Interview Conducted By Jörg Schindler, Alfred Weinzierl and Peter Müller
In an interview, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, 60, warns that American spying has become “boundless” and expresses sorrow that approval ratings for the United States have plummeted in Germany.
The following is an excerpt from a longer interview conducted with German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière.
SPIEGEL: Minister de Maizière, nine weeks ago at the Munich Security Conference you demanded that the United States provide detailed information about its spying activities in Germany. Have you received anything from them yet?
De Maizière: The information we have received thus far is insufficient. That remains my opinion. The US’ surveillance measures are largely a result of its security needs, but they are being implemented in an excessive, boundless fashion.
SPIEGEL: How did you come to this conclusion?
De Maizière: If even two-thirds of what Edward Snowden has presented or what has been presented with his name cited as the source is true, then I would conclude that the USA is operating without any kind of boundaries.
SPIEGEL: Are you hopeful that anything will change in the near future — perhaps when Chancellor Angela Merkel visits President Barack Obama in May?
De Maizière: I have low expectations that further talks will prove to be successful. But of course these talks are continuing.
SPIEGEL: So you don’t expect a no-spy agreement to result from these discussions?
De Maizière: Going by everything that I’ve heard, that’s the case.
SPIEGEL: If you’ll allow us: We’ve been learning about the NSA’s activities through Snowden for 10 months now and none of the pledges made by the Americans have been fulfilled. Why not just use Germany’s own counterintelligence authority to uncover the extent of the Americans’ activity?
De Maizière: Counterespionage work cannot be the subject of an interview with SPIEGEL. Please understand that. If all of our suspicions are correct, everything that we are discussing right now isn’t even taking place on German soil. That also makes it difficult to assess. However, I do want state again that cooperation between the intelligence services of the United States, Great Britain and Germany is indispensable to us. It is in our national interest and it cannot be allowed to be harmed — not even through the parliament’s investigative committee.
SPIEGEL: Where is there a threat that damage will be done?
De Maizière: I am thinking of the foreign policy damage. Because the greater damage has actually been inflicted by the Americans and not the Germans. And I say this as a staunch trans-Atlanticist. Approval ratings for Americans in German polls are lower right now than they have been in a long time. The last time this was the case was during a certain phase of the policies of George W. Bush. It saddens me. Even if Obama’s initial popularity may have been exaggerated, the US cannot be apathetic to the fact that approval ratings have shifted to such a degree within just one year. America should have an interest in improving them. Words alone will not suffice.
SPIEGEL: In internal documents, Britain’s GCHQ intelligence service spoke of “mastering the Internet“. Does that worry you?
De Maizière: Yes, it worries all of us. The Internet, and this is one of its true strengths, depends on freedom. But the explosive propagation of communication has led to problems of order and choice — a situation that has been exacerbated by the market power of corporations. Because if a net provider and a content provider join forces, then they can steer the Internet and determine its content. So I don’t even need to be talking about state censorship here.
SPIEGEL: You believe that private companies represent a greater threat than state institutions?
De Maizière: Yes. I find a country’s unrestrained collection of information, even for the sake of exaggerated security need, to be less objectionable than the capture of all movement profiles, thoughts and emotions by people for the sake of business interests.
SPIEGEL: Can politics influence this development?
De Maizière: In the case of the USA, for example, we would like to address this through the so-called cyber dialogue that Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has proposed to his US colleagues.
SPIEGEL: What can we expect there?
De Maizière: We want to discuss questions, together with experts, about the reform of the digital agenda: What happens when so-called back-doors are built into operating systems — gateways through which the agencies can get onto a computer? How can we create a secure cloud? How does artificial intelligence compare to human intelligence? What about the recognition of emotion? Are there, as in the stem-cell debate, limits that should not be crossed?
SPIEGEL: The technical components that make up the online world primarily come from two large companies: Cisco in the United States and Huawei in China. What does that mean for the critical infrastructure of a country like Germany?
De Maizière: We are a country with open borders in the middle of Europe. To think we could be self-contained in any way, we can forget that. On the other hand, we should ask ourselves whether a country of our size requires a modicum of self-monitoring and independence — even in the form of an enlightened patriotism. The chancellor and, for example, the foreign minister, need to be able to have a conversation that is secure enough that no foreign country can listen to it. We can’t be dependent on an industry that, in the worst case, is working together, in this area, with a different country.
SPIEGEL: What might a solution look like?
De Maizière: It has technical, economic and legal aspects. An example: We have a foreign trade law through which can prohibit certain sales of products by individual companies for reasons of national interest. We need to examine how this law works in the digital age and if it should be expanded.
SPIEGEL: Would a modified law mean that companies that aren’t trusted are excluded from open bidding?
De Maizière: Not with this law. But that would also be a possibility.