Spying on Our Allies?

Over the last couple of years we've been treated to a steady diet of stories in the media about how America's intelligence agencies have been spying on nearly everyone including our allies. The agencies that are getting the most attention are the NSA and the CIA. The NSA's vast electronic intelligence gathering apparatus has allegedly gone so far as to monitor the phone calls of Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel. And the German government recently ordered the CIA's Berlin Station Chief to leave the country a few days after the arrest of a German citizen who is suspected of selling secrets to the CIA. It seems to me that it's a brave new intelligence world, one that appears to be completely out of control.

I don't want to overstate my own credentials here, so let me be clear. I was a Sergeant in the Army's intelligence branch. I was trained as a Russian linguist and an electronic warfare intercept operator before being stationed at Field Station Berlin from August of 1983 through June of 1986. My job was to monitor the communications of the Soviet military. We did that in a variety of ways which are likely still classified - no need to go into any of that here. What we did NOT engage in, what was strictly forbidden at least at my operational level, was monitoring the communications of Americans or the communications of our allies. There were rules that were made quite clear to us regarding such activity, and the sanctions for violating those rules would have been severe.

Look, I'm not so naive as to think that back during the Cold War we never spied on our allies . What I'm saying is I wasn't doing it and, so far as I know, the men and women I worked with weren't doing it either. What I'm also saying is that my sense is that such activity does far more harm than good, that nowadays it seems massive in scale, and at the same time almost routine in execution. Maybe the Cold War was different. You sort of knew who was on your side and who was on the other side. Hell, the Commies even built a big-ass wall to make it clear where the line between the two sides was. Maybe that clarity is impossible to achieve today so we cast the widest net possible and too damn bad if some of our friends get caught up in that net. Well, from my limited perspective, spying on our friends is both bad policy and of dubious benefit. I'd rather see us focus on the people, and there are plenty of them, whose politics and actions make it clear which side of the 21st century's virtual wall they're on.