The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

From Snowden Crash to Anathem

July 1, 2013

Germany benefits from US signal intelligence. When we consider the widespread industrial espionage carried out by the Chinese, it is helpful to remember France’s extensive track record of stealing secrets from its friends and neighbors.* Israel is a major espionage threat to the United States. The British collect a lot of intelligence on allies and adversaries, even if deploying fake rocks in Russia might not have been the best idea in the history of spying. Russian and Chinese spying should require little in the way of elaboration: they both engage in a lot of it. There’s nothing unusual about all of this. International espionage implicates friends and foes in a web of  conflict and cooperation. In other words, US Secretary of State John Kerry is right:

Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday said he would look into claims the National Security Agency bugged offices of the European Union, but downplayed the reports, saying such spycraft is “not unusual.”

“Every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs of national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that,” Kerry said at a news conference in Brunei, according to the BBC.

“All I know is that is not unusual for lots of nations. But beyond that I’m not going to comment any further until I have all the facts and find out precisely what the situation is,” he added.

So what does it mean that EU and European officials are expressing outrage over the latest revelations from Ed Snowden? Maybe they’re really angry. After all, it is one thing to know that the US is collecting information on your policies, preferences, motives, and dispositions. It is another to face revelations that US agencies read your emails, tap your phone calls, and listen to your private meetings.Maybe they have to be really angry because that’s what their public expects. Or perhaps this provides an opportunity to exert pre-bargaining leverage in the upcoming free-trade agreement negotiations.

Regardless, I think it is time for Snowden’s defenders to admit that we’re well beyond whistle blowing. Whatever one thinks of disclosing information on the US domestic surveillance regime — what with its questionable oversight and legal justification — leaking information on US foreign espionage serves little purpose other than to harm American interests. I’m sure there’s some kind of argument about cosmopolitan ethics here… but I’m having trouble seeing one that isn’t hopelessly utopian. Even if we stipulate that the US should not be spying on its allies, that the alleged espionage crossed a de facto line in terms of their intrusiveness, or that the US is at fault for having engaged in it in the first place, that doesn’t make disclosing this kind of information right or appropriate.

Actually, I’m not entirely sure how to characterize Snowden’s more recent disclosures. I agree with Hertzberg that they don’t make him a “traitor” in the framer’s sense of the word. I suppose the relevant calculus is simply that “whistleblowing” no longer applies, and thus that particular moral shield is gone. Snowden is now, for bette or worse, no different from any other spy who goes “rogue.”

*I can assure you that I am well aware of the irony involved in linking to stories based on leaks, including wikileak documents, in this post. [back]

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.