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Obama Confronts German NSA Skepticism in TV Interview But Doubts Remain

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, January 21 2014

Obama tells Claus Kleber, no point in having intelligence if you're restricted to reading media reports (credit: Screenshot/ZDF)

President Obama directly confronted some of the significant skepticism toward U.S. surveillance among the German public in an exclusive interview with German public broadcaster ZDF following his speech Friday. Beyond emphasizing the importance of restoring a trust in German-U.S. relations and dispelling worries about surveillance of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the interview's back-and-forth also prompted Obama to spell out the necessary balance he sees between U.S. responsibilities as a country with the most advanced capabilities and inevitable innovation in the area of digital surveillance. German reaction to the interview and the speech was muted, with many German news commentators expressing concern that Obama's vision is in effect a new world order upending established concepts of privacy, rule of law and limited surveillance.

"I have to say that the initial responses to your speech in Germany have been skeptical, guarded, all the way to disappointed, even from sources who are normally very pro- American. They expected more," journalist Claus Kleber opened in his interview.

Obama said he was not surprised by that reaction, since "a lot of suspicion had been built up in Germany and, frankly, around the world, in the wake of the Snowden disclosures. And it’s going to take some time to win back trust."

He reiterated the points of his speech, calling "unprecedented" his presidential directive "that very clearly indicates what we will do and will not do when it comes to overseas surveillance ... [and] for the first time, I think, ever, include[s] our concerns about the privacy rights of all persons, regardless of nationality....what we’ve done is something that no country around the world has been as clear about when it comes to their intelligence services....."

Kleber pointed out that many people "see this immense size of the American security and spying apparatus. And they look at that, they look at your speech today, as well and they say: Listen, what I want is that no agency like that is collecting any data from people in Germany. They should just stop that, unless you have specific reasons to look for this person, like the Hamburg cell of 9/11 and so on."

Obama noted that "we don’t always know who the Hamburg cell is, until after the fact."

"So you have to listen to everybody until then?," Kleber asked.

"No, well but that’s not what happens. We are not listening to everybody," Obama replied. "And this is part of the reason why it is going to take time to win back trust, because there’s been so much sensationalism around these issues." He emphasized that the 215 collection program that he aims to move out from under government control only includes telephone metadata "that is essentially a series of phone numbers so that when we have a specific lead – let’s say we find a number in an Al-Qaeda compound – we can find out whether that number contacted a number inside the United States or, for that matter, inside of Germany."

Kleber went onto state that "the metadata of people in Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, are somewhere stored where, with a couple of judicial steps, American authorities, your agencies have access to. That will remain."

Obama acknowledged that it "is absolutely true that US intelligence has a series of capabilities that allow us to access digital information, not just here in the United States but around the world. Those capabilities are not unique to us..."

"But yours are bigger," Kleber interjected.

"Well, you’re right. Ours are bigger," Obama replied, and went on to discuss how that fact echoes U.S. advantages in other areas such as the military and responsibility for humanitarian assistance.

"I think it’s fair to say that there are a whole series of European countries who are very glad that the US has those military capabilities and intelligence capabilities. What is also true is, because we have these greater capabilities, it means that we have greater responsibilities when it comes to privacy protection than other countries do," he said. "And what I’m trying to do is to create a framework, at a time when we are seeing technology advance very rapidly, to figure out how do we do this in a way that is respectful of the privacy of individuals, but at the same time is making clear that our law enforcement officials and our intelligence officials are able to do the things they need to do. And the interesting thing is, in some ways, the United States has gotten faster to a place that I suspect over time everybody is going to get to, which is that more and more of our information is stored digitally."

Kleber also specifically addressed the reports about surveillance of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone, questioning whether such surveillance could return if there was widespread European opposition to U.S. policy, such as before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Obama emphasized that he hoped the presidential directive discouraging such a practice would serve as an example for future presidents. "What I can say is that Chancellor Merkel and I may have disagreements on foreign policy....," Obama began. "But that is not the reason to listen in to...," Kleber interrupted. "That is exactly right. That is what I was about to say," Obama continued. "I’m a bit rushed because I feel that you are not getting to a point," Kleber explained.

Obama stressed the importance of his relationship with Merkel and said that "As long as I’m president of the United States, the chancellor of Germany will not have to worry about this."

But he also emphasized that U.S. intelligence services would continue to be interested in the intentions of foreign governments, as other intelligence agencies are. "And there is no point in having an intelligence service if you are restricted to the things that you can read in the New York Times or Der Spiegel," he said. "But I think the point you made earlier is the critical one: We have greater capabilities than most countries around the world. It is important for us, then, particularly as technology advances, to make sure we are showing some self-restraint in how we approach this. What you hear today is my first effort at providing that restraint in ways that can assure the German people and the German chancellor and other partners and friends around the world that we are not behaving in ways that would violate their privacy."

Kleber recalled that he had reported on Obama's speech at the Berlin Victory Column in 2008. "What you cannot know that hundreds of meters away, people who couldn’t even see the stage, certainly not you, were listening in a way that you heard a pin drop. There was so much hope and expectation in the air of Berlin on that day. And today, five years into the presidency, our polls indicate this has basically melted away...So how do you think that could happen?," he asked.

"I think that the nature of being president of the United States is that you are steering a massive ship," Obama replied. "And I have a clear vision, which I described in Berlin that day...Where disappointment typically comes in, and this is natural, is that people think I am driving a speed boat and that I can quickly move in that direction and I get there and by this time, four years after the fact, I would have ended all wars and I would have brought the world together and the economy would be humming along. And, unfortunately, although I would love to be in that position, the president of the United States is not emperor of the world. I am one figure, one man in this broader process and what I try to do, then, is to, every single day, move us a little bit closer to that vision I set."

Kleber told a German newspaper that the scheduling of the interview came together in a fast, sudden way. "The White House sent me an e-mail, and I booked the next flight to Washington." He also told German media blogger Richard Gutjahr that there were no subject restrictions set for the interview, though ZDF was obligated to air it in full, with the interview time growing to 16 minutes from the ten minutes originally budgeted. "I wanted to make clear at the start that I was asking the questions in the interest of an extremely skeptical German public and that charm alone would not achieve much. I also decided to stay with the NSA subject and to get concrete."

In a short video from ZDF, Kleber, who has previously interviewed Presidents Bush and Clinton, said Obama came across as "younger and more chipper" than he had expected, given reports about his aging. "But when he comes through the door, then you see a person...with a big smile, and such charisma, cheerfulness and in a good mood," he said, though he joked that it could have been because of Michelle Obama's birthday. Noting U.S. interest in restoring German trust, such as in the context of trade treaty discussion, Kleber said that with the interview, the White House was taking out its most effective "public diplomacy" weapon.

Asked whether Obama had answered his questions, Kleber said Obama did noticeably fall back on his speech several times. "One had the feeling now he feels comfortable again, this is what he prepared. He was certainly also a little tense, there was something at stake for him in the interview, not just for us." Kleber recalled that Bush Jr. was somebody who had "his strongly held beliefs" and didn't see any opportunity to change minds in an interview conversation. "Clinton was the polar opposite, with him you had the feeling he was interested in your question and wants to convince you in this moment that he is right...Barack Obama is in-between those examples, he has an incredible charm, a very genial presence..., and when something has gone wrong, he hopes to smooth things over with a nice speech packaged with a declaration of good intentions, and he drew on that arsenal in the interview," he said. While Kleber said it was up to the viewers to judge the interview and whether a real conversation still took place, he said he thought Obama intended for it to not be a dull interview.

If there is one thing Germans and Obama can likely agree on, it is that full restoration of trust will take some time. In the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Johannes Kuhn wrote that even while Obama shows understanding for German concerns, he has overlooked the decisive point that "the danger of the NSA programs is not in their misuse, but in their logic....'My data is safe' has become 'My data is safe because the NSA acts responsibly.'" He warned that the regard for privacy in communications is no longer bound to German laws, but the capabilities and control of international intelligence services. "With his position he has quasi officially opened up the arms race in digital surveillance. The harm will likely be greater than what his control mechanisms intend to repair."

And for Der Spiegel, Jakob Augstein wrote that in the speech and the interview, Obama was speaking like a ruler to his subjects. Noting Obama's suggestion that he was not an "emperor," Augstein wrote that somebody who feels the need to speak such a sentence "in truth means the opposite." He suggested that Obama's pronouncements represented a reversal of the rule of law established through the Magna Carta. He noted reports that discussions of a "No-Spy" agreement sought by many German politicians had met a roadblock. "More explicitly and more clearly than before the self-understanding of the White House has become evident: The President is the source of all power and thereby the source of all justice." The consequence must be, Augstein concludes, that Europe and Germany must "bring the data home" with the goal of European and German "digital self-determination."

Opinion pieces in the more conservative-leaning Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung suggested that Obama simply could not please everyone, that intelligence services still need to be able to fulfill their duties to protect against threats, and that one should take the new guidelines seriously, as Obama has given his assurances legal force.