Germany has taken the dramatic step of asking the top US intelligence official in Berlin to leave the country after two reported cases of suspected US spying and a spat over the National Security Agency.
The move reflects growing impatience in Germany at what is perceived as US nonchalance about being caught spying on a close ally.
“The representative of the US intelligence services at the United States embassy has been asked to leave Germany,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert said.
“The request occurred against the backdrop of the ongoing investigation by federal prosecutors as well as the questions that were posed months ago about the activities of US intelligence agencies in Germany,” he said. “The government takes the matter very seriously.”
Mr Seibert said Germany continued to seek “close and trusting” cooperation with its Western partners “especially the United States”.
Shortly before the decision was announced, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany and the United States had “very different approaches” to the role of intelligence agencies.
She stressed the need for greater trust between allies, a position she has repeatedly voiced since reports last year that the National Security Agency eavesdropped on her mobile phone.
In separate cases over the past 10 days, one man has been arrested and an investigation against another has been launched on suspicion that they worked for foreign intelligence. German media have reported that the men are suspected of passing secrets to the US.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said that the scope of the cases and who was involved were not yet clear, but that talks are taking place with the United States at various levels.
“If the situation remains what we know now, the information reaped by this suspected espionage is laughable,” he said. “However, the political damage is already disproportionate and serious.”
Meanwhile, The New York Times claims Chinese hackers broke into the computer networks of the US Office of Personnel Management earlier this year.
It says the intention was to access the files of tens of thousands of federal employees who had applied for top-secret security clearances.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was asked about the Times report and said: “At this point in time, it does not appear to have compromised any sensitive material. I’m not going to get into any specifics of the ongoing investigation.”
A Chinese government spokesman reiterated Beijing’s position that it is “resolutely opposed” to hacking and said there were parties who wanted to make China look like a cyber-security threat.
“Some of the American media and cyber-security firms are making constant efforts to smear China and create the so-called China cyber threat,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.