The Spanish Government has expelled two alleged spies from the US Embassy in Madrid after they apparently bribed Spanish intelligence officers to reveal classified information.
Spanish media reported the authorities conducted the expulsion “discretely”.
Margarita Robles, Spain’s Minister of Defence, summoned the US Ambassador Julissa Reynoso to demand an explanation.
Foreign minister José Manuel Albares also called the American diplomat to express Spain’s “distress” at the situation.
Reynoso claimed she was unaware of the alleged spies’ actions.
The Ambassador reportedly apologised for the “situation” and promised to support the ongoing investigation.
Robles said the pair from the Spanish Centre for National Intelligence (CNI) referred to have been detained and are being investigated.
The CNI presented the case to judicial authorities after detecting what it said was “irregular behaviour”.
The Spanish Government went public over the alleged incident and summoned Reynoso but only after the CNI reported the apparent “irregularities” to the National High Court.
If proven, such crimes could amount to treason and the perpetrators sentenced for up to 12 years in jail.
Both suspects were said to have been mid-level operatives within the CNI. One was head of a CNI division with more than 30 years of experience in the agency and the other was reportedly the head’s assistant.
The last time Spain expelled US agents was in 1986. Former prime minister Felipe González sent eight CIA agents home for spying the Alfonso Guerra, his deputy PM.
The Spanish Government has been downplaying this latest diplomatic spat with the Americans.
Robles made assurances that the investigation will not have an impact on diplomatic relations between Spain and the US.
“We are serious countries. We are allies and we are committed,” she added.
According to reports, La Moncloa – the Office of the Prime Minister – considered the US Embassy staffer’s alleged actions as a “disloyalty” from an “ally like the United States”.
Members of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Government are calling the two Americans’ apparent behaviour as a “hostile and unusual action against Spain’s intelligence services”.
Analysts say such practices are commonplace when targeting enemies or adversaries but not friends and allies.
This is the second time in recent years CNI staff have been involved in leaks of confidential information.
In 2007, CNI agent Roberto Florez was detained after selling sensitive information to the Russians. He was the first person charged with treason since Spain’s post 1978 democratic period.
It is thought the protocols the CNI established following the Florez case allowed for the detection of the latest alleged breach of information to the Americans.