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Malcolm Rifkind (AP Photo) Parliamentary Recording Unit)
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

Intelligence is trust

Interview: Michael Knigge / sgb
February 1, 2014

Former British Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, tells DW that democratic oversight is key in intelligence. Data gathering is not the worry, he says, but who does what with the information.


Sir Malcolm Rifkind is a British Conservative Party member of parliament who has chaired the Intelligence and Security Committee since the Cameron government took office in 2010. He was a cabinet member throughout the governments of Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) and John Major (1990-1997), serving in roles that included Defense Secretary and Foreign Secretary.

DW: When it comes to intelligence and security matters, are the British from Mars and the Germans from Venus?

Malcolm Rifkind: No, that's not entirely true, I think we're both from a planet much nearer. Essentially, Germany itself has very impressive intelligence services. The kinds of things the British intelligence service does is probably what the German intelligence service, or French, or Italian also do. We all have different levels of capability. The technology is different, the resources applied are different, and sometime the targets are different.

So how do you explain the deep rift, at least in the public perception and also the political perception, about the fallout from the NSA revelations in Britain and Germany?

I think in Germany, the particular issue that has created such resonance is the allegation that Angela Merkel's phone was hacked by the United States. Now, whether that's true or not, I don't know, but insofar as many people believe it, that sounds pretty bad. I can understand the strength of feeling among those who believe it to have happened.

In the United Kingdom we don't have that kind of allegation to deal with. GCHQ itself - our own NSA, as it were - has also been subject to some of the Snowden allegations, but British public opinion for many years has been very robust about intelligence. We essentially start from the assumption that if you have intelligence services, as long as they get proper oversight and act under the law, then you expect them to collect intelligence.

Germany, of course, has the opposite experience in the eastern part of your country, in the old GDR, where intelligence was used to suppress political dissent, it was to stop freedom. Now that's not true of western intelligence agencies, including the United States.

President Obama recently made a speech about the NSA, promising reforms and an overview of its programs and capabilities. In Britain, we haven't heard a similar speech from the prime minister. Why not? Does GCHQ have better oversight than the NSA?

Two points: First, the great interest in President Obama's speech was the answer he would give to the allegation that the NSA has a huge database of phone calls from all American citizens, which had never been known before. And what he said in his speech was that he was attracted by the recommendation that someone else should hold that database, not the government, but the government should be able to access it whenever it needed information - and that's exactly what we have in the United Kingdom. So that big issue just doesn't arise, like in the United States. In the United Kingdom, if the intelligence agencies want to get access to that kind of phone communication data, they have to go to the telephone companies, under law, with a warrant, and then they can get access.

I think [another] factor is - I can tell you, I chair the UK parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee - is that we actually have initiated a very major inquiry. It won't be quite the same as some of the others, but it will address some of the same issues. We all start from the assumption that the intelligence agencies are obeying the law. What we want to look at first of all is, is the law itself satisfactory, or are there too many loopholes, or too many facts in the law that don't measure the changes in recent times?

Secondly, we want to explore whether there is a scope for much greater transparency. We've just - for the very first time in our history - had the three intelligence chiefs of our three intelligence agencies giving public evidence to our committee before the television cameras. Never happened before. So a lot is happening on the transparency front, and perhaps it could go some stage further without jeopardizing fundamental secrets. But we accept that there are limits to that, because you can't give transparency and information to your own citizens without the rest of the world, including the bad guys, being able to hear about it. So there has to be a limit.

A third point we're going to be inquiring into - very important - is the question of how much benefit do you get from intruding on privacy. For example - and I'm not talking about Angela Merkel, I'm talking about a principle here - if you are going to contemplate bugging the communications of a head of government of a friendly country, there has to be some very strong national interest to justify that. You have to think in advance there's something you're going to learn that will more than justify the huge embarrassment if it's found out, or if it's alleged against you. So, I think that's what all governments should do, and that would take a lot of the heat out of the situation.

It's not just about governments and heads of state. A lot of people can understand why heads of state would be spied on - after all, they're making the calls on a lot of important issues. But if calls are indiscriminately recorded and kept…

Hold on, I have to correct you. There is a capacity nowadays to take bulk data and process it by computers - it's done within days, at most a couple of weeks, it's not kept. Let me give you a parallel: In the United Kingdom, in every city including London there are CCTV cameras in the streets. In practice, that is an intrusion on people's privacy, because it's recording everybody walking down the streets of our main cities. The British public are totally relaxed about that, because they know as a matter of fact that these are only looked at if some child is kidnapped, or there is a terrorist incident, and then by the use of that film they can very often find the people responsible, save the innocent person and capture the guilty.

So it depends on trust. If the public trusts that your intelligence agencies are acting to protect the public from terrorists, or from threats to the public as a whole, then they accept that in this imperfect modern world, some sacrifice of privacy is not unreasonable. If they don't trust, then that's a different matter. It's ironic that Mr. Snowden, who's treated as a hero in many quarters - where did he go to announce his decision? He goes first to China and then to Russia, two countries whose intelligence agencies are used to actually prevent political dissent and who have absolutely no oversight, from either parliament or the press of the countries concerned. So Mr. Snowden is not a whistleblower. His decision was a political act, which he took because of his political opinions.

If there is standard bulk collection of our data, that means by definition that there's no presumption of innocence - we're all presumed to be guilty of something, because otherwise our data wouldn't be gathered. And doesn't it also mean that knowing all our data is being stored changes the way we live?

We've got to get this in proportion. No intelligence agency in the world, including the NSA, can actually absorb more than a tiny fraction of the world's Internet traffic, either because of the resources they have or because of the physical capabilities. It's a tiny fraction, perhaps a few percent at the very most. Secondly, as far as people reading your email goes, if you're a citizen of the country concerned, all democracies have very strict rules that require very special permission before that can be done.

And if it's the emails of citizens of another country, I simply ask the question, what possible interest does the NSA or the United States have in the emails of the vast majority of German citizens or the citizens of any other friendly country. Of course, they have no interest whatsoever - they haven't got the time, they haven't got the manpower, it's not why they're given the resources - they're just not interested in that. They're trying to catch terrorists. They're trying to catch serious criminals. And so it is only when citizens of others countries may have an email address or may have something about their communications that suggests they may be bad guys, or in contact with bad guys, these are the emails or voicemails or communications that the intelligence agencies of a democracy are interested in.

Germany is pushing for a "no-spy agreement" with the US. What is your assessment? Would you advise Germany to join the Five Eyes agreement with the US?

First of all, I've just been listening to your interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, who was asked that very question, and he said the problem with no-spy agreements is how do you enforce them. How do you actually know it's being honored, and so forth. You mentioned the United Kingdom's relationship with the United States. We do have a very close intelligence relationship, which goes back to 1948, throughout the Cold War - it is very close, it's mutually important to both countries.

I'm a parliamentarian, I can't tell you 100 percent for certain that America has not on some occasions over the last 60 years done that kind of thing to the United Kingdom. I don't think it has, I don't know it has, it wouldn't astonish me to find out on occasion it might have done.

Germany is pushing for a European stance on data protection. Do you think Britain would join in that?

I think it depends on the content. The British have an irritating habit of looking at the details. What are we being asked to sign up to? Does it make sense? Will it work? Is it in the mutual interest? If the answer's yes, then we say yes. If, on the other hand, it's just woolly words that don't add up to a row of beans, then we think that's not just not of much value, but it actually misleads, because it creates an impression of having achieved something when you haven't really. So let's see the detail first, then we'll come to a judgment.

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