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Transatlantic Intelligence

Interview: Michael KniggeFebruary 19, 2014

Americans would not be shocked if they found out that German intelligence services monitored them, former CIA Director John McLaughlin tells DW. He also explains why he feels mass surveillance is justified.

USA John McLaughlin AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson
Image: picture alliance / AP Photo

John McLaughlin was Acting Director of the CIA in 2004 and Deputy Director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004.

DW: What would happen if Americans found out that German intelligence services intercepted President Barack Obama's phone calls and collected information on millions of Americans?

John McLaughlin: First, let me say that it's important that the United States approaches Germany as a very close partner and that we value and need a close relationship with Germany in all spheres of our foreign affairs, from diplomacy to military to intelligence. In the hypothetical situation you mention, I suspect our shock would be less, our surprise would be less, and I think we would rather calmly address the issue with you if we mentioned it at all. Because we know that many countries seek to gather intelligence on the intentions of our White House. And I think we would be mildly surprised if Germany was among them, but not shocked at all on the assumption that United States policy is very important to Germany and there may be instances in which Germany is not quite sure of what our stance is and I guess we would not be terribly surprised to learn that someone had sought to find out through intelligence means.

So would you say that Germans from an American perspective are squeamish about this whole thing?

I understand German attitudes on this. In fact during this conference I have consciously thought to ask Germans about it because it's important to us to understand. And that's why I start by saying that while I understand the emotion that surrounds this issue, particularly among young people, I have to really stress that no intelligence organization in the United States is seriously interested in probing the private life of German citizens.

To the extent that our intelligence collection would pay attention at all to German territory and communications in Germany my conviction is that this would be strictly related to concerns about terrorism not by Germans, but by individuals passing through Germany or seeking residence in Germany as they did before the 9/11 attacks, and as we would find similarly motivated individuals in many other countries of Europe, France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Scandinavia. I would also stress that in doing so we would think of ourselves not just in the interest of the United States, but also in the interest of Germany because anything we find would be made available to the German authorities.

Everyone agrees that potential terrorist activities need to be monitored and checked and prevented if possible before they happen. The question is whether you need this bulk surveillance of everyone's data to target that relatively small group of people that is the real target?

Let me first make clear that I am no longer in government and that therefore I don't have precise data on the quantity or the nature of the collection other than that it is large. Why must it be so large? To some degree this problem is what we call the needle in the haystack. So we need to look at the haystack in order to find the needle.

A good example would be: Months before the 9/11 attacks we were aware that two individuals from al Qaeda were in the United States. We failed to find them. We didn't know they were going to do what they did, but they turned out to be hijackers on that day. We had tracked them a year ago based on a phone number that they had used in Yemen. Today we would take that phone number and we would bounce it off that big database we have on the United States and possibly a database on other countries as well to see if that phone number had contact with anyone in the United States. We did not have that capability at the time of 9/11. We didn't have the legal authority to do that. Had we done it I don't know what we would have found. But given that they were in touch with people here in the United States supporting them I believe that we would have detected more about them and possibly increased our chances of finding them.

So one thing that needs to be stressed is that even though the collection of data is large, the use of it is minuscule, is fractional. Out of the millions and millions and millions of records that we collected in the United States in a given year we only probed them less than 300 times, I am told. And in those 300 times I suspect we don't find something every time. Many of these are false leads of course. My feeling is with a program like this if it works once to prevent a major attack in the United States or in Germany or in one of our partner countries it's probably worth it if one accepts as I do that the NSA is not seriously interested and does not look at people's ordinary, private dealings. In other words: It is not what we would call a fishing expedition. It's a very precise use of this data.

But I want to emphasize again that I and my colleagues and former colleagues do not take lightly European and particularly German concerns, are seeking to understand them and restore whatever trust has been lost, because the relationship is enormously important to us. And so one of the things discussed at this conference without any great conclusion, but nonetheless important, was the need to find in our debate and discussion some common basis and agreement about what is the proper nature, level, scope and magnitude of this effort.

The interview was conducted during the Munich Security Conference.