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No-spy pact

Interview: Michael Knigge
November 7, 2013

Former head of central intelligence James Woolsey tells DW the US would never sign a binding no-spy pact. He also doesn't recall, but can't exclude, that phones of Chancellor Kohl were monitored during his tenure.

Former CIA director and senior vice president for Global Strategic Security at Booz Allen Hamilton, James Woolsey speaks at the Atlantic Green Intelligence Forum, on November 19, 2008 at the Newseum in Washington, DC. The forum will focus on four themes, Smart Sources, Smart Markets, Smart Policy, and Smart Usage. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

R. James Woolsey served as Director of Central Intelligence and head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1993 to 1995. As Director of Central Intelligence he oversaw the work of the entire US intelligence community.

DW: From your experience as Director of Central Intelligence, would the president be informed and know that the phones of close allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel are being monitored?

R. James Woolsey: I don't know. That issue didn't arise in the two years in the early 90s when I was director of central intelligence. But it would depend on how much the president would want to get into the intelligence issues. He would be free to ask a question of course and get a truthful answer from the intelligence community. But he might or might not ask. President Clinton read the intelligence assiduously and wrote notes to me on it and so forth, but he very, very rarely had one-on-one meetings with me or my successor and that would be the case in which something like that might come up. So it's possible that something like that would be happening and he wouldn't have gotten into it.

During your tenure as Director of Central Intelligence were phones of important leaders such as German Chancellor Helmut Kohl monitored?

I don't recall that they were. I would be surprised, but I suppose it's not absolutely impossible.

To follow up again, because this is an important point here in Germany, in your tenure you don't recall phones of Chancellor Kohl being monitored by US intelligence?

Not that I remember. It's possible it happened at some point, but I don't remember anything like that in that period. But I was director for two years.

You have argued that Germany and France should be admitted to the so-called Five Eyes alliance, but many experts and officials have called such a step unrealistic at least currently. How likely is this move in your opinion?

I don't know why they would say it's unrealistic. Both France and Germany are close allies. We work on a lot of things with respect to intelligence together now, many of them extremely sensitive. Both Germany and France have had senior level spies inside their government as have we. We've had Ames and Hanson, Germany had Chancellor (Willy) Brandt's chief of staff. Those things happen and one has to cooperate with foreign intelligence services and with the senior people in the government in order to limit their effect and find out about them.

But that doesn't mean to me that we should forego a mutual pledge with France and Germany of the sort we have with British, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders to not spy on one another. Germany is a good ally, a democratic country and has an able intelligence service. And the same is true of France. Although if one has dozens of countries in that category or in the double digits even I think things could be spread a little bit too widely to be practical. I don't think adding Germany and France increases the likelihood that something is going to get out that should not.

Instead of admission to Five Eyes, Berlin is officially calling for a no-spy agreement with Washington that would ban US technical surveillance and economic espionage in Germany, but US officials have apparently dampened expectations for a broad agreement. Do you think the US will sign a no-spy agreement that is not just a statement of good intentions, but instead a legally binding and enforceable document between the US and Germany that Berlin would like?

If I were still director of central intelligence I would under no circumstances sign such an agreement. That would mean that if we had somehow come across the 9/11 planners who operated out of Hamburg that we couldn't collect intelligence on them. That is not an agreement that I think any American president would sign with respect to Germany or any other country.

Many in Germany expect an official apology from the US for monitoring Chancellor Merkel's phone, but so far neither the heads of the intelligence services nor the White House have done so. Do you think Chancellor Merkel deserves and will get an official apology?

I think we need to get away from the sort of PR aspects of this. I think as I said in my op-ed in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago that the United States made a bad judgment when it listened in as presumably it did on Chancellor Merkel's smartphone. But I don't think we need to elevate the collection of intelligence to the level where it is something that is unwise where you end up having official apologies and so on. This is not diplomacy, this is not the state department, this is stealing secrets. That's what intelligence is about. And I don't think it operates or works well if people regard it as a subcategory of diplomacy. That's not, I think, the way to operate intelligence services. You operate with the heads of services explaining things privately, usually one-on-one to one another and sorting things out.

In investigating US and British surveillance activities, Berlin has rejected granting asylum to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden as many here have demanded and instead is considering questioning him in Russia. What is your view on that?

I'll be blunt. I think Snowden is a traitor. I think he has gotten and will get a number of people killed by the disclosure that he is making either through the Russians, through the Chinese, through his journalistic companions or through any hearings by the German government in Russia. I think it's a big intelligence loss and trying to make it worse by disclosing more and more I would say is a very unfriendly act. And again, if I were still director of central intelligence and Germany held public hearings in Russia on this American traitor and spread even further the damage that he had done, I would under no circumstances recommend that we have a Seven Eyes type agreement including Germany.