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US ambassador to Germany receives threats

Posted: 6:15 PM, Mar 14, 2019
Updated: 2019-03-15 13:37:05-04

The US ambassador to Germany has been receiving threats including at least one against his life.

A photo of one letter seen by CNN which was sent directly to Richard Grenell in January told him to leave Germany or he would be killed. Signed by the “Society for the New Truth,” it was one of several threats that have been sent to the embassy, according to a source familiar and two State Department officials.

Grenell’s spokesperson, Joseph Giordono-Scholz told CNN that “we do not publicly discuss security issues and procedures.”

German Federal police confirmed that Grenell had received threats and said they’d informed the FBI.

“The Federal Criminal Police Office can confirm that threatening e-mails have been sent to the detriment of the US Ambassador Grenell. The FBI was informed of this fact by the BKA in January 2019. Berlin’s state criminal police has taken over the investigation,” Sandra Clemens, spokesperson for the German Federal Police Office (BKA) told CNN in a statement.

One State Department source said the FBI is also looking into the spate of threats. The FBI did not respond to requests for comment.

Grenell is a controversial figure in his host country — warning the German government against pursuing a gas pipeline to Russia, using Chinese technology and business contracts with Iran.

A former Republican political operative and spokesman to the United Nations, Grenell has carved an incendiary path since presenting his diplomatic credentials to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in May 2018, clashing with officials, businesses and the media.

Trump’s 52-year-old envoy has become such a polarizing figure that a large protest against him had been planned for early 2019 in Berlin.

‘The big Grenell payback’

The February 3 event was supposed to be called “The Big Grenell Payback,” but a State Department security alert viewed by CNN said police had prevented it from happening and that the organizer had been upset about US government policy related to Germany’s natural gas pipeline with Russia, among other issues.

The alert said it was unclear what “payback” was intended to mean.

Fred Burton, a former Diplomatic Security special agent and deputy chief of State’s counterterror division, said that death threats are “an unusual occurrence. It’s more probable to get threats directed at the Secretary of State, unless of course that ambassador is a very prominent official.”

“His situation is beyond the normal, a bit,” another former US senior government official said of Grenell. “He’s a very different character than some past ambassadors, there’s no doubt about it.”

Grenell’s style reflects President Donald Trump’s combative approach to Berlin, a jarring contrast to previous decades of close and cordial US-German relations. In the wake of World War II, the US helped rebuild West Germany through the Marshall Plan and the two nations since been closely aligned through trade, anti-communist efforts and the promotion of democratic ideals.

Strained ties

Under Trump, the relationship has been strained by US threats of tariffs and sanctions, the President’s criticism of Merkel’s policies and his repeated complaints about German defense spending.

At least two of the missives sent to the embassy included an unidentified white powder and came in suspicious envelopes with no return address, according to one source familiar with the incidents.

The former senior US government official said an incident involving an envelope with white powder “happens a few dozen times a year around the world, but it really changes year to year because it tends to be tied to US policy.”

Burton agreed, saying “We didn’t see a lot of it,” but the occurrence of white powder envelopes “ebbs and flows, based on current events.”

“These things happen more after a US action that people don’t like. It’s very often tied to policy,” the former official said. “Normally, you get threats more against an embassy in general, ‘we’re going to bomb you’ or something. But I’ve seen direct death threats against an ambassador before, in Senegal, over a trade issue, in Tunisia, tied to the Gulf War, as well as in Israel.”

“It happens often enough in different parts of the world — from extremists, nutjobs, people displeased with US policy — that we have procedures in place to handle these kinds of things very efficiently,” the former official said.

All mail is screened off-site, so this did not cause disruption or evacuation of the embassy, according to officials.

“Security folks take them all seriously and work well with the Germans, who provide things like the Ambassador’s security detail,” the source familiar said.

“The letters are mostly now treated as a nuisance,” the source told CNN. “German police visit a suspect after each one and basically tell them to knock it off, but as far as I know no one has been charged with anything.”

The State Department’s internal alert about the threats said the Berlin police were investigating.

One State Department source said the FBI is also looking into the spate of threats. The FBI did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Butt out’

Another US official told CNN at least some of the threats are believed to have been the work of an elderly person who local police don’t view as a real danger and have not arrested.

When threats against ambassadors do occur, “diplomatic security might ramp up,” Burton said, a decision he’d support. “In our post-Benghazi world, my recommendation to my assistant secretary would be to increase security after a spate of threats like this.”

Grenell’s tempestuous 10-month tenure provides a backdrop to the threats. The political appointee was confirmed in April 2018, got to Berlin in May and by all accounts, immediately began making waves.

Shortly after his arrival in Germany, Grenell tweeted that “as @realdonaldtrump said, US sanctions will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy. German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.”

The responses, according to Handelsblatt, Germany’s premier financial newspaper, came “fast and furious,” with “many of them from angry Germans basically telling the ambassador, a longtime critic of the Iran deal, to butt out.”

Grenell then appalled Germans with what appeared to be an intrusion into domestic European politics — a diplomatic no-no. In an interview with the right-wing website Breitbart in June, Grenell said that he’d work to boost Europe’s conservative parties — comments seen as an allegiance to far-right, populist nationalistic anti-European Union parties.

In December, he repeatedly attacked the flagship German magazine Der Spiegel after it discovered a star reporter had fabricated sources, quotes and stories for years. Grenell alleged on Twitter that the fraud must have involved more than just one reporter. He also sent a letter accusing the magazine of anti-American bias and pushing for an outside investigation of the fabrication.

In January, Grenell warned German companies involved in construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would bring natural gas from Russia, that they face “a significant risk of sanctions.”

Grenell most recently sent a letter to the German government last week threatening to curtail its access to US intelligence if Berlin decides to issue contracts to Chinese telecom giant Huawei for its 5G network, according to a US official familiar with the matter.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder expressed outrage, according to media reports, accusing the US envoy of “brazen blackmail.”

This article has been updated with a statement from German Federal Police.