Guy W. Farmer: News flash: Governments spy on one another

Given my vast (or maybe it’s only half-vast) experience with the federal government, I’m going to reveal a really Big Secret today: Governments spy on each other all the time. Are you shocked? Me neither.

We see an outbreak of “gee whiz” journalism every time a spy story hits Page One. After all, what’s more fun than covering secret stuff? I remember a major scandal in the 1960s when we discovered that the FBI was bugging and wiretapping Nevada casino owners. That’s when then-Gov. Grant Sawyer called J. Edgar Hoover a “Nazi,” which didn’t go over all that well with the legendary FBI director. But I digress.

The latest spy scandal grew out of revelations by the anti-American website WikiLeaks to the effect that the U.S. government has been spying on foreign governments and their leaders, even listening to some of their phone calls. While a few Blame America Firsters want to nominate WikiLeaks chief leaker Edward Snowden, an American citizen, for the Nobel Peace Prize, I think he should return to the U.S. and defend himself against espionage charges. Instead, this gutless wonder is a “guest” of Russia, where he’s probably helping Vladimir Putin to spy on his fellow citizens.

Am I being too harsh on Snowden, a 30-year-old high school dropout who was a National Security Agency contractor when he decided to go public with top-secret national security material? I don’t think so because Snowden took the same oath I did to keep the secrets. I kept the secrets, but he didn’t, and that’s why I feel so strongly about his betrayal.

But let’s return to the latest international spying scandal. According to the mainstream media, our European and Asian allies are upset with us for listening to their leaders’ phone calls. German Prime Minister Angela Merkel was reportedly so upset that she called President Obama to complain about the WikiLeaks revelations. Obama replied that he didn’t know anything about such clandestine activities. He doesn’t know much about Benghazi, IRS targeting of conservatives or the Obamacare website disaster either, but I digress again.

“It stretches credulity to think that the U.S. was spying on foreign leaders without the president’s knowledge,” wrote veteran Washington Post foreign correspondent Dana Milbank. Yes it does, and for its part USA Today added that “some of these nations doth protest too much. They either spy on the U.S. themselves, or would if they could. In today’s world it’s naïve to think that some electronic eavesdropping is not necessary, or that the U.S. is the only country doing it.” Well said!

After all, Snowden last week published information about an alleged “Stateroom” program in which U.S., British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand embassies secretly house surveillance equipment to collect electronic communications, which they share. Come to think of it, we had a pretty sizeable communications section at the U.S. Embassy in Canberra, Australia, in the early 1990s, so “Stateroom” shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows anything about foreign affairs or international diplomacy.

I recognize the delicate balance between national security and the right of privacy, but given a choice, I’ll opt for enhanced national security measures provided that Congress and the courts are monitoring the activities of the intelligence community. And while I oppose the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, I want our intelligence agencies to collect as much information as possible about foreign-based terrorist plots. Such properly supervised intelligence activities are absolutely essential in a dangerous world.

Guy W. Farmer of Carson City is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer.


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