BERLIN — In the summer of 2011, American intelligence agencies spied on a senior German official who they concluded had been the likely source of classified information being leaked to the news media.
The Obama administration authorized the top American spy in Germany to reveal to the German government the identity of the official, according to German officials and news media reports. The decision was made despite the risk of exposing that the United States was monitoring senior national security aides to Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The tip-off appears to have led to a senior German intelligence official being barred from access to sensitive material. But it also raises suspicions that Ms. Merkel’s government had strong indications of the extent of American surveillance at least two years before the disclosures by Edward J. Snowden, which included the number of a cellphone used by the chancellor.
The decision by the United States to risk disclosing a surveillance operation against a close ally indicates the high level of concern over the perceived security breach. It is unclear, however, what that information might have been or if it involved intelligence provided to Germany by the United States.
The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported Friday that it believed the American effort to expose the German intelligence official arose from conversations by its own journalists. It filed a complaint with the federal prosecutor in Germany over espionage activity and a violation of Germany’s data protection laws. The prosecutor’s office declined to comment, other than to confirm that the filing had been received.
In Washington, a spokesman for the National Security Council, Ned Price, declined on Friday to comment on the reported surveillance other than to indicate that the government does not spy on foreign journalists. “The United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security,” Mr. Price said.
The disclosure is the latest intelligence revelation to shake the alliance, even though it is unclear that the National Security Agency actively listened to Ms. Merkel’s calls. Among other actions that widened the rift, the Germans last summer expelled the then-C.I.A. chief. And this week material uncovered by the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks suggested that the Americans had been spying on their German allies back to the 1990s.
The first hints emerged in the German media this year. The Bild am Sonntag newspaper reported that Hans Josef Vorbeck, a deputy director of the chancellery’s intelligence division, had been “put out in the cold” in 2011 after the then-C.I.A. station chief in Berlin gave information to Mr. Vorbeck’s boss, Günter Heiss. Der Spiegel said Mr. Heiss was specifically told of contacts with its journalists.
Mr. Heiss, a quiet but powerful figure in German intelligence activities, was questioned for nearly six hours at an open hearing of a German parliamentary committee on Thursday. Mr. Heiss was particularly reticent when asked about Mr. Vorbeck. He repeatedly declined to answer questions about him, challenging the mandate of the committee to pose such queries, and arguing that he was not allowed to discuss a third party in public.
Konstantin von Notz, a lawmaker for the opposition Green Party, which has been vocal in its criticism of Ms. Merkel and the German handling of alleged American espionage, accused Mr. Heiss of hiding behind a “cascade” of excuses.
Eventually, Hans-Christian Ströbele, a longtime lawmaker for the Greens, asked Mr. Heiss whether he ever had a “concrete suspicion” that Mr. Vorbeck was leaking classified information. Mr. Heiss said there was no “concrete suspicion” that would have led to “concrete action.” He indicated the matter had been discussed in the chancellery, but declined to give specifics.
But when asked whether Mr. Vorbeck had been the target of spying, Mr. Heiss declared: “No. That much I can say.”
In a report in the edition it published on Saturday, Der Spiegel said Mr. Heiss had learned of the suspicions against Mr. Vorbeck in the summer of 2011, when invited by the C.I.A. station chief to take a walk.
Appearing before the committee last month, Guido Müller, a senior intelligence official, at first said he could not recall Mr. Vorbeck’s transfer to a lower-level job. Mr. Müller then said he could remember it only if testifying behind closed doors.
When he appeared before the committee, two days shy of his 64th birthday, Mr. Vorbeck himself was cagey. When Mr. von Notz raised the Bild am Sonntag reports and asked for more detail, the demoted intelligence officer replied that he “did not know much more than what has been in the papers,” according to a transcript on a live-blog at netzpolitik.org, a website that tracks intelligence matters.
André Hahn, a lawmaker for the opposition Left party, asked Mr. Vorbeck whether he had a good relationship with Mr. Heiss — “at first,” Mr. Vorbeck answered — and whether he had ever been charged with betraying secrets. “Not then and not now,” Mr. Vorbeck replied, according to the netzpolitik blog.
Mr. Vorbeck is suing the government for material damages he said he suffered as a result of being transferred to a senior archival post concerning the history of German intelligence. His lawyer declined to return a call seeking comment or access to his client.
The dimensions of German anger over American espionage have been evidenced in public opinion polls and in protests against a possible trans-Atlantic trade pact. German officials have talked about creating an internal Internet so that communications among Germans do not have to pass outside the country.
What makes these disclosures different is that they suggest that German publications have been either direct or indirect targets of American surveillance. “Spiegel suspects spying by U.S. secret services,” the online edition of the respected weekly Die Zeit reported Friday.
The latest disclosures by WikiLeaks — a summary of an October 2011 conversation Ms. Merkel had with an adviser about the debt crisis in Greece, a document from her senior adviser on European affairs, plus a list of 69 telephone numbers of important ministries and senior officials that appeared to date back to the 1990s — had already prompted Ms. Merkel’s chief of staff on Thursday to invite the United States ambassador, John B. Emerson, to explain.
A government statement following that meeting did not confirm the material, but made plain that violations of German laws would be prosecuted. The government defended its heightened counterintelligence operations, hinting at the depth of anger with the United States.
Steffen Seibert, the German government spokesman, referred inquiries on Friday to another government spokesman who said he could not be identified by name. He reiterated that the government did not comment on personnel moves, and that it reported on intelligence services only to the relevant supervisory committee in Parliament.
The spokesman added in an email that Mr. Heiss had testified on Thursday that there was no reason to take disciplinary or other action regarding Mr. Vorbeck.
Alison Smale and Melissa Eddy reported from Berlin, David E. Sanger from Vienna and Eric Schmitt from Washington.
By ALISON SMALE, MELISSA EDDY, DAVID E. SANGER and ERIC SCHMITTJULY 3, 2015
© 2015 The New York Times Company