Dialing down the espionage outrage
1 Nov 2013|

NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, MarylandJulian Assange and Edward Snowden have provided manna from heaven for the army of journalists and editors besotted by spy stories. Sensational disclosures of government secrets and spying activities are splashed all over the media on the assumption that readers, viewers and listeners cannot resist glimpses into the hidden world of international relations.

In the latest episodes, phone-tapping disclosures have had US president Barak Obama on the defensive as wounded allies, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francoise Hollande, demand explanations. Predictably, stories are now emerging that Australia, America’s loyal provincial lapdog, assists Washington’s international eavesdropping operations.

The standard justification for publishing this sort of material is that citizens in open democratic societies have a right to know how their rulers and their intelligence agencies are acting. Moreover, it is argued, it is legitimate public information that helps to check the activities of security agencies, which prefer to operate in the shadows and to over-reach. So the stories tend to be written with suppressed outrage and pious self-righteousness.

This time a handful of American security operators have emerged to defend their activities, and their defence is fundamentally simple: espionage has always been part of the currency of international relations. Everybody does it. And our security and the security of our allies is improved because we do it.

There is great force in this simple defence—just as there is extraordinary naivety in the protests from those leaders who feel they have been victims of foul play from assumed friends. So perhaps it is time to make three basic points about these activities and return to the serious business of the brittleness of the Australian cricket team as the Ashes approaches.

First, the open liberal society does not require the total exposure of all confidential government activities. There is always tension between the demands of publicity and of privacy. For many reasons—political, diplomatic and economic—privacy often needs to be preserved. Unhappily, journalists and editors usually seem unable to resist information obtained surreptitiously. Often they are right to publish it and be to be damned in the public interest, but they should also ask whether publication is in fact in the public interest. There are always competing views about this.

Second, exposure of espionage activities, especially electronic bugging, merely prompts those being bugged to institute counter-measures to foil the bugging. That, in turn, prompts those doing the bugging to develop counter-counter measures so that they can continue to keep tabs on their targets. That reality is as old as the history of espionage. So a main consequence of the exposure is that it eventually costs governments vast amounts of money to overcome counter-measures.

Third, allies would be derelict in their ultimate duty to defend their citizens if they didn’t act aggressively to understand the real inside thinking of other leaders, hostile and friendly. Public diplomacy, conversations between diplomats, and encounters on the cocktail circuit, are all smiling exercises in dissembling, misleading, even lying. To understand the minds of competitors (and co-operators) it may be necessary to tap their phones and to read their mail. Sometimes, of course, those who co-operate on some issues will compete on others.

Australians inclined to outrage over the current espionage stories might ask themselves whether they oppose the covert activities of the Australian Signals Directorate, the Pine Gap facilities, the JORN over-the-horizon radar, satellites, and the Collins-class submarines in monitoring political and military conversations and activities throughout through region.

Should we abandon attempts to understand the minds of leaders in neighboring countries like Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, Japan and the two Koreas? To do so doesn’t imply hostility towards them; it implies legitimate curiosity about their intentions towards us. To paraphrase the late Ronald Reagan, we should trust but verify in a world of ultimately self-serving sovereign states.

Geoffrey Barker is a former defence and diplomatic correspondent with extensive experience in the United States and Europe. Image courtesy of Flickr user Greg Goebel