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​'NSA gave no answers on why they were mass spying on Europeans' - head of EU delegation

November 04, 2013 08:30

Claude Moraes, head of the European delegation (AFP Photo / Karen Bleier)

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As the international diplomatic crisis over NSA surveillance widens, the US is scrambling to justify its actions. While we're waiting to learn exactly what Obama wanted to hear in the conversations of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the question remains...

Will mass surveillance be rolled back? Or will the world have to accept the presence of this one Big Brother? Our guest today is British Labour MEP, Claude Moraes, head of the European delegation that went to Washington to seek clarification for the NSA's actions.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Our guest today is the British labor MEP Claude Moraes and head of the European delegation to Washington whose objective was to clear out NSA spying over the nations. Claude, you just got back from the US as the head of EU delegation to talk about US surveillance over European countries. Can you share with us the main things you’ve learned or maybe a consensus you have reached?

Claude Moraes: Washington, the whole nature of investigating Snowden’s allegations of mass surveillance, of spying, meant that we were very realistic, we didn’t expect to get the definitive answers about what was going on. But we did get some very high-level meetings, we got face-to face meetings with the NSA, we went to the White House and so on. We went to every major department and we began to build up a picture, and one of those build-ups, if you like, was to try and get our concerns across. The first thing was to get the concerns across, and they were first of all that these allegations are really amassing, they are allegations which are taken very seriously in the EU, first of mass surveillance of EU citizens, then of course the spying allegations, but also issues about commercial sensitivity – you know, all of the issues about Google and Yahoo, and all of these back door access issues. So, we got those across and we tried to get some answers on Capitol Hill, and so on, but it would be wrong to say that we got definitive answers back, because it’s a voluntary process, but we tried to make some progress.

SS:But Claude, did you come back with anything at all? What are you reporting back to Europe – because you could get your point of view across to America without going to America. Like, you could say “we’re outraged by you spying on us.” But are you actually reporting back to Europe with something?

CM: What you’ve got to remember, and every journalist has asked this – “why go to America, when they can come here.” Look, we’re having hearings in Brussels and Strasbourg, we’re European Parliament, we are representational of 27 countries, we’ve had dozens of hearings in Brussels and Strasbourg, many Americans have come to see us, including whistleblowers, by the way. We’ve had Jesselyn Radack, who gave a statement from Edward Snowden, for example. So we’ve had many Americans give us evidence there, but it would have been wrong not to have at least one visit to Washington, where people who were not able to give evidence, gave evidence, where we could interact with some people who had not come to Brussels, so we did that. And it was only for two-three days. That was important, it was important to give a sense of our concerns to them and that was also a two-way street.

SS:Claude, did the US officials sound convincing? Did they try to justify the NSA’s activities, or was it just a one-way monologue from the Europe side?

CM: Oh yes, they did try and justify what they were doing, in fact we had private meetings with the NSA, Homeland Security Department, National Security Council, and there was some justification given. In fact, you would have seen that we had private meetings and that you saw a public statement coming out while we were there from the National Security Agency, explicitly about the mass surveillance activity, and you saw that coming from the NSA and Capitol Hill. Why we were there, and the justification given, was public. It was about “this was done on the basis of the necessity of anti-terror activity, it was done in partnership with the EU governments,” so they were in fact, while were there, starting to rebut many of the allegations, and that was unusual, because my point to many of the officials that we saw was this: It has taken a long time for the NSA and others to come back on these allegations, there’s been a lot of silence - and that was one of my points to them. There were some rebuttals happening while we were there.

SS: Here’s what you’ve said recently: “Spying has always existed, but friend-on-friend spying is not something that is easily tolerable.” America was spying of friends, and it couldn’t possibly be terrorism. There are speculations of purely economic reasons behind the spying – have you learned the purpose of the spying, or it is just the official lines that they’ve given us all along?

CM: No, we haven’t learned the full truth of this, I have to be open about that. We haven’t learned, and the quote that you just gave back to me are about particularly German example, for example the allegations about Chancellor Merkel. I can speak for my colleagues, we were there with my German parliamentarian colleagues, from all sorts of political parties in EU, they feel that, you know, “What would be the purpose of the espionage on “Chancellor Merkel” is that for security purposes, is there a necessity for it, and is it proportionate? And I think the view of my colleagues and me on that parliament delegation – and I would say the majority of people in the EU – I guess is “No.”

SS: But do you think it could be economic reasons maybe?

CM: Well, look, that is the point of these allegations, that if they are disproportionate, if there’s no perceived reason for mass surveillance, and that allegation of mass surveillance is proven and we’re going through a process of trying to figure out what is going on – if that is the case, you’re going to get to the point of commercial sensitivity, and what I mean by that is – you’ve got further allegations of mass-surveillance, of data being taken from citizens. Now, there are two points here – one is these specific allegations in relation to companies, this issue of back-door encryption and so on. The second problem is the breakdown of trust, which affects the movement of data. That could have commercial implications, so there are two issues here, and if you have a breakdown of trust between EU and US on this set of allegations, and we’ve said that to our counterparts, and we know this is an issue between EU and US – if you have this breakdown of trust and you don’t repair it then there are commercial implications.

SS: Can I tell you something – from what I’m hearing right now it looks like it really was more of a symbolic visit rather than anything else – just like Europe’s reaction to a spying case of this proportion…

CM: Well, fine, it doesn’t disturb me that you think that – my feelings are not hurt. If you feel it’s symbolic, that’s up to you. What I thought it was – it was a very high-level visit, we got some information, our realistic expectations were met, and we were realistic, and I’ll tell you why we were realistic: Because Parliaments are not perfect, democracy is not perfect, we do not have superior powers, we’re not a court of law, we can’t force people to tell us something they don’t want to tell us, but in democracies and parliaments you try and get the truth, you try and speak to counterparts – these are our allies, so we’re there, we’re asking the questions, we’re asking tough questions, and we’re doing that in Strasbourg and Brussels as well, because at the end of the day we’re legislators, we’re not perfect, we’re there to address what we think EU citizens are concerned about, and they are definitely, in our view, concerned that mass data transfers have happened because of these allegations, and if these allegations remain unanswered, there’s a privacy issue, there’s a human rights issue, but there’s also a commercial issue.

SS: Tough questions are great, but I really wonder about the answers and you’ve said you haven’t really gotten any tangible answers. I generally wonder why they would spy on Angela Merkel…

CM: It’s really interesting, and you keep asking this, and that’s fine, but this not a robotic situation, it’s a parliamentary inquiry. Now, what I think is happening here is a process – I think, with media, with good journalism, with NGO’s, with legislators, there’s pressure here, genuine pressure building up. This is part of a process; people are watching this process, companies, businesses, who don’t want to see encryption breaking down, back doors into people’s mass data, affecting business, and privacy being something that is after-thought – why? Because in the future, when we’re going to have commercial transactions you don’t want to see this being broken down. For human right reasons and commercial reasons people want to see this issue resolved in some way, and I think that’s why this process, probably, in the end will take time, but I think some answers will come true – but it will be a painful and long process, I don’t think it could be an instant process.

SS: Ok, let’s talk about process a bit then – right after Merkel’s reaction the Spanish government has warned of a potential breakdown of trust with the US. So what? It’s not like they’re cutting diplomatic ties. What exactly does that mean, the breakdown of trust?

CM: Well what’s happening here is – you’ve got major governments, you’ve got the Spanish government, the allegations of Spanish citizens having been mass surveilled, Germany, you’ve got the French situation – I mean, what’s happening here is that these allegations are coming thick and fast and we understand there’s going to be more allegations, and you’ve got here a relentless situation of allegations. The key point here is that many of these allegations are not having an answer. Now, the situation is, as we understand it, because of these intelligence issues, we understand that we’re being told that we can’t have a comment coming from the NSA, but while we were there, there were some rebuttals. Now, we’re in a situation where as a parliamentary inquiry - and indeed there are many national inquires as well – we are not the only ones – we want to get as much information as possible, at the end of our inquiry…we’re not a completely forensic inquiry, but we’ll take all the information we can get and make some assumptions, and make some recommendations, but we think that at the end of the day those countries – Germany, France, Spain you’ve mentioned – those countries will have their intelligence services, they will remain sovereign, they do what they want to do, but EU citizens will still ask the question, “What would my government do to safeguard my privacy?” I think that is the question that we will have to be able to answer to those citizens. Companies and commercial outfits will want to ask, “Look, is our encryption safe?” or “Are we going our business in this kind of environment?” and I think those two questions are what we’re interested in.

SS: So UK GCHQ was key in helping the NSA perform its surveillance. Have they given you or anyone their explanations?

CM: No, we haven’t had any explanations from GCHQ, we did invite them to the inquiry – they didn’t come.

SS: But, do you find it weird that they aren’t giving you any explanations? They’re pretending that nothing is going on, because they really were key in the whole operation?

CM: No, in fact we invited national intelligence services from most of the member states and they have not actually attended. This is an interesting point, because when you’re inquiring to intelligence services and you’re the EU parliament, and EU doesn’t have a major intelligence service – we’ve got something called INTCEN, which is a very small intelligence operation, but it’s nothing like national intelligence services like you have in Russia or UK has or France has, and because of that we just don’t have the power or an authority to get those intelligence services here. We have a thing of loyal cooperation in the EU, it’s a voluntary situation, and as a result none of the intelligence services, including GCHQ, have actually come along to our inquiry.

SS: Just recently, David Cameron lashed out at the Guardian for being irresponsible for publishing more leaks, but people are wondering should he be offering his apologies instead of lashing out at press…

CM: He’s entitled to his view. He’s prime minister, and he is entitled to his view. In the UK, different politicians have given their view. It’s his view that he feels the Guardian have gone too far and he stated his view.

SS: But what is your view, because you’re a politician as well – how valid is his veiled threat towards the media, and I mean, to the Guardian in particular?

CM: My view is that he’s entitled to give a view on the Guardian – that’s my view, and he’s entitled to, and he ought to be giving a view as a PM. My view about Guardian is that I think what the Guardian has done is reported responsibly, has tried to…in my view, take a huge set of allegations – we have interviewed them in my inquiry, and the editor was one of the first in our inquiry, we interview many journalists – in my view, and I’m not on the last word of it. I feel that they’ve redacted a lot of information, they’ve attempted to produce good journalism, for example they haven’t just put the allegations out on a website or whatever, they’ve tried to shape the story so that people are not put in danger. That’s my clear understanding. And if that’s the case, I think the Guardian has responsibly reported this.

SS: So you think the Guardian should have published Snowden’s revelations and should continue to do so in the future?

CM: Yes, I’ve given you my view on the Guardian, I’m just giving you my view which is that I think the Guardian is a responsible newspaper and in the inquiry we interviewed the editor, we put to him very clearly – “What’s your purpose, what’s your methods,” and it was very clear that they made a lot of effort to redact information that could put people in difficulty. Now, there are different views on that – some people are taking very strong views on the Guardian. We actually interviewed them in the inquiry, and we took the view that good journalism was at play here in the very difficult situation. So, that’s my view on the Guardian.

SS: David Cameron himself has not been spied on – well at least that’s what he has been told, and still he signed up for a statement from all 28 EU members calling for rebuilding of trust with the US. But isn’t he an accomplice in this case and should also be responding now for his actions?

CM: I don’t know what you mean by “accomplice,” I think the statement “rebuild the trust with the US” is correct, I think that’s exactly what we’re doing in the inquiry as well, because US is our ally. I think most EU will agree with that. The idea here is that the trust has been affected by this situation, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that – it’s a factual case that we’re allies, we’re in NATO, the EU is currently in a EU-US trade agreement, European Parliament at the moment…I mean, I was involved in negotiating the swift anti-terror deal directly under the Lisbon treaty with the US, so we have actual partnership with the US, so the point is – it’s a trust situation…

SS: I’ll tell you what I mean, because after all I may not know it all, I’m just a journalist: the CIA was paying GCHQ hundreds of millions of dollars to have them spy for them. Is that a normal practice for a governmental agency to receive money from a foreign state, even if it’s an ally?

CM: That’s what our parliamentary inquiry is trying to look at. Our parliamentary inquiry is not just looking at that, if you’re talking about the Tempora issue, our parliamentary inquiry is not just looking at that, but it’s looking at all the intelligence services in the EU. In fact, our remit is to look at the oversight issues in the EU, because we are far from perfect. We have issues about our own intelligence services oversight, and in fact, when we were in the US we made that very clear to our counterparts in the US. We said that we have oversight issues in our own backyard, so we were very clear about that. That’s part of our inquiry remit.

SS: So, Claude, do you think Snowden now has another powerful enemy – the UK – for landing them in hot waters?

CM: If you’re asking me what enemies Mr. Snowden has, you’d be better to ask him. I’m a legislator; I just suspect he has many of them.

SS: We’re discussing a situation that has been talked about in every major news channel for the past couple of months, and this is all inter-related, so we’re just talking here.

CM: You’d know as well as I do, you’re not just a journalist, you have as good of idea about this as I do…He’s in a very tough position, he’s a whistleblower. By the way, in the inquiry we interviewed a number of key whistleblowers and we had a statement from him through Jesselyn Radack, who was his attorney, so the inquiry has been pretty extensive.

SS: Just recently, President Obama has pledged to review the NSA’s activities. What does it mean to you? Because for some it just means being more cautious to avoid more leaks…

CM: We met with the various actors in the US who are doing this internal review, and I think, when anything happens on this scale anywhere in the world, there’s going to be internal reviews. We’re doing our job; we met with various actors in the US that are doing this internal review, and we made it very clear to them that these are the deep concerns that we have within the EU, so that when they do their review, they really understand what is happening to the citizens of the EU and other parts of the world too in terms of their concerns, that certain actions, alleged actions, are happening and are having an impact on the EU - we made that very clear. We know about the internal reviews that are going on, ordered by the president, so we were very clear about that when we spoke to the various actors which are doing the internal review.

SS: Also another interesting fact: last summer saw Luxembourg’s PM resign for not being able to keep his security in check. Do you think we could see more stories like that break out in Europe?

CM: That’s an interesting point you made. There was a time when so-called spy stories, espionage stories were really quite rare. After the Cold War this thing has been gagged, where you would never get a resignation, you never really hear about this. I think, we’re in the different phase now of accountability. Citizens, certainly I can speak in the EU, citizens want accountability. They want legislators – this case, the Luxembourg case, is a good one you brought up – they just want accountability, they want people to answer for what they are doing, and secrecy and espionage – they understand it’s necessary, to protect their security, absolutely, but they want some balance, they want to know this is not being done for the wrong reasons, they want some level of accountability. So this is a quite interesting point you made, that there were will be probably more types of these situations, where politicians are brought to be more accountable for what’s happening in terms of security and secret services and so on.

SS: And also, really shortly – what countries definitely want is to protect their information until their trust is rebuilt. Whenever and in whatever form it will happen - we don’t know that, right? But what do you think will happen before that – will people start using encrypted communication lines, or, I don’t know, go back to the typewriters? Because some foreign ministers are going back to that practice, going back to typewriters…

CM: That’s a brilliant point to make; I’ve not heard any journalist to make that point in all the time that I’ve done this inquiry. It’s such a good point because one of the big problems is that during the inquiry we actually heard from experts that it’s easier to break into highly encrypted services, encryption actually helps sometimes to break in, and so just going back to basics might be easier for some people. I’ve actually learned so much during this inquiry, and I think this is why we need to get to the truth because what you’re dealing with here is that…you know, in a few years time, our children will just be doing commerce on the internet, on electronic media – that’s the future, and if you don’t have the safe environment to do that you’re going to face big problems. This is not just a privacy or human rights issue, this is a commercial issue and people are going to want answers. They certainly are going to find that these allegations need some answers, because they need a more stable environment for electronic communications.

SS: Claude, thank you very much. So folks, tip of the day for today’s program from Claude Moreas is “stick to the basics.” That’s it for today; our guest was Claude Moreas, British MEP and head of the European delegation to Washington whose objective was to clear out NSA spying over the nations. Thanks for watching.

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