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Interview with Claus Kleber

January 18, 2014

Kleber: Mr. President. Thank you for having us.

The President: Thank you so much for being here.

Kleber: 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. Does that surprise you?

The President: No, it doesn't surprise me. Because I think that, first of all, 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.

And if you look at what we've done, though, it really is unprecedented: What I've put forward is a presidential directive that very clearly indicates what we will do and will not do when it comes to overseas surveillance. And I indicated very specifically that we do not listen to people's phone calls or read their emails if there are no national security threats involved, that we will, for the first time, I think, ever, include our concerns about the privacy rights of all persons, regardless of nationality.

We have laid very clear criteria by which we approach bulk collection, that there are only very narrow instances in which we can engage in that kind of collection. And I made very clear the limits on collections for our friends' and our allies' heads of state. So if you take the body of what I said publicly, what we've done is something that no country around the world has been as clear about when it comes to their intelligence services, even as we do have to maintain the intelligence capabilities that don't just help to keep us safe, but also help to keep our friends and allies, including Germans, safe.

Kleber: But 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.

The President: But of course, here's the challenge: We don't always know who the Hamburg cell is, until after the fact.

Kleber: So you have to listen to everybody until then?

The President: No, well but that's not what happens. We are not listening to everybody. And I think it's very important to make that clear. 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. One of the issues that I discussed for example today, the 215 program of telephone metadata, that I've determined we will end government collection of this data. But this is data that does not include names, does not include content. It 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. And there are legitimate concerns, though, about the government holding this data and those are some of the concerns that we have tried to address.

Now, one of the things that I have said throughout the speech is: I am very sympathetic to why the German people would be concerned about this. Obviously, there is a history there with respect to East Germany that tells us what happens if you have a vast surveillance state and it turns on its own citizens. Here in the United States, as I mentioned, there have been times where surveillance has been abused. And I would not be in the seat I am today, were it not for figures like Dr. King who, at times, our own government spied on, in ways that were inappropriate.

So what I'm trying to do is to make sure on the one hand that a group like the Hamburg cell we can identify before rather than after they have killed a whole lot of innocent people, but also to create a series of safeguards and limits, checks, an oversight so that the process whereby we are doing that is not something that would lead the ordinary German or American or Brazilian to think that our networks are somehow reading their text messages that they are sending to their spouses.

Kleber: Understood. But still, 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.

The President: Well, I have to be careful about what details I can and cannot discuss here. But I think 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...

Kleber: But yours are bigger.

The President: ... a whole lot of intelligence agencies have them. Well, you're right. Ours are bigger. And I discussed in the speech the fact that the challenge we have is that our capabilities are significantly greater than many other countries'. In some ways, it is parallel to the fact that our military capabilities and our budgets are significantly greater than others'. Now, you can look at that in two ways. Because we have greater capabilities it also means we have greater responsibilities for humanitarian assistance for helping to keep our allies safe. 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. And so in some ways we underwrite a lot of the security needs and defenses of countries around the world. 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.

It means that there are higher expectations placed on us than other countries. 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. That is very useful. We take advantage of it in all sorts of ways. But it also means that some of the traditional safeguards and checks that we had in protecting our privacy are going to have to be updated. And that's why part of what I said in the speech was: I don't consider this an end point. I think this is the beginning of a discussion. And we are engaged in conversations with the German government, with German intelligence and we will continue to try to refine how we cooperate, how we are respectful of German traditions and German laws and how we can also continue the kind of cooperation that is important not only to our people but also the German people.

Kleber: Cooperation. You said that Angela Merkel's cellphone will not be monitored anymore. Nice to hear. Let's take the situation of 2002 / 2003, when Germany, France and others really tried to pull together a coalition in the United Nations, against the interests of the United States or United States policy at the time. Would that be a good moment to hear what chancellor Schroeder at the time was saying to the French president?

The President: You know, I have to tell you I can't comment on what happened in 2003 / 2004. But I understand the general point of your question which is: Is this something that chancellor Merkel or her successors can count on? This is a presidential directive. So I am saying what I will do under my administration. My hope would be that future presidents will follow the example that I am trying to set at this point. What I can say is that chancellor Merkel and I may have disagreements on foreign policy...

Kleber: But that is not the reason to listen in to...

The President: That is exactly right. That is what I was about to say.

Kleber: I'm a bit rushed because I feel that you are not getting to a point.

The President: Even if we have disagreements of any sort, the one thing that I know is that I have established a relationship of friendship and trust with her, in part because she's always very honest with me and I try to be very honest with her. I don't need and I don't want to harm that relationship by a surveillance mechanism that somehow would impede the kind of communication and trust that we have. And so what I can say is: As long as I'm president of the United States, the chancellor of Germany will not have to worry about this.

Kleber: But there are limits, even within NATO allies. We have a very difficult situation in Turkey right now. Your intelligence agencies must be interested in communications of president Erdogan. Would he be off limits because the president doesn't want this to happen?

The President: I'm not going to comment on country by country.

Kleber: I am just trying to understand the principle.

The President: I think what you will see in the directive is that we have close friends and allies that we work with consistently and it is important for us and for me as president of the United States to maintain the trust of those colleagues who I work with so closely. Now, as I said in the speech, our intelligence agencies, like German intelligence agencies, and every intelligence agency out there, will continue to be interested in the government intentions of countries around the world. That's not going to change.

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. The truth of the matter is that by definition the job of intelligence is to find out: Well, what are folks thinking? What are they doing? That helps service our diplomatic and our policy aims.

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. And the truth of the matter is that it will take some time to win that trust back. And I think that is entirely appropriate.

But, hopefully, the German people will recall also the incredible partnership that we have and all the good that we have done together and the incredible investment that the United States has in the success of Germany and the defense of Germany.

Kleber: On a personal note a last question, although I am getting a signal. I was there covering your speech at the victory column, standing about one hundred feet from you, one of the most exciting assignments I had. 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. A lot of disappointment in your policy and performance has established itself. So how do you think that could happen?

The President: Well, look. I think that the nature of being president of the United States is that you are steering a massive ship. And I have a clear vision, which I described in Berlin that day and which I described in speeches that I made when I was running for office in 2008, of where I think we need to go, of how we uphold dignity and freedom of all individuals, of how countries should relate to each other, of how we should promote economic growth that is good for all people and not just those at the very top. And those values continue to drive what I do every day. Where disappointment typically comes in, and this is natural, is that people think I am driving a speed boat and that I can...

Kleber: You would rather.

The President: ...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. And my hope is that at the end of my presidency, over the course of eight years, there will be a body of work where people will say: He ended the war in Iraq responsibly. He ended the war in Afghanistan responsibly. He was able to move our war footing after 9/11 into a greater focus on diplomacy and building multi-lateral agreements and institutions, that he advanced the cause of dealing with climate change, even if it is not completely solved. If I can show that, as a consequence to the work that I did, we are closer to that vision that I described in Berlin, then it will have been time well spent.

But I assure you that anybody who feels frustrated at the slow pace of our progress in some of these areas is probably less impatient than I am. I would love to get there faster, but it's the nature of this job and the nature of history that sometimes things take longer than we would like.

Kleber: You have nine-hundred or so days left. Good luck.

The President: Thank you so much.

Kleber: Thank you very much.

The President: I appreciate it. Thank you.

Barack Obama, Interview with Claus Kleber Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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