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Uproar over U.S. surveillance scope raises question of what spying is acceptable

October 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
European governments lodged new complaints about U.S. surveillance after learning of new disclosures that the NSA tracked millions of phone calls in Spain, reports Kwame Holman. For more on the continuing fallout, Gwen Ifill speaks with former CIA official John McLaughlin and Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations.

GWEN IFILL: European governments lodged new complaints on both sides of the Atlantic today over U.S. surveillance. They followed more disclosures linked to the National Security Agency.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: In Madrid, the U.S. ambassador to Spain, James Costos, ignored shouted questions about how his meeting at the Foreign Ministry went. He had been summoned after the newspaper El Mundo reported the NSA tracked more than 60 million phone calls in Spain just from December 2012 to January 2013.

Meanwhile, in Washington, members of the European Parliament met with the House Intelligence Committee on U.S. surveillance.

CLAUDE MORAES, European Parliament Delegation: This is just a knock in trust. And there’s a real appetite in the European Union to try and restore this trust, to make sense of why this NSA surveillance was necessary, why it was so disproportionate.

KWAME HOLMAN: There have already been revelations that the NSA collected the phone call data of French and German citizens and of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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Over, the weekend the German newspaper Der Spiegel said Merkel’s phone was monitored as early as 2002. And another German paper, Bild am Sonntag, said President Obama was briefed about the effort in 2010, much earlier than previously reported. The NSA denied Mr. Obama was briefed that far back, while at the White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president recognizes the need for additional constraints on gathering and using intelligence.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: And we’re also reviewing these programs because the president believes it’s very important that, even as they work to keep America and Americans safe, that they do so in a way that reflects the sincere concerns about privacy that Americans have and that our allies have.

KWAME HOLMAN: Back in Berlin, Germany’s interior minister wouldn’t rule out expelling U.S. diplomats.

HANS-PETER FRIEDRICH, German Interior Minister (through interpreter): Already in July, I said during my talks in Washington that it would be absolutely unbearable for us if German law was broken on German ground. Now it turns out that this was the case.

KWAME HOLMAN: Which made it nearly certain that the fallout is far from over and that difficult talks lie ahead. To that end, a delegation of U.S. lawmakers plans to journey to Brussels soon.

GWEN IFILL: Friction among friends continued to grow today amid new revelations of the scope of U.S. surveillance in Europe. Left unresolved so far: What sort of spying is acceptable?

Here to tackle that, John McLaughlin, former CIA deputy director and then acting director. He now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And Charles Kupchan, a member of the National Security Council staff in the Clinton years, he’s now a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Welcome to you both.

From Europe’s point of view, Charles Kupchan, how damaging are these disclosures?

CHARLES KUPCHAN, former National Security Council official: The damage has increased over time.

I think at the beginning, there was a sense that Obama could say, this happens. Friends spy on friends. There’s nothing really out of the ordinary here. And I think the European response was, OK, let’s sit on our hands and not cause a big stir.

But now, day by day, we get pore and more information, more phone calls that are tapped, including the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. And what’s happened now is there is enough outrage in Europe among the public that the European leaders have to react. And I think part of it is Merkel herself is angry. And she’s saying this has gone too far.

GWEN IFILL: Well, it’s not just her. It’s others as well, but which raises the question. Why would the U.S. tap friendly phones, and why wouldn’t they react this way?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, former CIA official: Well, certainly, you can expect them to react this way. Once anything like this is revealed, there’s an obligation, I think, felt by those on the receiving end to say what they’re saying. So there is a little bit of indignation theater going on here.

Now, that said, why would we do this, if we have done it? And we have to bear in mind we don’t know the details of this. We don’t know what was collected. We don’t know whether it was content or just lists of calls and so forth.

But we share a lot of interest with the Europeans. Over the last couple of years, there have been numerous reports of terrorist attacks being planned in Europe, Europeans being involved in places like Syria as fighters and so forth. So in all likelihood, if we’re doing this, what we’re looking for is a body of information that the Europeans themselves would want to have and that we would give them and do routinely give them about things that could happen in their country that would be injurious to their national interests.

GWEN IFILL: Well, if that’s true, then, Mr. Kupchan, why would anybody stop now no matter what the outrage is, and how much of this really is shared?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I don’t think that anybody is talking about stopping it. And John is right that when you troll through a lot of traffic, sometimes, you pick up things.

And our intelligence service will pick up the phone and they will call the German intelligence service and help them prevent something from happening that’s in the interests of all. But I think the question is, is the scale and scope of the gathering necessary? Are there ways to negotiate a code of conduct that would put certain limits on the gathering of intelligence?

And we know those limits exist, because, for example, there’s something called Five Eyes. We have an agreement, a gentleman’s agreement with the British, the Canadians, the New Zealanders, the Australians to say, among friends, there’s a limit. We won’t spy on your government, you won’t spy on us.

GWEN IFILL: So, is that the kind of deal other nations are now trying to get who are not part of this group of five, who want — is that what is on the table for negotiation?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: I don’t think that’s on the table for negotiation, but I believe it’s out there as a request on the part of some countries.

But we already have — apart from the Five Eyes that Charles talked about, we already have very robust, extensive intelligence exchange programs with nearly all of these countries.

GWEN IFILL: Does this change that, though, or do they get greater leverage in order to get that kind of access?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: I don’t think it’s going to work that way, honestly, Gwen. I think what we are going to see here is, this will play out for a while, and there is a great desire on the part of all these parties to get past it and figure out how do we get back to a situation where we’re dealing with each other productively.

GWEN IFILL: What kind of information are we talking about here that we are on the lookout for, assuming we’re not just scooping it all up? Is it corporate communications we’re interested in?


GWEN IFILL: It’s not?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: No, what we’re looking for here in Europe, I would put it in maybe three categories, first, because I mentioned earlier, certainly terrorism information.

Remember, part of 9/11 was planned in Europe.


JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: We have to keep that in mind.

Second, the way the Internet works, a lot of information flowing around the world probably passes through servers in Europe. So much of the information we’re looking for may have nothing to do with Europe. This may be — I will makeup something here — Syria talking to Iran or Russia or whatever. We may be looking for that.

And then in a third category, I would say, you know, our laws define foreign intelligence as information that helps the United States formulate an effective foreign and national security policy. We’re looking for that. So we’re looking for information that helps us under…

GWEN IFILL: That’s pretty broad, though.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Of course it’s broad.


JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: But we’re looking for information that helps us understand how other countries think and how they plan to operate. And that can make our relationship with them much more effective and productive.

GWEN IFILL: Is that what European nations are looking for as well?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think that European nations are looking for some supervision and some limits.

The NSA sucks in as much information as it does partly because it can, partly because of new information technologies, the Internet, wireless, cell phones. And the Europeans simply have a political culture that is more sensitive to privacy than in the United States.

GWEN IFILL: So they handle their intelligence differently than we would, necessarily?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Well, they haven’t made much more progress on these kinds of issues among themselves than they have with us.

They don’t have an E.U.-wide approach to intelligence. They have their individual member states. But, for example, with us, there has been a really tough conversation about air traffic passenger data, about financial data to track terrorism. We have said, open up the books. They have said, that’s inconsistent with our privacy laws.

And they feel that starting with George W. Bush and continuing under Obama, the United States has simply got the balance wrong, too much invasion of privacy in the pursuit of security.


JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: But, Gwen, you asked about whether they handle their information differently.


JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: I would say that no country in the world that I know of — and certainly not even the European countries — has the kind of really intrusive oversight that we have here. And I support that.

Nor does anyone have the sort of guarantees and protections against invasion of privacy that we have here. I mean, many of these countries — and there are exceptions among them — aren’t nearly as faithful to those ideas as we are.

GWEN IFILL: Well, isn’t the only reason we are talking about this now is because there seems to have been an invisible line drawn?


GWEN IFILL: Well, not just that it’s been reported, but that we’re talking about world leaders?

Dianne Feinstein came out this afternoon and said, this is something we shouldn’t be doing, which is spying or listening in on what world leaders and prime ministers are doing. Is that the bridge too far here for European nations?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think, when it started, it was mostly political theater. It was European…


GWEN IFILL: The European reaction, you mean, was?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Yes. They were saying, our publics don’t like this. They didn’t know this was going on. We need to do something.

Now that Merkel’s phone has been tapped, I think she is furious. And so you have the political theater part, combining with the sense that, I have been personally violated. And I think now the cat is out of the bag, if you will.

GWEN IFILL: But isn’t the personal violation the key here, when you’re talking about prime ministers and presidents and heads of state?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, let’s be — let’s be clear, though. We don’t know whether what was being done here was actually monitoring her conversation or collecting a list of her phone calls.

And former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright commented the other day that the French did this to her when she was U.N. ambassador. So…

GWEN IFILL: And she objected to it at the time.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: And countries, they do this. So we don’t know precisely what the NSA was collecting on Angela Merkel.

Let’s assume that they were — let’s assume it was call lists. And let’s assume that they saw that she was in touch with someone we are interested in, a leader in Iran or in Russia or somewhere. It may be the other end of her call that someone is interested in. And so it’s important for us to specify here,we don’t know whether the content of her calls…

GWEN IFILL: It doesn’t sound like you think that we should roll back on listening in on leaders’ phone call, that that is a line that shouldn’t crossed

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, that’s a decision for the president. And it sounds like he is thinking about it.

But what I would say is this. If we do that, we will unilaterally restrain ourselves, and others will not.

GWEN IFILL: Is that something that European nations want us to do, to unilaterally restrain ourselves, at least on this level?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Yes. I mean, I would probably disagree with John here.

I think that when it comes to the leader of France or the leader of Germany, we are not getting intelligence from — if we are listening to their calls, that are — that’s preventing bad things from happening of high national security…


JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: I don’t disagree with that.


CHARLES KUPCHAN: Where we’re really making progress is sifting through calls, e-mails among extremists.

And what the Europeans are looking for is some kind of rule of the road that says, among friends, and friends trust each other, these kinds of activities are unnecessary.

GWEN IFILL: Rules of the road, that’s what everybody is looking for at this point.

Charles Kupchan, thank you very much, and John McLaughlin.