The United States has recalled three CIA agents at Germany's insistence in a fresh sign of tension between the two allies over the scale and purpose of U.S. intelligence-gathering in Germany.

The recall of the three Americans, described as a married couple and their supervisor working under cover out of the U.S. consulate in Munich, came after they were accused of using false pretenses to recruit German citizens for unspecified economic espionage, German officials said.

It marked only the second time since World War II that Germany has made public that it had sought the removal of American agents. Both instances occurred in the past two years.

While details of the alleged spying were not made public, German officials said the Americans had violated longstanding practice by failing to make their activities known to Germany's domestic intelligence agency. The state television network, ZDF, which first reported the action Tuesday night, said the three agents were not accredited as diplomats, as is customary for intelligence personnel, and that only one of them actually worked at the Munich consulate.

The decision reflects a growing consensus in Germany on the need to reassert its status as a sovereign nation--a nation that until reunification in 1990 was technically still occupied by the four victorious World War II powers, the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. As part of that sentiment, there is growing support for a drastic decrease in the large U.S. intelligence presence here, which at the height of the Cold War exceeded 25,000 people, including CIA, military and National Security Agency employees.

The CIA presence in Germany today is thought to amount to fewer than 100 agents, a sharp reduction from the Cold War years when the CIA station here was the agency's largest, according to a former CIA official. There are also an estimated 1,000 NSA personnel working in the country.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government agreed not to expel the three agents, but only with the understanding that the Clinton administration would order their withdrawal, which was carried out over the past five months, German officials said. The U.S. Embassy in Berlin and CIA officials in Washington declined to comment.

As economic rivalry escalates among the Western allies, some Germans fear the United States is employing its agents and eavesdropping facilities in pursuit of commercial advantage. The United States denies using its assets to snoop on trade and technology and insists that any intelligence-gathering on German soil is directed against common threats, such as terrorism, weapons-smuggling and money laundering by criminal syndicates.

CIA officials say the agency has long gathered economic intelligence but does not engage in "industrial espionage"--stealing foreign corporate secrets to benefit American companies. Ernst Uhrlau, Schroeder's adviser on security matters, said he is convinced that "no American espionage is taking place that is directed against German interests." But other German intelligence experts have expressed concern about the large and continuing presence here of "friendly services."

Germany's main counterintelligence agency recently underwent a major restructuring that has shifted its eastward Cold War focus to a more vigilant attitude toward all foreign espionage operations--including those of the United States, as well as Russia. Over the summer, the government expelled several Russian operatives accused of stealing economic and space technology secrets.

"There is no question of equating the United States with Russia, because we have a special partnership with Washington, and we want to keep it that way," said a senior German diplomat. "But we believe that the size and resources of the American intelligence community are vastly overrepresented in our country and should be reduced in a big way."

The friction between the two allies concerns different judgments about goals as well as methods. In the days when Germany shared the U.S. priority of thwarting a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, there was no question of challenging the purpose of gathering information on a common enemy. But now, German officials tend to express greater skepticism about the objectives of their American counterparts.

For example, a major CIA operation in Germany is said to involve monitoring of the movements of Iranian intelligence agents in Frankfurt, which purportedly serves as their base of operations in Europe. But German officials take a more benign view and perceive Iran as a potential partner that can be encouraged to moderate its attitudes toward the West through a broader web of economic ties.

In 1997, Germany ordered an American diplomat to leave the country after he was accused of trying to induce a senior official at the Economy Ministry to provide information about German companies that exported high-technology items to Iran.

It was the first time a U.S. diplomat had been expelled from postwar Germany on spying charges, and normally the matter would have been handled with discretion between the two allies. But German officials say it became a public embarrassment because Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government was angry that the United States was dragging its heels on promises to reduce the size of its intelligence community in Germany.

Since Schroeder's ruling alliance of Social Democrats and Greens took office last year, U.S. and German officials say intelligence cooperation has improved. But Berlin still believes that Washington is not moving fast enough to scale down its intelligence operations, and Schroeder is said to be angry that the Clinton administration has refused to hand back top-secret documents from East Germany's foreign espionage archives acquired by the CIA after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In addition, Germans have long been suspicious of the eavesdropping capabilities of the enormous U.S. radar and communications complex at Bad Aibling, near Munich, which is considered one of the largest facilities operated by the NSA outside the United States.

"The Americans tell us it is used solely to monitor communications by potential enemies, but how can we be entirely sure that they are not picking up pieces of information that we think should remain completely secret?" said a senior German official.

Staff writer Vernon Loeb in Washington contributed to this report.