European Intelligence Agencies Not Surprised by NSA Surveillance

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman in Boston. This is The World. It's not just Americans who want an explanation from President Obama about US government surveillance programs. So do many Europeans. And today in Germany, President Obama tried to address that.

Barack Obama: Our current programs are bound by the rule of law, and they're focused on threats to our security, not the communications of ordinary persons. They help confront real dangers and they keep people safe here in the United States and here in Europe.

Werman: The President was referring, of course, to the NSA's recently revealed data mining operations, which collect vast amounts of information about both international phone and Internet traffic. That raised concerns among many Europeans about possible intrusions into their privacy. Investigative reporter Sebastian Rotella of ProPublica is in Europe where he's been talking with various intelligence agencies. So Sebastian, what's their reaction to these NSA revelations?

Sebastian Rotella: Well, it's an interesting mix of reactions. I think in general among people who are involved in intelligence and counter-terrorism, there's a bit of surprise. I think they're surprised that this is such big news and is seen as scandalous, in the sense that this is something that they've known about for some time and had the impression that it was reasonably well known in the United States and they understood it to be generally something that's within the law. And I think people, again, who are in this profession are quite aware of the high tech counter-terror capacities of US intelligence agencies because they have benefited from them, in fact.

Werman: We'll talk about the cooperation between the US and Europe, intelligence agencies, in a sec, but let's dig into what the big differences are between the American approach to intelligence gathering and the European approach. Explain the big differences.

Rotella: Well, and we're talking here specifically and particularly about when it comes to Islamic terrorism. So in general the Europeans have had to really develop webs of domestic intelligence that are quite aggressive by US standards, and quite widespread, and there's much more emphasis on developing a lot of human sources that are well-placed in mosques, in extremist networks, in book stores, in all kinds of, in neighborhoods. The way that people watch networks, the way that these agencies watch these networks is much more through having sources. Obviously there's intercepts and wiretaps as well, but you just don't have these incredible technological capacities to vacuum up lots and lots of information the way the US does. So the European approach has always been more at the street level.

Werman: The distinction you would say is really between human intelligence gathering in Europe and signal intelligence gathering here, kind of like the metadata that we've been hearing about. Does that imply kind of a disconnect between American and European intelligence? Are they able to talk the same spy language?

Rotella: I think they do actually complement each other well. In fact, I've covered a lot of cases where it's interesting to see the interplay where there is reasonably good teamwork, and that has increased enormously out of necessity in the decade since 9/11.

Werman: So Sebastian, give us a few juicy bits here. What are some of the terror plots that have been foiled thanks to US and European cooperation?

Rotella: One I know about pretty well was an interesting network in 2007. It was a terrorist cell of Frenchmen and Belgians that coalesced around a woman named Malika El Aroud who was kind of an icon in Al Qaeda because her husband in 2001 had carried out a suicide bombing that had killed an anti-Taliban leader in Afghanistan. But what was interesting, this happened over the course of about a year and a half, was that they were being watched every step of the way, both by on the ground surveillance by the Belgians and the French, but also NSA and other kinds of US intercepts allowed investigators to track the evolution of this group and of this threat in almost real time. And there are quite a few cases like that where you have, it's actually the American services that come to the Spanish or the Swiss, and say we are aware of these two extremists who are talking about nefarious activities via the Internet. And they know that not because they have sources on the ground in Europe but because there is monitoring through the computer servers in the United States. So there's a number of cases where you see this kind of teamwork almost by necessity when these networks are global, function that way.

Werman: Sebastian Rotella, investigative reporter with ProPublica, speaking with us from Spain. Thank you.

Rotella: My pleasure. Thank you.