Small World: Getting caught snooping

Henry Prect

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

“Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail,” Secretary of State Stimson announced in 1929 after the government Cipher Office was shut down. That quaint admonition wasn’t true then and it hadn’t been true since Greece made war on Troy. It certainly hasn’t governed the behavior of any modern American administration – gentlemanly or not.

Spying is what we are talking about. It comes in basically two forms, human intelligence and technical means. Humint (human intelligence) usually means recruiting a person of influence and putting him (or her) on the payroll to provide information about a foreign regime, its supporters or opponents. These informants have to be paid generously or inspired ideologically for they are in most countries putting their lives on the line.

At the other end of the info-gathering spectrum are the technical means of collection. These range from simple phone taps, to microwave intercepts, to the phenomenally large harvesting of all telephone and email messages with or without the cooperation of firms and agencies that manage such communication. The world began to learn of the scope of this activity by American agencies when a contract employee, Edward Snowden, defected with a bundle of super secret documents.

These papers purported to show that American ears were listening in on the cell phones of such friends as Brazilian and Mexican presidents and crowds of ordinary French and Spanish folk. The Brazilian cancelled a state visit and others called in U.S. ambassadors for a chewing out. Perhaps other nations were doing the same thing to us but hardly with the reach and prowess of a super power. These data sweeps also apparently have — official testimony is fuzzy or fudged — involved American citizens, that without a court order, may be a violation of law.

The consequent flare-ups of foreign (and domestic) outrage tend to fade from the front page over time. So what’s the problem? All of us, especially perhaps diplomats, are used to being embarrassed and, then, moving on. Has any real damage been done?

I think so. Two harms result. We proclaim our country operates on a higher moral plain than those ruled by autocrats and other nasties, who have no appreciation for the values of a democracy. We think we are the “gentlemen” Secretary Stimson spoke of. To be accused of hypocrisy stings.

The second harm is more practical; it is the loss of trust by friends. If we are sneakily reading their leaders’ mail, what other devilry might we be up to?

How did we allow ourselves to be sucked into this dismal swamp of dirty work? What has happened since Secretary Simpson’s day? I would suggest two unintended changes in the way our government (and society) works:

First, we have come to worship technology. If we have the know-how and devices for eavesdropping on the top leaders of Germany and 35 other places, who is old fashioned enough to say we shouldn’t do it? If we develop a deadly new weapon, why not use it against an enemy? Thus, we used the atom bomb, cluster bombs, depleted uranium shells, drones — all of which kill innocent civilians, but also, we plan, enemy cadres.

Second, we place an extraordinary high value on information, especially information acquired covertly. How are we better off knowing what the German chief thinks of her cabinet members or what she intends to say to the Russian leader? If a State Department diplomat suffers through a lot of dull dinners and receptions and records the impressions he has picked up in a cable to Washington, why is that judged less valuable than if a CIA agent had paid a foreign official for what he has heard?

The work of our spies — don’t get me wrong — is sometimes timely and valuable. But we run great risks in acquiring illicit information. And those risks can be perniciously damaging — as we are currently experiencing and have experienced in the past. We rarely learn from those soured risks. We turn a page and promise ourselves to do better next time. But, we don’t.

We don’t because we don’t think whether we might get along without pilfered secrets. Do we really need 16 separate agencies costing annually $83 billion to harvest non-essential information?

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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