandoning electronic communications entirely.

“I’ll be damned if I have to start acting like a drug dealer in order to protect my client’s confidentiality,” said national security defense attorney Tom Durkin for the report.

“We are fearful that our communications with witnesses abroad are monitored [and] might put people in harm’s way,” said Jason Wright, who has represented terrorism clients as a military defense attorney before the Guantánamo commissions.

A report released earlier this month by The New America Foundation argues the NSA deliberately weakens cybersecurity, making online communications, study authors argue, less secure in general. The NSA has “minimization procedures” designed to limit the exposure of “US Persons”—Americans at home or abroad and others legally inside the United States—to the NSA’s wide-net surveillance programs. Privacy advocates contend they are insufficient and that, in any case, it’s impossible to verify their effectiveness because the details remain secret.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence told TIME that, contrary to revealing a decrease in press freedom, the Snowden leaks are evidence that journalism in the United States remains robust and unencumbered.

“The Intelligence Community, like all Americans, supports a free and robust press,” said Jeffrey Anchukaitis, spokesperson for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “The events of the last year demonstrate that the IC’s foreign intelligence surveillance activities clearly have not prevented vigorous reporting on intelligence activities. U.S. intelligence activities are focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets to help defend the nation, not on intimidating or inhibiting journalists. Likewise, the IC recognizes the importance of the attorney-client privilege, and has procedures in place to ensure that appropriate protection is given to privileged attorney-client communications.”

To address problems raised in the report, HRW and the ACLU recommend reforming U.S. surveillance practices, reducing state secrecy in general and limitations on official contact with journalists, enhanced whistleblower protections and strengthened minimization procedures.

The report comes just days before the expected unveiling in the Senate of the latest iteration of the USA Freedom Act, a bill to reform NSA surveillance practices. An earlier House version of the bill was significantly gutted of reform measures, leading privacy advocates to pull support for the bill and try instead to get more substantial reforms through the Senate.

TIME Ukraine

U.S. Officials Say They Tracked ‘Specific’ Missile That Downed Malaysian Plane

298 Crew And Passengers Perish On Flight MH17 After Suspected Missile Attack In Ukraine
Wreckage from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 lies in a field in Grabovo, Ukraine, on July 22, 2014 Rob Stothard—Getty Images

The Obama Administration says it tracked the missile that struck Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

U.S. intelligence resources tracked the “specific missile” that downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a senior Administration official said Tuesday, saying intelligence adds up to a picture that “implicates Russia” in helping to bring down the plane.

“We did pick up a launch, and so we were able to have the ability to track this specific launch,” the official told reporters Tuesday afternoon. The missile shot up nearly vertically from a location in eastern Ukraine determined to be in control of Russian-backed separatists, the official added, before striking the plane at an altitude of 33,000 ft., killing the plane’s 298 passengers and crew.

The comments come as the U.S. government is intensifying pressure on the Russian government for arming and training separatist forces. President Barack Obama Monday threatened additional economic and diplomatic “costs” on Russia.

But the American intelligence case against Russia remains largely circumstantial, even as Russia has called on the U.S. government to prove its case. “Everything points at the same scenario,” the official said. “It’s not like there are countertheories that make any sense to us.”

“We don’t know who literally was operating the system that day,” the official added. “But more generally what we have is a picture of evidence that says the Russians have been providing these arms, these types of systems and Russians have been providing training. That adds up to a picture that implicates Russia.”

The official did not say whether U.S. intelligence was capable of tracking the missile’s flight-path in real time, or only once the plane had been brought down.

The admittedly circumstantial American case comes as Russia has remained adamant that it bears no responsibility for the incident. The official said while the U.S. government does not know with precision how and when the SA-11 got to Ukraine, it did not belong to the Ukrainian government, rather appears to have entered the country from Russia. “What we had been tracking is a lot of heavy weaponry moving into Ukraine, including antiaircraft systems,” the official added.

TIME intelligence

Privacy Advocates Call for FISA Court Reform

NSA Surveillance-Privacy Report
This Thursday, June 6, 2013, file photo, shows a sign outside the National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md. Patrick Semansky—AP

The Senate version of the USA Freedom Act would reform the process that led to NSA surveillance of five prominent Americans

Privacy advocates renewed their calls for reforms at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on Tuesday, after a new report revealed documents leaked by Edward Snowden that detail secret intelligence warrants against five American Muslims.

The targeted individuals, found on a list of thousands of mostly foreign targets for court-reviewed surveillance, include a professor at Rutgers University, a former Bush administration official and the executive director of the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group. Because the Justice Dept. and the FBI refused to comment, it is unknown on what grounds the men were targeted for surveillance, nor is it clear under what precise legal authority the surveillance was conducted.

Civil libertarians say the report shows why the U.S. Congress should introducing a special advocate on the court, whose job it would be to represent civil liberties interests in court proceedings, and establishing a process for declassifying the court’s orders. Those reforms are included in a Senate version of an intelligence reform bill, but not the House version now under consideration.

“It’s been one of the core issues lacking in the debate,” said Mark Jaycox, a legislative analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, about the process by which secret warrants can be obtained from the secret court. To get a FISA warrant, the NSA does have to explain to the court who it wants to spy on and why, as well as what they hope to get from the surveillance, but the bar is significantly lower than in a civilian courtroom. “I would call it a Probable Cause Warrant Light,” Jaycox said. “It’s not the high standard of a probably cause warrant.”

The version of the USA FREEDOM Act that passed in the House in May—which stirred controversy after civil liberties groups dropped support for the watered down legislation in droves—largely eliminated the special advocate position, replacing it instead with an official to consult in case of novel legal situations. The version of the bill championed by Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and under consideration in the Senate Judiciary Committee, includes a special advocate who would permanently represent privacy interests on the court.

The secrecy of proceedings in the highly-classified FISC and the question of declassification has been another major point of contention. “The House-passed version of the bill has enormous loopholes to that requirement,” said ACLU Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani.

Whereas the Senate bill establishes a timeline and a process for making FISC decisions public in redacted form, the House version removed that requirement, allowing the FISC to instead declassify decisions “when practical” and to publish only a summary of their legal reasoning, Guliani said.

TIME intelligence

Report: Chinese Hackers Target Information of Federal Employees

John Kerry, Liu Yandong
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong attend the plenary session of the annual China-U.S. High Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China Thursday, July 10, 2014. Andy Wong—AP

Revelations come as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Beijing for bilateral talks

Chinese hackers penetrated the computer networks of a U.S. government agency in March, gaining access to databases that store the personal information of all federal employees, in one of the only security breaches of government servers in the past year, senior Washington officials disclosed to the New York Times.

It is unclear how far the hackers delved into some of the databases of the Office of Personnel — which stores applications for security clearances that list personal information such as financial data, former jobs, past drug use and foreign contacts of tens of thousands of employees — before the threat was discovered and thwarted by federal authorities, officials said. It is also not known if the hackers were connected to the Beijing government.

A senior official of the Department of Homeland Security said that although the Office of the Personnel contains personal information, a response team within the Homeland Security had not “identified any loss of personally identifiable information” during the cyber attack. Government agencies are not obliged to inform the public about security threats unless it is verifiable that personal information has been stolen.

Although the Obama Administration encourages companies to be transparent about security breaches, the attack on the Office of Personnel was never announced to the public because “the administration has never advocated that all intrusions be made public,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told the Times. However, relevant federal, state and local agencies were apparently notified of the threat. “None of this differs from our normal response to similar threats,” she added.

The U.S. and China have engaged in bitter cyber security disputes in the past. The U.S. Justice Department indicted five alleged Chinese hackers from the People’s Liberation Army for theft of corporate secrets in May. Following the indictment, China halted plans to create a bilateral group focused on cyber security. Documents revealed by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden also showed that his former employer penetrated the systems of Huawei, a Chinese company that produces computer network equipment.

The new revelations come as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Beijing for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue — a discussion on American political, economic and security relations with China.

Although Kerry has not yet specifically mentioned the security breach, he said that cyber hacking on American companies had a “chilling effect on innovation and investment,” AP reports. Chinese foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi responded that the two countries had to establish trust to prevent future cyber attacks.

[New York Times]

TIME intelligence

German Mistrust of the U.S. Deepens Amid Latest Spy Scandals

Angela, Merkel, German chancellor
German Chancellor Angela Merkel Ute Grabowsky—Photothek/Getty Images

Just as the outrage over U.S. surveillance in Germany was starting to die down, a fresh set of allegations sends their relations into another tailspin

The annual Fourth of July party this year did not go quite as the U.S. embassy in Berlin had planned. The event still gave the German political elites a chance to mingle with American diplomats, sample a hotdog and take home a box of donuts. But even as the band played the Star-Spangled Banner, some of the guests couldn’t stop grumbling about the spying habits of their hosts.

Just before presiding over the party on Friday, U.S. Ambassador John Emerson was called into the Foreign Office in Berlin to explain the latest case of alleged U.S. espionage against the German government. It wasn’t the first time. Since last fall, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel learned that the U.S. had been tapping her cell phone for years, U.S spying allegations have eroded decades of trust between Berlin and Washington. But the mess just keeps getting worse.

Last week alone saw two separate scandals involving U.S. espionage in Germany. The first one broke on Thursday, when German media reported that the U.S. National Security Agency, or NSA, has been spying on a German privacy advocate who works to protect Internet users from the snooping of … the NSA. The following day, July 4, a second scandal broke in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and other media, which reported that an employee of Germany’s foreign-intelligence service, the BND, had confessed to selling secrets to the U.S. government. New details of that case continued to emerge on Monday, with Reuters reporting that the CIA was involved in the spying operation that led to the man’s recruitment. But German officials have confirmed little about the investigation, saying only that a 31-year-old man was arrested July 2 on suspicion of spying for a foreign government.

So Chancellor Merkel, who is on a trip to China this week, was cautious when asked about the case on Monday. “If this is true, then I believe we are dealing with a very serious development,” she told a news conference in Beijing. “I would see this as a clear contradiction to what I understand as trusting cooperation of intelligence services as well as of partners.”

Not everyone in the German leadership has been so diplomatic. After their long experience living under the watch of their own secret police — first the Nazi gestapo and then the East German Stasi — the German public is particularly sensitive to issues of individual privacy. So they were especially alarmed last year when Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower, revealed how millions of German citizens, including Chancellor Merkel, had been caught up in the NSA’s dragnet surveillance programs.

William Binney, another NSA whistle-blower, testified last week before the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the Snowden leaks in Germany, and his characterization of U.S. spying practices as “totalitarian” and “senseless” made headlines across the country. The latest set of spying allegations came out against this background, and the public reaction was summed up nicely over the weekend by German President Joachim Gauck, who said if the allegations are true, “It’s really time to say, ‘Enough already!’”

What makes the most recent scandal particularly galling is not the scale of the spying so much as its apparent clumsiness, says Sylke Tempel, the editor of a leading foreign-affairs journal in Berlin, Internationale Politik. The suspected double agent at the BND was apparently not even providing the U.S. any groundbreaking intelligence. According to the German media reports, he approached the U.S. embassy in Berlin offering a small stash of secret files, some of which were related to the German Parliament’s probe into the Snowden leaks. “They could have gotten that same information just from talking to German lawmakers,” says Tempel. Instead, the U.S. reportedly paid the man about $34,000 for his secrets.

Asked to respond to these accusations on Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. would “work with the Germans to resolve the situation appropriately.” But he declined to say whether any of the claims were true. “What I can say, more generally, though, is the relationship that the United States has with Germany is incredibly important,” Earnest said.

But if the U.S. had wanted to repair some of the damage to that relationship, it could have informed the BND that one of its employees was hawking secrets, says Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, a think tank focusing on U.S.-German ties. “That would have been a huge help in rebuilding trust,” she says. “So I don’t know what our American friends were thinking. This is just awful incompetence.”

So far, the scandal doesn’t seem likely to cause any sudden rupture in relations, but the broader lack of trust is sure to eat away at Germany’s willingness to help the U.S. on a variety of issues. By the end of this year, the U.S. is hoping to sign a free-trade and investment deal with the E.U., where Germany has a decisive vote. In the Western standoff with Russia over Ukraine, the U.S. also needs to maintain solidarity across the Atlantic, and it could find support dwindling for new sanctions against Moscow if Germany turns away. “The spying just adds to the feeling of exasperation, disillusionment, fatigue with America,” says Tempel. “It becomes so much harder to defend the transatlantic relationship.”

That issue becomes more important — especially for younger German voters — as each new spying scandal breaks, and that has made it costlier for a German politician to tout the U.S. as a trusted friend and ally. “This is indicative of larger trust issues,” says Stelzenmüller of the German Marshall Fund. “This isn’t something that just blows over.” Yet when the U.S. ambassador arrived on Friday to address the Fourth of July party, he made no mention of the scandals that all his guests were talking about. “We are a nation of forests and fields and farmlands,” Emerson assured them from the stage before the band began to play. “Of mountains high and deserts wide.” But to a growing part of the German electorate, the U.S. has come to feel a bit like a nation of spies.

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