Zakaria: Intelligence oversight situation unacceptable for democratic society
October 30th, 2013
12:01 PM ET

Zakaria: Intelligence oversight situation unacceptable for democratic society

CNN speaks with Fareed about the controversy over National Security Agency spying activities in Europe – and what it means for ties between the U.S. and its European allies. This is an edited version of the transcript.

Intelligence chiefs were very unapologetic in their answers in the House committee hearings yesterday, defending the NSA spying programs. Is that enough to satisfy European allies?

Well, they've got two problems on their hands. The one is the European public. And the other is European leaders. So much of what they defended was the kind of metadata or using leads to follow up and figure out if there are terrorists. And that kind of thing, what you're doing is you're looking at patterns, you're seeing a bunch of phone calls from Saudi Arabia to Hamburg, Germany. Who are these people in Hamburg? Why are they being called?

I think people understand that the European public is very disquieted by the idea that they're being spied on by the American spy agency. That's one piece of it. The other piece, which they didn't defend, was the spying on Angela Merkel, the leader, the eavesdropping on phone conversations.

Now, that's always gone on to a certain extent. The key difference is, as the French foreign minister said, the Americans do it so much better than any of us that we're all somewhat jealous.

The thing that seems to have angered people most is the spying on Angela Merkel. But the fact that the spy chief kept saying that they don't think that necessarily the president is aware of a particular target, does that inoculate the president from this criticism?

I think it inoculates him in a specific sense, particularly maybe with the German chancellor. But there’s a broader problem, which is I think two things have happened in the last 10 years. We have technologically moved leaps and bounds with all the stuff, with metadata, with accelerated computing – we can analyze millions of phone calls, just the outside of the envelope, not the inside. But we can do millions of phone calls within a few minutes.

More from CNN: Ignorance excuse doesn't cut it

The second piece is 9/11. This broke the constraints that we have felt. It made us scared, it made us nervous and it made us say we'll do anything. I don't think that's the right perspective. We can't say we will do anything. There have to be some rules of the road.

Yes, balance is what people are looking for. But maybe out of balance at the moment? Our correspondent Jim Sciutto said earlier that these revelations could have real consequences with our allies. What do you think those real consequences could be?

Well, there are two kinds of things. I mean, ever since these leaks have taken place, you have to wonder to yourself, are American allies going to ever be truthful and confidential with us, with the fear that this stuff is all going to get leaked? Are they going to be forthcoming with the lack of trust that has been created?

I think that's a real problem. I think that in the long run, if we set some new rules of the road, we'll be fine because everybody spies. Everybody understands it. And I do think some of this is less about ethics and more about power. We spend more on intelligence by some estimates than the rest of the world put together.

So, we're in a different league. And we have to recognize that because of that, it arouses great suspicion and fear and makes people say, who's going to check you? We can't check you, you know, the normal checks and balances don't apply here. You've got to check yourself.

NSA Chief Keith Alexander said something really interesting. He's been quoted on this a lot, during the hearing. He said, "It's much more important for this country to defend itself and take the beating that they're taking right now than for us to give up on a program that helps prevent a future attack."

That's the same mentality that came straight out of 9/11, right?

Yes, and I think it's the wrong one. I think it's more important to continue to exist, survive and flourish as a constitutional democracy that protects itself. Of course it's important that we protect ourselves, but I think most Americans would be surprised by the lack of congressional oversight.

Dianne Feinstein, the Senate chair of the Intelligence Committee, doesn't seem to know enough. The president doesn't seem to know enough. So, who does know enough? This is unacceptable in a democratic society.

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Topics: Europe • Spying • United States

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Allan Kinsman

    Since 911 we have gotten good at one thing. Reducing our freedoms and throwing money at problems under the guise of sorting out those which would attack us. We react to a problem with billions but fail to understand the issues creating the problems to start. Politically the idea of hunting down those who would harm us is great. However, are we creating something worse by having people in the shadows seek out and use these technologies anyway they choose? Now we create systems which are separate from the processes of a democracy. Where will we go from here?

    In recent years I have become weary of the Washington menality. Government is failing us to the degree people are voting those into positions in congress under the flag of change when their ideas are about being obstructive. Reason seems ever further away. Extremists are finding a way into the political process and the middle road has gone far by the wayside. The balance of conversative and liberal to find common ground is gone and the desire of special interests find there way into law. The American who relies on a social fairness to function is being forgotten. We can listen in to conversations of anyone in the world now without our elected officials having any understanding of the process. Hey big brother. We are throwing money at problems now without oversight. Our forefathers wanted an idea to flourish, life, liberty and a puisuit of happiness. What we have now is a government which takes care of special interests and themselves. Each American is stuck trying to find a way to live in a country which is lost and has to watch a show in congress of people with a mountain of problems they have created for us and removed themselves from being touched.

    October 30, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Indeed with this sense of fear and uncertainty, many are prepared to give up their civil rights and liberties in exchange for their security, saying they live in a dangerous world of terror and terrorism. They support well-funded and well-organised intelligence services to keep the world safe.
      Reflecting his police-state mentality, Britain's foreign secretary William Hague said last June that "law-abiding" citizens have "nothing to fear" from the British intelligence services.

      October 31, 2013 at 11:38 am | Reply
  2. Peter

    Democratic society does not / should not mean that foreign secret enemies intelligence networks (such as: Korean, Chinese – the most dangerous and lawless) can without defense operate in our country – and this is the case. That's why we need protection and defense mechanism to keep that enemies secret intelligence networks out of our country – and NATO.

    October 30, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  3. Allan Kinsman

    Lawless is a security agency without oversight. A democracy which has no oversight of it's security agencies seems to me you have created that which you attempt to protect yourself from. An intelligence network running itself according to it's ideology.

    October 30, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  4. JAL

    Great article.

    October 30, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Reply
    • JAL

      I will say that the number of happy politicians is directly proportional to a healthy and strong economy. This way they can spend their time and energy on fixing problems, real problems, like this one.

      October 30, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  5. rightospeak

    One can invent bogeymen behind every tree and justify the most hideous things. What the Europeans are looking for is some CIVILITY,some decency which seems to be lacking in this case. There were the Red Brigades in the past created to justify certain programs. There was even the Murder of Aldo Moro. All means to an end. This time the terrorism thing has gotten out of hand , leaders became arrogant.
    What democratic societies ? Most EU countries are colonies of the Big Capital , they do what the US Oligarchs tell them so now is an opportunity to complain.- the arrogance has gotten too big. Even enslaved nations have their dignity.

    October 30, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  6. Rick McDaniel

    That would be a huge understatement, at best.

    October 30, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Reply
  7. Joseph McCarthy

    Unfortunately, this country is no longer a pure democracy since the all powerful M.I.C. has both the White House and the majority of Congress in it's pocket! In this respect, Fareed Zakaria is right. We sorely need to take this country back but that won't happen as long as the general public is dumb enough to reelect these right-wing fanatics who in turn will bring us only endless wars and a depressed economy!

    October 30, 2013 at 7:44 pm | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      My biggest fear with Obama was not how he might get in to office, but how might eventually get out.

      October 31, 2013 at 12:00 am | Reply
  8. chrissy

    @ RZ, if Congress has their way he will be tarred and feathered! And they're working overtime on that! Of course if they would put half that much energy into doing what they were appointed to do this country might just be in great shape!

    October 31, 2013 at 1:02 am | Reply
  9. myrtlemaylee

    The Sydney Morning Herald has a great story about how Australia, Canada & the Brits, as part of our "Five Eyes intelligence partners", have been using their embassies to help the US spy. It seems that the BBC & the SMH are really digging into the details of the Snowden dump, helping to enlighten the "people" who are outraged only at the US. Great article: www DOT smh DOT com DOT au/federal-politics/political-news/revealed-how-australia-spies-on-its-neighbours-20131030-2whpg DOT html

    October 31, 2013 at 11:21 am | Reply
  10. bobcat2u

    Why is this such a big surprise to everyone ? Nations have been spying on each other for time immemorial. These faux reactions from the leaders who discover that they've been compromised are ridiculous, especially since their own agencies are guilty of the same thing.
    This isn't something that just started and I guarantee it will continue as long as man is on this earth.
    Lt's time to stop all this fake indignity and just face the fact that –it happens.

    October 31, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Reply
    • Genchez19

      Dear bobcat2, the big surprise in the whole of this is that the US has been proved to be the biggest hypocrite. Just to see the noise from their propaganda machine, including CNN, on Chinese spying….all to distract attention from what they are doing.

      Another big surprise is the complete absence of morals, imagine finding out that your best buddy has been investigating and spying on you, intercepting your mails and listening in on your conversations. How will that make you feel?
      And the defines that others do it is flimsy at best. While it is true that most nations have intelligence catering capability, most do not go about deliberately spying on supposedly friends. This is betrayal of trust at its worst.

      November 2, 2013 at 7:31 am | Reply
  11. Genchez19

    it is amazing that President Obama simply happens not to be aware of certain critical things that happen under his watch. He was not aware of Benghazi even though there was live feed of unfolding event in the WH Situation Room; he was not aware of the IRS targeting of those opposed to his political views, he was not aware of the bugging of the German PM. One only wonders what sort of security briefing he gets on a daily basis and if his professed lack of knowledge does not amount o dereliction of duty – AWOL. Blaming some things on others and not taking responsibility for those he cannot blame on others is not leadership. It is called gross incompetence.

    The information gleaned from such eavesdropping activities contribute significantly to shaping policy and it is inconceivable for those that conceive and formulate policies to claim ignorance of the source of critical information. Once once again, the mainstream press has proved to be complicit in this ongoing crime against humanity.

    Imagine the fuss the mainstream press would have raised if it was Bush in office.

    November 2, 2013 at 7:22 am | Reply

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