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Intelligence sharing: 'A necessary fact of life'

After recent tensions over surveillance cooperation between Germany's BND foreign intelligence agency and the National Security Agency in the US, DW sat down with former NATO Ambassador Kurt Volker to discuss the issue.

DW: What is your reaction to this latest flare-up over the cooperation between BND and NSA?

Kurt Volker: I think there are a couple of issues here that we really need to bring out. The fact that this is an issue in US-German relations now - a few years after all of this was a big issue - says to me that we haven't handled this well as an issue between the US and German governments, or that we haven't connected the right way with the German public. And I think those are things that we should have done at the time and we still need to do now. That's the first thing. The second thing is that we really need to differentiate between intelligence cooperation on issues like fighting terrorism and scanning to find out who the extremists are and what they're doing, and spying on each other's governments.

Kurt Volker ehemaliger NATO-Botschafter der USA

Kurt Volker, now with the McCain Institute, once worked at the CIA

The first category is perfectly legitimate. We have worked well together for decades, we want to continue to do that, and we should be doing some of the things that people have learned about. But then there are other things - like listening to Chancellor Merkel's cell phone - that don't belong in this at all. We should be putting our efforts together to go after our common concerns.

The BND has supposedly suspended cooperation, at least in some areas, for the time being. Do you think that is understandable, or is that a concern?

I think given the fact that it came out in a public and awkward way, I'm not surprised that there is an immediate reaction to say, "Oh, let's suspend this!" But at the same time I hope that people are standing up for the principles involved here, that we may have information that we've received that is worth sharing with German intelligence and asking: "You have access to places that we don't, can you get information and share it?" Just as we do, when we have access in places where German intelligence doesn't. That's the nature of intelligence sharing and I think it's very positive. I think that as long as we build up a relationship of respect, trust, and sharing among the intelligence services, for purposes that are common objectives for the security of our people, that's a legitimate thing to do.

Germany had publicly sought a "no-spy agreement" with the US, and yet everyone you talk to in Washington says there could never be such a thing. Is that something that is also clear to you, or was there some sort of misunderstanding?

Well, I think that we needed to have addressed the issues that were of concern to the German public and German government at the time. One of the most important of those issues was listening in on Chancellor Merkel's cell phone. That is something where I think we, as the United States, ought to be able to say, "We don't need to do that." We have such a good relationship with Germany, which has so much value to both of our countries, why put it at risk for something like that when we're not even going to learn anything that we wouldn't learn just by having the Ambassador knock on the door and say, "Hey, what are you doing today?" And we have that kind of relationship.

Bildergalerie Merkel mal anders - wir gratulieren zum 60.

Merkel's mobile - one obvious line to be drawn, Volker says

So that's an example where I don't think that there should be spying. Depending on where you draw the line as to no spying at all, you do run the risk of going too far, because the purpose is not necessarily to ask what the German government is up to. The purpose would be: "Are there actors within German society - remember the planning for the 9/11 attacks took place in Hamburg - who are doing things that we would want to know about? Are there perhaps infiltrators within the German government that the German government would also want to find out who they are?"

So where you draw the line could be tricky. And so you maybe don't want to say a blanket no-spy agreement, but at the same time I think we could have provided more reassurance to the German government and public as to what our intentions are.

Germany's taking a bigger role on the world stage, taking on more responsibilities. Should intelligence be part of that? Does Germany need to make it clear to its public that this is part of being a major power in the modern world?

I think there is a lot of room for that. The BND already does that. It already is a world-class intelligence service. It is very good and we need it to be very good! I think that there isn't perhaps enough public discussion or awareness in Germany of exactly what the intelligence services do. But it is a necessary fact of life in the world that we live in. You need to have strong intelligence services that are gathering information that you don't get in other ways, analyzing that information, and occasionally taking actions as well in order to make sure that our interest, our populations, or allied populations or others are safe - and that's exactly what they do.

How would you present that message to the German people?

Well I would say that just because the Cold War is over doesn't mean that threats have gone away. In fact, you could argue that there are more of them, more diverse and less predictable, and we have new technologies that we didn't have years ago that others are using - like ISIS [an acronym for the so-called 'Islamic State'] is using to recruit, to send messages to influence. We need to use the full range of technologies and capabilities at our disposal in order to gather the best information, to make the best assessments, and take the best actions in terms of doing what our governments' jobs are - which is to provide a safe, protective environment for our own people.

Kurt Volker is Executive Director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership. He previously served in the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Department of State, and the National Security Council. From 2008 to 2009, he served as U.S. Ambassador to NATO.