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NSA 'drift'

Interview: Spencer Kimball November 12, 2013

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak tells DW that the controls on intelligence agencies should probably be tightened as a consequence of the NSA affair. But he warns that citizens shouldn't be naïve about security.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak arrives at the 49th Conference on Security Policy in Munich February 3, 2013. Senior politicians along with the leader of the Syrian opposition are in Munich providing a rare opportunity for talks to revive efforts to end the civil war in Syria. REUTERS/Michael Dalder(GERMANY - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)
Image: Reuters

Ehud Barak has served as Israeli's prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister and head of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, among a host of other posts. He has decades of experience in intelligence matters and is Israel's most highly decorated soldier.

DW: You mentioned during your presentation at the Cyber Security Summit in Bonn that offensive capabilities are greater than defensive capabilities in terms of cyber security threats. With the NSA affair, we've seen the extent to which governments are able to conduct surveillance on foreign leaders, private citizens and industry. What can these groups do to protect themselves against such surveillance?

Ehud Barak: I don't think that we should look at it as a competition or struggle between the American government or other governments and individual citizens. I don't think that the American government, by allowing the NSA to do what it is doing, intended to spy on individual citizens. Basically, I believe them. They are trying to block terror, and probably they drifted into somewhat of a more general kind of operation.

The real answer is not to be taken by citizens, but by government. If the German government or the French government or other governments in Europe want to discuss this issue with America - and probably they need to discuss it with America - and they expect the Americans to be responsive, they have to sit together and clarify what happened. What is done by the American and what is done by other, including European, intelligence services and to set together rules for future behavior. My experience with the Americans is that once they accept a rule, they respect it.

Basically, within a government - like the NSA case or be it any other operation - I believe from my experience that it should be not just at the disposal of the executive branch, namely the heads of the intelligence services, but controlled by a triangle of the three branches.

Namely, the executive branch of course [and] the judicial branch. Everything should be under control of a judge or group of judges that have total access to the details of what is done and should prove it from a legal point of view. And then inspections by subcommittees of the parliaments with enough stuff to be able to learn and know what's happened. I believe that was the case with the Americans, that both the Congress and judicial system had their representative. If it didn't work well enough it should be improved. But it's not something that we cannot think of.

The real challenge will be with the bad guys. There are some bad guys in the world, both cyber criminals and even some governments with bad intentions, where certain steps should still be taken in order to avoid terror and avoid breaking the foundations of world order. And that needs certain capabilities in these arenas of intelligence gathering.

What about transparency? You mentioned this triangle - the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. We know in the United States that the judicial aspect of it is kept in secret.

The content of the work cannot be transparent because it has to do with national interests with intelligence issues and so on. But the structure of the system that controls should be transparent and well known to the public. Probably it needs to know who are the judges who look into it, or what kind of subcommittees in the Congress or in other parliaments are taking care [and] by which members of parliament or of the Congress. That's fair enough.

You mentioned at the cyber summit that when you traveled to foreign capitals, you were always working under the assumption that intelligence agencies were conducting surveillance on you and were observing you. In Germany, the news that surveillance was conducted against Chancellor Angela Merkel has caused quite an uproar both among the people and politicians. Why wasn't Chancellor Merkel operating from the same assumption as you?

I don't know. It's probably because I spent decades in the intelligence services of Israel and was exposed to most other leading intelligence services in the world. So I took it as an assumption - I cannot tell you that I was surveilled. I think it's an embarrassing surprise to find that Chancellor Merkel was listened to. But you know, probably that's the positive aspect of this whole event that somehow it's a wake up call. It's an opportunity to sit together.

The Americans and the Germans are not rivals, they are allies. It was Chancellor Merkel who protected quite courageously the American, the Snowden problem, when it exploded. I believe the Germans can sit down with the Americans, probably together with the French and some other European countries, and iron out the differences and find the practices that are acceptable within the family of advanced democracies in the world. But it should not be and could not be the same practice for others who do not accept any world order - take Iran for example.

In terms of Israeli security, who are the "bad actors" that Israel is trying to protect its cyber networks against?

It's clear that Hezbollah and Iran are the main players. The Iranians have quite advanced cyber capabilities, the Hezbollah less so, but they all are sophisticated players. What they don't have now they will have in the near future. Hacking is something that doesn't need a university grade in computer sciences. Many youngsters bring with them from interaction with computers from early age almost a natural intuition about how to hack.

Several people in the discussion at the cyber summit said that Israel was a kind of role model in terms of cyber security. What is it that Israel has done that other countries want to imitate?

We were under threat. We are a country that lives in an extremely tough neighborhood - no mercy for the weak, no second opportunity for those who cannot defend themselves. We have to be open-eyed and protect ourselves from any arena. So once we realized many years ago that this was going to be a major subject, we ended up preparing ourselves. We tried to establish capabilities both in defense and others. We want to be able to navigate safely among all these shaking events around us without ending up being damaged. We have to be strong. We have to be strong on weapons systems; we have to have a strong air force; we have to have strong special forces; we have to have a strong cyber force.

Is Israel cooperating closely with the NSA?

We have a very close relationship with the American intelligence community, as well as with the German intelligence community, with the French intelligence community or the British one. Probably for some historic reason, we turn up to be closer to the Americans. We share information, especially about world terror and about the Iranian nuclear program, and about other developments in the recent few years in the Middle East.

If intelligence agencies across the world are conducting these activities, if Israel is working closely with the US and if the Europeans are working closely with the US, then why was there such surprise when these revelations were made about NSA surveillance?

For me it was not a big surprise. I thought that Snowden basically talked in details; it's probably very sexy to the whole public. But I don't think that people who are dealing with intelligence or who are deep into these issues of national security ... and intelligence had been surprised. And probably there's something to correct here, and it should be corrected and we should continue. It shouldn't drive us into the opposite end of the spectrum and become naïve and ineffective as a result of these revelations.