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Intel Collection

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With due respect to Charles Pierce… 

There is no better mainstream reporter on this stuff than Charlie Savage, my old colleague at The Boston Globe who now writes for the Times. (Hell, there’s no better reporter on any beat anywhere.) He’s read Greenwald’s book and, putting silly personality quibbles aside, has mined it for some fascinating details.

The American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, asked the National Security Agency for help “so that she could develop a strategy,” a leaked agency document shows. The N.S.A. swiftly went to work, developing the paperwork to obtain legal approval for spying on diplomats from four Security Council members – Bosnia, Gabon, Nigeria and Uganda – whose embassies and missions were not already under surveillance. The following month, 12 members of the 15-seat Security Council voted to approve new sanctions, with Lebanon abstaining and only Brazil and Turkey voting against.

You’d have to be blind and/or foolish not to recognize that an informed citizenry might benefit one day from the knowledge that our spying may have queered the diplomatic pitch around the world — Gee, I sure hope, say, Nigeria isn’t too offended that we bugged its embassy. It seems to be in the news a lot these days. — and that the information would be central to the decision to elect, or to re-elect, a president of the United States. None of this has anything to do with whether or not you’d invite Glenn Greenwald to tea, or where Snowden ended up. These are things we needed to know. The truth is supposed to make you free, not comfortable.

Thoughts:

  1. “Might benefit one day” is different than “benefit right now,” and given that the question of sanctions against Iran continues to touch upon US national interests, I think we’re still comfortably within “right now.”
  2. In this case, it does not appear that spying “may have queered the pitch;” rather, it seems that public revelation of spying may someday “queer the pitch.”
  3. It strikes me as exceedingly unlikely that anything more than a vanishingly small proportion of the US electorate will be moved to change its voting behavior by news that the United States spies on the diplomatic communications of various members of the United Nations Security Council.
  4.  It’s not obvious to me that revealing that the United States intercepts the diplomatic communications of other countries “makes me free” in any meaningful sense.

I’m not convinced that “we needed to know” is even the right frame for comprehending the fact that the United States intercepts the diplomatic communications of other countries in an effort to improve its bargaining position in international fora. “We” already knew, and by that “we” I mean more than the small community of people who intensively studies military and intelligence affairs.  Conducting intelligence gathering operations against the diplomatic services of other countries is something that I expect my intelligence services to do.  I expect foreign intelligence agencies (even those of our allies!) to conduct similar operations against the United States.  The precise nature of these operations, including targets and methods, seems to fall very comfortably within the concept of “legitimate secrecy,” in which public knowledge of an otherwise sensible intelligence gathering effort makes that effort impossible.  Legitimate secrecy shouldn’t provide a cloak for intelligence services and executives to do anything that they want, but intelligence collection in the service of developing targeted appeals for members of the UNSC isn’t even close to the line.

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