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We need to reform the way we spy

A friend from Ireland wrote this week saying, “You are the only person I know who ever worked close to the ‘intelligence’ community. One has to wonder about the person who decided that it would be a good idea to tap [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s cellphone, and all the colleagues who went along with him. I do my best to explain the U.S. to my friends here, but you can sometimes make it difficult for some of your closest friends.”

My response:

The controversy over the United States listening in on allied leaders’ conversations seems to show how far we’ve come from the days of Henry L. Stimson, who served as secretary of war to both Republican President William Howard Taft and Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stimson once remarked, “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

I’m not sure snoops ever resisted the urge to read mail if they could get their hands on it, but there are a lot of gentlemen and gentlewomen in the spy business. Many are competent people, as well, but there also are many who lack good judgment and shouldn’t have been hired.

This is evident in the revelations brought to light by the British newspaper, the Guardian, which has published former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaked documents about the NSA’s monitoring of phone and Internet communications.

Let’s review the bidding, starting with the obvious:

• All countries with the capacity to do so spy on each other, but the old excuse “everyone does it” won’t cut it anymore.

• Among friendly countries, there are agreed-upon limits about what is fair game, although many hold the view that, if spying can go undetected, the limits will be quietly breached. One seasoned U.S. intel person observed, “The French complaint made me think of that sarcastic line in the 1942 film, ‘Casablanca,’ about Rick’s place: ‘I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!’ ” How about France’s economic espionage directed against its “friend,” the United States?

• Countries we count among friends will want a non-spying agreement similar to the one between the United States and Britain and a few others. This is mostly window dressing, an arrangement to get out of a disagreeable patch between friends.

• Some spying is evil or unethical, such as pilfering intellectual property. Some is not, such as saving lives of countrymen. High risk must be weighed against the quality of the possible information to be had.

• It takes wise heads to avoid negative consequences. For instance, when I served in government it was proposed that we plant bugs in new computers ordered by a foreign government. We didn’t. They would have been detected.

• The White House indicates that the president did not know about all the spying on friendly leaders, but then one must ask, “Why not?” Sometimes intelligence officials avoid telling the boss so as to give him “plausible deniability.” Of course, he then looks merely stupid, saying things like President Obama did: “We don’t have the balance right,” he said, referring to weighing the downside of spying on someone against the likely value of information so obtained.

• This leads to what the relationship between the spy agencies and the White House is and ought to be. Perhaps some intel people will resign as a sign of the administration’s determination to put an end to this story. Spending more time with one’s family is a Washington preoccupation.

• The Obama administration, Congress and independent groups will examine our intelligence efforts to see where they might be reformed. Resuscitation won’t be easy or quick.

• Strong forces are at work on both sides of the argument: those who believe that just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should do it and those who see dire consequences if we give up some of our intelligence advantages.

One U.S. operative put it to me this way: “Our enemies – and that includes China and Russia as well as the Hydra-headed takfiri groups out there plotting our death and destruction – are laughing out loud at our naive belief in open government. We are making their job of undermining the West so much easier for them when we allow secrets to be revealed and fight among ourselves to see who is most virtuous in the dark world of intelligence.”

Michael D. Langan is retired and lives in Naples, Fla., after a varied career. He’s been a laborer for Bethlehem Steel, headmaster of Nardin Academy, vice president of Canisius College, chief of staff to a congressman, senior adviser to the under secretary for enforcement for the U.S. Treasury Department, senior expert monitoring al-Qaida and the Taliban for the United Nations and senior adviser for security for Time Warner Inc.