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No protection

Interview: Gero Schliess, Washington /db
July 3, 2013

The US spies with the "eavesdropping equivalent of a nuclear bomb," says US- bestselling author James Bamford - and urges an independent investigation into the intelligence community.

Telecom network cables THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: AFP/Getty Images

DW: Is Edward Snowden a traitor, a hero or just a whistleblower?

James Bamford: These labels are useless because he keeps moving from one place to another. Basically what he released in the US was an enormous service to the American public, because the public certainly didn't know the government was getting access to all their telephone records on a daily if not a minute-by-minute basis. I've never read where the constitution allows the government access to my private information without any reason. So I consider that a very noble piece of information he gave, it took a lot of courage for him to do that. Where he ends up is still a mystery.

We know from the leaked papers that the NSA is targeting EU institutions, and European governments. What do you know about that?

The US has a dual relationship with these countries. On the one hand, they are partners with many of these counties, especially the UK and Germany. Germany was probably the country the NSA depended on most in terms of eavesdropping; during the Cold War it had more eavesdropping bases in Germany than probably anyplace.

There is a very close relationship between the NSA and the German equivalent. They share a great deal of information - international issues, economic issues, terrorism. But then there is the other side of the coin where the NSA targets information in Germany, it targets average German citizens for no apparent reason. They have enough money to do all this and then there are very few restrictions on the NSA in the United States, there is no bureaucratic protection from the intelligence agencies. If you go to Germany, there's nothing preventing them from eavesdropping.

James Bamford Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
James Bamford is an expert on the NSAImage: Getty Images

NSA statistics indicate that Germany is on par with countries like China or Iraq in terms of the intensity of electronic snooping. Does the US view Germany as an enemy?

The public certainly doesn't. Maybe the NSA has a different view but the NSA lives in this very strange world that almost never interacts with the real world. They live in this very unusual cocoon. I've written three books about the NSA. They have a very different view of the world than the average person does and sometimes it can be very dangerous.

But why do they focus on Germany?

Germany is the economic powerhouse in Europe, and that's where the 9/11 terrorists began, they began in Hamburg so there is an issue of a potential future development of terrorism. And Germany exercises a lot of political influence throughout Europe. By listening to Germany, you're getting not only what the German government itself is saying, but you're able to get an indication of what the Spanish, Dutch and Greek governments - whoever is interacting with the German government - think.

Germany is classified as a "third class" partner. What is the reason for that?

It's a misnomer, I don't think they really meant to say that. I think what they meant to say is that it's a third party. It's how it's designated, the US is the first party in this, then there four other second parties: Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. Those five groups are known as the "five eyes." They formed during World War II to maximize their cryptologic capabilities. They divided up the world in terms of eavesdropping capabilities.

We all know the Germans and the Europeans spy on their neighbors, maybe also the US. Is there any difference to what the US does?

There is a big difference. President Barack Obama made a comment where he said, oh, we all spy on each other. The only difference is, the US spies with the eavesdropping equivalent of a nuclear weapon because of the money, the power, the technological capability of the US. The NSA is the largest intelligence agency in the world. Other countries spy with the equivalent of a canon. One of the benefits the US has is that the major Internet companies are located in the US so they can put pressure on them to turn over information. If you look at the worldwide telecommunications net, almost all of it goes through the United States. 80 percent of telephone communications go through the United States. So the US is in the unique position of being able to eavesdrop on the world without much difficulty.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, an analyst with a U.S. defence contractor, is seen in this still image taken from video during an interview by The Guardian in his hotel room in Hong Kong June 6, 2013. Former U.S. spy agency contractor Snowden has applied for political asylum in Russia, a Russian immigration source close to the matter said on July 1, 2013. Picture taken June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Glenn Greenwald/Laura Poitras/Courtesy of The Guardian/Handout via Reuters (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS MEDIA) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. THIS PICTURE WAS PROCESSED BY REUTERS TO ENHANCE QUALITY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. MANDATORY CREDIT
Edward Snowden gave Americans "a noble piece of information"Image: Reuters

To a large degree, this a very counterproductive activity, if you're trying to find a needle in a haystack, and that is the whole idea post-9/11, and if you keep putting more and more hay on the haystack, it makes it more difficult to find that needle.

Should the president take corrective or decisive action and what should be the next steps?

I don't trust the president to do anything useful because he has expanded this power. In the 1970s, we had this big independent investigation into the intelligence community. That's what you need today. We've gone way too far after 9/11in terms of excessive security and I think the only way to correct the system is by having an independent commission that looks into it and has the power to make changes.

James Bamford is a US author and journalist. He has written several books on the NSA, including the bestseller "The Puzzle Palace," the first book devoted to the workings of the NSA.