Another Perspective

Yankee Doodle Came to Town

Hysteria about the NSA is naïve.

By 11.25.13


The NSA’s ability to intercept electronic communications worldwide is actually the hope and ambition of every other comparable service around the globe. America’s enemies (overt and otherwise) are many, so it is only logical that the U.S. government would want to have the ability to know everything it can about the communications of those aligned against them. Unfortunately it is impossible to track the bad guys without invading the privacy of others whose countries are used covertly as sites for various aspects of what is most succinctly referred to as bad guy activity logistics: finance, cover, safe havens and weapon supplies, etc. (This means having access to domestic exchanges, though access does not necessarily, an indeed rarely does, mean monitoring—both in legal and functional terms the distinction is essential.) 

It’s a vast job requiring vast resources. Alas, its vastness was never supposed to be public knowledge. One talented but unscrupulous traitor has changed that and given impetus to an explosion of righteous indignation even from the many sister services that had been profiting from shared information.

Heinrich Wefing of the prominent German publication, Die Zeit ,wrote last month: “The German-American friendship was the most powerful myth of the Federal Republic. Now, after the wiretap affair, it’s over for good.” The key word here is “myth.” The only true friendship that has existed since the end of World War II between these two nations has been one of convenience. To suggest otherwise is at best political fudging and at worst naïveté. Any German politician, strategic analyst, or intelligence officer who thinks differently must have no knowledge of history.

International friendships are transient, some more, some less. Ask the British. President Eisenhower proved this true when he condemned the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956. Does anyone really think that lesson has been forgotten among America’s closest allies? The conflict between interests and friendships has been passed down by each succeeding foreign and defence department. Lamentable perhaps, but true. 

Nation states exist to protect and empower their interests as determined by their leadership, democratic or totalitarian. The degree and extent of altruism in the politics of each government changes with time and circumstance. Individual morality has never been confused with national need. As much as it may be regretted, even the Judeo-Christian ethic only applies in world affairs when convenient and applicable by the proponent. 

The fact that the United States has the ability electronically to intercept most of the world’s communications has brought a deluge of journalistic and political comment attacking the U.S. government. Perhaps the broadest condemnation has come from William Pfaff, the renowned historian and internationally syndicated columnist. Even the al-Qaeda objective of radical Islamic terrorism to reinstate the caliphates of many centuries ago does not justify our intelligence gathering activities. He appears to suggest that the preoccupation by Washington with this danger is quite misplaced. To him the potential of radical Islam and its sponsoring states conquest of southern Europe is a fantasy.

This mischaracterization of the operational justification for the NSA operation does pose a legitimate question, however, regarding the extent the Washington administrations responsible considered the potential of compromise of the program. There is no question that the intent of the NSA’s broad category of communications interception and decryption is to filter out and discover exchanges that fit patterns of terrorist and general belligerent content. To do this effectively global internet activity had to be targeted, albeit with a strong degree of discrimination. This is the basis of the NSA activity.

Interception of communications has been an essential component of intelligence gathering since ancient times. As the electronic world has evolved, the need for more technically sophisticated interception has become necessary. The process is not anything new in intelligence. What is new is the electronic ability to gather, collate, analyze and evaluate the take before any human intervention and, ultimately, action. 

Nations other than the United States are, to varying degrees, capable of the kind of activity exposed recently. Would they have gone as far as the United States if they could? Certainly, if they could afford it. One can be sure the Chinese and Russians are rushing to catch up. This is after all the intelligence business—and everyone does it. In this rare instance the U.S. just has done it better than anyone else.

The constitutional lawyers may have a field day with the legalities involved in the acquisition and storage of the domestic intelligence “product,” but the international operations are an altogether different matter. One hopes that Mr. Pfaff and his friends living in Europe don’t think they are immune to EU-based national electronic surveillance operations—to say nothing of operations conducted by Russia and other technologically capable countries. 

PS: Hasn’t China already invaded Google?

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.