What does character have to do with espionage? That question, as much as any details about handlers and cover names and clandestine meeting spots, is what makes the events that led, this past week, to the expulsion of the C.I.A.’s station chief in Berlin feel like an old spy novel. The beguiling way to look at it is in terms of the character of the spy: the way he acts and his attributes, those he takes on in some undercover operation and those that make one wonder about who he is and where his loyalties really lie—about his own character, in the moral sense. But spy stories also lead us to talk, in ways that are more and less useful, about the character of nations.
The spies in this story, if one begins at the surface level, aren’t so much improbable as improbably typecast. There’s Markus R.—his last name hasn’t been released—a thirty-one-year-old who had been working with the Bundesnachrichtendienst (the German Federal Intelligence Service, or B.N.D.) and is now under arrest for allegedly spying for America and trying to spy for Russia; Leonid K., an urbane German Defense Ministry official who fell under suspicion; and the C.I.A. station chief, who hasn’t been named, but who has been described, in the German press, as a friendly guy and great networker, American style.
First, Markus R.: many of the details are fragmentary, but, according to Der Spiegel, he is a short man with a handlebar mustache—a detail that calls to mind either the gallery of possible moles that Smiley studied in the 1979 television version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” or else modern-day Brooklyn. He was born in the former East Germany, in what was then Karl-Marx-Stadt and is now Chemnitz. The Berlin Wall came down when he was about six, but that wasn’t soon enough, according to Der Spiegel, to spare him from getting an inoculation, as a baby, that was either defective, botched, or just went wrong. That procedure, at any rate, is being blamed in the German press for leaving him with a physical disability. (This may be the place for a public-service note: vaccines do not cause autism.) Markus had a very high security clearance. He was without a university degree or even an Abitur, the better sort of German high-school diploma; whether he had the sort of technical skills that distinguished Edward Snowden is not clear, but the fact that he was caught because he sent an unencrypted Gmail message to the Russian consulate offering to sell them documents makes it seem less likely.
When German counterintelligence questioned Markus, he told them that he had actually been an American spy for two years. For that, he earned a grand total of twenty-five thousand euros; that number, and his outreach to the Russians, suggests that he may have thought of spying as a mid-market franchise operation, in which the only real profit came from expanding. He’d brought home two hundred and eighteen documents and scanned them—they were on a thumb drive—and, having given them to the Americans, sent a few samples to the Russians. One of them laid out the B.N.D.’s suspicions about Leonid K. and his very close friendship with an American official he’d met in, of all places, Kosovo.
This document was a problem. The Germans, as the Times noted, were still investigating Leonid; they hadn’t decided yet if he was a foreign spy or, as he has maintained, perfectly innocent. But now it turned out that the inquiry had been compromised: if, thanks to Markus, the Americans knew about it, they would have had time to cover Leonid’s tracks. (Conversely, this would make it harder for Leonid to clear his name.) Leonid K. is from Swabia, in Germany’s southwest, and is said to have an aristocratic manner: he speaks five languages, has friends in many more countries than that, and generally, according to Der Spiegel, has nothing in common with Markus except that both were short of money. The German magazine Focus reported that Leonid would meet up with his American friend in Turkey and receive gifts, such as a mobile phone, from him. There was a record of a transfer of two thousand euros from the American, but Leonid explained that it was just a loan for a wedding-related event. Nothing, it should be emphasized, has been proved against him, or even charged; he is a free man. Der Spiegel noted that he and the American might just have had an “unusual friendship.” The magazine added: “And yet it’s strange: precisely in February of this year, the contacts between K. and his American friend abruptly broke off.”
But does it matter, at all, that one might get James Franco to play Markus, George Clooney for Leonid, and Jeffrey Wright (or whoever the next actor to play Felix Leiter is) for the C.I.A. station chief? This is where one can get distracted by the entirely wrong questions of character, like what a spy looks like or how many languages he speaks. On Friday, Joshua Earnest, the White House spokesman, wondered why the Germans hadn’t just handled this with a quiet phone call, rather than by going to the media. That is the same grumpy question asked of whistleblowers like Snowden, and the answer seems to be similar: they did call, but didn’t get the sense that there would be any action; they didn’t even get much respect. (According to Der Spiegel, C.I.A. Director John Brennan wouldn’t even admit to his counterparts that Markus was working for us, though, as the Washington Post noted, American officials have acknowledged to reporters that he did.)
Allies collect intelligence on each other—and no one would dispute that, to a certain degree, they have to. There is also a risk, as Adam Gopnik noted recently, in anthropomorphizing the relations between nations. In that sense, the idea that it was not nice to listen to the Germans, because they are our friends, can be overplayed. Nations do not date each other. But that is not a blank check for fouling up alliances. It helps to know how we are perceived, and to act like respectable figures. In German press reports, the word that comes up to describe the recruitment of Markus is “dumm,” which means, in English, just what you think it means.
Markus R. would be a lesser figure if the Germans were not still enraged about the N.S.A.’s unabashed spying on its citizens, including the agency’s eavesdropping on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s telephone calls. (Merkel, whose own life in East Germany gives her some perspective on spying, said this week that she wasn’t angry, just really disappointed.) Even before that, there was the case of a car salesman from the German city of Ulm whom the C.I.A. accidentally kidnapped because his name was similar to someone whom they were interested in—and who was then held in a secret prison for months, even after the Agency realized its mistake. Sometimes we play to an unfortunate type, too.
We would get further with the Germans if we were less clumsy, which could, in the case of the N.S.A. and C.I.A., start with having a sense of our own laws, limits, and values. The impulse toward boundlessness that will likely bring certain intelligence programs before the Supreme Court is the same one that is going to require President Obama to get on the phone with Angela Merkel and repair this rift, when he’d probably rather just chat her up about Germany’s World Cup victory. (And John Kerry, in Vienna with the German foreign minister this weekend, was supposed to concentrate on Iran.) Obama has a charming character when he puts his mind to it. But the crucial tests, for a country, are political and diplomatic, not cosmetic—how we operate in the world, not how we decorate ourselves. A nation is not a man with a handlebar mustache; but it might, at least, know to steer clear of a character like that.