Obama Advisor John Podesta 'Every Country Has a History of Going Over the Line'
Instead of a no-spy deal, the US has begun a Cyber Dialogue with Germany. In a SPIEGEL interview, John Podesta, a special advisor to President Barack Obama, speaks of the balance between alliances and security and says that changes are being made to NSA espionage practices.
Editor's Note: This is a longer version of the interview with John Podesta which appeared in this week's Der Spiegel. The interview in the magazine was shortened for reasons of space.
SPIEGEL: Mr.Podesta, the US government has thus far neither provided answers to questions sent by the German government nor has the promised no-spy deal been forthcoming. What message have you brought with you to Berlin?
Podesta: We don't have no-spy agreements with any country. I think there was a misunderstanding about this at the beginning of what was being contemplated. What the US side did do with the German side was to try to increase our cooperation and understanding in the world of surveillance. The president has talked to the chancellor numerous times about this topic.
SPIEGEL: That's great for Chancellor Angela Merkel. But she is the only German who has been guaranteed that her mobile phone is no longer being monitored. Wouldn't such a guarantee for the rest of the population be necessary as a foundation for the Cyber Dialogue?
Podesta: As you know, the president did a review and he authorized a special group of people to take a look at the surveillance practices on the intelligence side as a result of the Snowden disclosures. That started last summer and was completed in December. That was in advance of the president's January speech, in which he made substantial reforms to those intelligence programs.
SPIEGEL: Yet the offer for a no-spy agreement came from the US in the first place. That, at least, is what Merkel's chief of staff said last summer.
Podesta: I think the German government would acknowledge that perhaps there was a little bit of a lack of clarity as to what the US was offering. As I said, we don't have no-spy agreements with any country, including the UK. I wasn't in government at that moment, but I think what we have done subsequent to those earlier conversations is to try and enhance the dialogue at every level: at the technical level and at the political level. In that context, I met with the foreign minister when he was in Washington last spring and he asked me to come over here to participate in the Cyber Dialogue.
SPIEGEL: The dialogue focused on economic innovation and cyber-cooperation. Wouldn't a firm statement of regret be a good starting point? Is the US worried that a no-spy agreement would set a precedent?
Podesta: We want to have an open and collaborative dialogue with our friends and our partners, and Germany is on top of that list. But with respect to our policies on the use of intelligence assets for national security purposes: As the president made clear in his January speech, we've laid out what we don't do. We are not spying on ordinary citizens. We don't collect for purposes of trying to suppress political speech. We don't collect to give commercial advantage to our companies. Other countries have been known to do that; we don't do that. And so the intelligence program is aimed at protecting our national security and the national security of our friends and allies.
SPIEGEL: Yet those allies are also targeted, as we now know. As former US Ambassador John Kornblum recently said: Nations have no friends, only interests.
Podesta: I know the ambassador, but I don't know if I agree with that. We do have friends and we do have alliances. We need to balance that against our security needs and that's why the president has restrained collection against heads of state of our friends and allies. I'm not going to go into the details of this, as you may expect. But with respect to what German citizens think, the United States has a pretty good track record of standing up for values of global democracy, of free expression, of protecting the rights of individuals, of trying to ensure that people are not discriminated against, of not suppressing free speech. Every country has a history of going over the line, and ours is no exception. But our democracy is self-correcting.
SPIEGEL: It sounds to German ears as though you are trying to trivialize the issue. Even Judge Richard Leon, with whom you teach at Georgetown University, ruled that NSA data-mining was likely unconstitutional.
Podesta: Far from trivializing, we take this very seriously. On the specifics, this was a ruling on a specific program, the Metadata Program. Other judges have gone the other way on that question and found that it was constitutional. It was certainly court authorized for us. The president concluded that, while it had utility, particularly from the counter-terrorism perspective, it wasn't worth the risk that might come from the massive holding of metadata even if metadata is held under our laws to a slightly lower standard than the actual content of communications. So the president has asked Congress to provide a different avenue to collect only against specific targets. That has passed the House of Representatives and is awaiting Senate action. So we're in the process of reforming our laws and ending the Metadata Program. I think we'll end up with a system that's more protective of privacy with respect to telephone metadata but one that still permits the agencies of the federal government to be able to conduct legitimate and targeted counter-terrorism surveillance.
SPIEGEL: Counter-terrorism is one thing. Reading the Snowden documents, however, the concept of "Information Superiority" is mentioned. Only a small part of the agency's funding goes directly into counter-terrorism measures. What is the rest spent on?
Podesta: For other important national security issues. Take arms proliferation, the very challenging situation in Iraq and other issues that are real security challenges for the country, including international criminal enterprises.
SPIEGEL: Documents seen by SPIEGEL show that NSA agents hacked into the video conferences of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and monitored conversations of leaders at the G-8 and at the Climate Conference .
Podesta: I'm not going to defend everything that went on in the past. First of all, I'm not privy to it. There's always going to be a desire to collect intelligence and to understand the motivation of leaders of other governments, but that doesn't mean you have to listen in on their cell phone calls. The president set up a process for more specific review and narrowing the targets of investigation. We're not going to publish that list, but I think he has set up a process, quite frankly, because some of the disclosures as to who had been targeted were probably beyond the knowledge of anybody at a political level in government.
SPIEGEL: How could that happen?
Podesta: As technology races ahead, particularly over the last decade, we see the power of technology to be able to do things -- and perhaps the policy that goes along with that capacity sometimes lags behind.
SPIEGEL: Former NSA head Michael Hayden said in a SPIEGEL interview that he's happy to apologize -- not for the spying but for the embarrassment caused by its disclosure. Do you agree?
Podesta: As with most things about General Hayden, he's entitled to his opinion. It's not mine.
SPIEGEL: In your report on NSA and "big data" for President Obama, you describe the potential opportunities and threats of this technology. What dangers do you see of big data in the hands of a surveillance system like the NSA?
Podesta: I think about it more in the context of law enforcement. You begin to -- particularly with predictive analytics -- blur the line between the presumption of innocence and targeting individuals. We are in a constant state of both adopting the technology and trying to formulate policy that is consistent with a value base that respects civil liberties, respects the integrity of the person and respects the need to ensure non-discrimination. The technologies are powerful tools to both enhance those rights of freedom and expression. But there is also a dark side to all of this, too. It has the potential to have a chilling effect for the government to hold that much data. So it's a struggle to get the balance.
SPIEGEL: There are serious doubts that controlling bodies like the Senate Intelligence Committee or the FISA court are capable of understanding this complex technology. And if they don't understand it, how should they control it?
Podesta: Yes, I think that's a dilemma across the globe. At least in Germany and the US, we are asking those questions. I think if you went to Russia or China, they're probably not asking those questions. The technological gap, with respect to oversight, is actually a serious concern. And there is even a flipside to that concern: In order to develop the technological expertise, those performing the oversight end up being so embedded and invested in the system and the bureaucracy itself that they become captive of it. So I think it's important to have independent analysts, but it's then incumbent upon them to take the time to really try to understand and do a "deep-dive" on the technology.
SPIEGEL: Still, people have the impression now that anybody can be a target.
Podesta: We don't collect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent. We don't collect intelligence to disadvantage people based on ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. We don't collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to US companies. The President narrowed bulk signals intelligence collection to specific security threats: counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, cyber security, force protection of our troops and allies -- I think you'd agree with that -- and combating transnational crime.
SPIEGEL: How can you distinguish between the bad guys and everyone else? You first have to collect the data and then filter out what exactly you are looking for.
Podesta: The collection itself has to be for one of those specific purposes. Again, I'll repeat what the president said: We're looking at specific security threats and trying to collect against that target. And those security threats exist.
SPIEGEL: Can you promise Germans that you are not monitoring their telephone and email exchanges?
Podesta: We have no interest in collecting against the citizens of Germany for the potential of finding some interest in what they're saying to each other. Nor do we have any interest in doing it to Americans. The questions arise when there are specific targets and potential hostile acts that can emerge from citizens in our country, in your country and in countries across the world. Look at something that may be of low concern in Germany but of high concern in the US: the number of foreign fighters now embedded and fighting with ISIS...
SPIEGEL: it's a major concern here as well
Podesta: that's a real concern! And trying to anticipate, imagine and manage the security threat that arises from American nationals -- we had the incident of the American national involved in a suicide bombing in Syria. There are European nationals who are out there in extremist groups with deep knowledge of how to inflict damage. That's targeted; it's looking at something specific.
SPIEGEL: Surveillance is only one element in the much larger issue of cyber warfare. The NSA also has a military component, as we now know, and is well-versed in cyber warfare. Do we need a ban on cyber weapons akin to the treaty on nuclear weapons proliferation?
Podesta: To me, it seems important to be establishing norms around cyber-security, particularly in the US-German dialogue. At the heart of that is enhancing the ability to create defenses against cyber-attacks, whether they're coming from state sponsors or non-state sponsors. But I just think that we're at the very beginning.