Who is allowed to spy?

A common response to the revelations of unbridled electronic surveillance by the NSA and its anglophone Five Eyes compadres (don’t they have two each? Is this some Graeae thing, where Obama keeps all the eyes locked up in the Oval Office and shares them out as needed? He certainly keeps charge of the tooth…) has been that those who are shocked were simply naïve, and those who weren’t naïve are only pretending to be shocked, for political show, to fool the rubes who are shocked. After all, they say, everyone knows that it’s just the job of spy agencies to suck up all the information they can. Political leaders like Angela Merkel know perfectly well the extent of electronic surveillance, even if some details — like the fact that they themselves were targets — escaped their notice.

So, what are the ethics of espionage?

I understand that appeals to naked power and self-interest are perfectly conventional in international relations*; if Obama and Cameron want to say, we’re big and tough, we have nuclear bombs and world-shaking economies (except for Cameron), so we get to listen in on your phone calls just because we want to, and you should return our runaway spy who revealed what we were doing because you don’t want to face our wrath, we could consider that argument on its own terms.

But Obama and Cameron and their lickspittles claim to be making a moral case: NSA and GCHQ are law-bound agencies, protecting decent people from the forces of darkness, and Edward Snowden is an outlaw, and a dirty traitor to boot.

But imagine a different Edward Snowden. This one was born to Ivan Snowdinsky, who changed his name to John Snowden when he came to the US in the 1970s as a KGB spy. Young Edward pretended to be an ordinary American, but secretly he burned with love for Mother Russia. He directed his career to develop the skills that he could use to infiltrate the dastardly American espionage services. Finally, at age 29, he got the job he wanted. He took all the files he could find and fled for Russia, turning all of  his thumb drives over to Vladimir Putin personally in a secret GRU award ceremony. All of them. Not just the public-interest stuff that our pusillanimous journalists have published. Operations. Methods. Technical data. Everything.

Do we suppose that David Cameron would have said, “Good on you. That’s great espionage you did there.” And would have mocked anyone who said it was unethical to lie to putative allies, violate their laws, and steal their confidential information, all for the purpose of attaining a military or commercial advantage? “Everyone does it,” our alternative-world David Cameron would say, in a joint press conference with the US president. At which Obama would add. “The good ones don’t get caught. Those Russians are the best. We need to learn from their methods.”

Just as the moral case for free access of medical personal to troubled regions is undermined when the CIA smuggles in agents disguised as doctors dispensing vaccines, so the moral case for international cooperation in law enforcement — incredibly important as it is for our security — is powerfully undermined when international power politics masquerades as law enforcement.

* Lewis Thomas’s essay ‘The Iks”, in his book The Lives of a Cell, is an intriguing meditation on the differences between conceptions of morality in the interpersonal and international contexts.

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