The spy game

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(HOST) Lately, commentator Olin Robison has been thinking a great deal about domestic surveillance and the laws that govern it.

(ROBISON) Many many years ago when I was much younger than I am now I worked in the State Department and was privileged to have some rather exceptional security clearances. Even though the “intelligence” both was and is restricted to a “need-to-know” distribution I had all these special clearances so that I could see all – or most all – of the stuff meant for my boss who was a very high ranking Undersecretary of State.

I remember several things about it.

First, it was a “rush” to know that you knew all sorts of things before Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather did. That was terribly satisfying.

But much of the rest of what I remember was troubling then
and is even more so in retrospect.

I remember how much of it was trivial and frequently just plain wrong. But the fact that it was so highly classified frequently meant that those who knew or believed the intel to be wrong couldn’t even discuss it with others lest one violate the trust involved in having the security clearances.

A direct result of this was to skew judgments always toward worse-case interpretations and all too often those pessimistic interpretations determined actions, actions that sometimes had life and death implications. It is an uncontested fact that security people are paid to be suspicious. They are folks who always see the glass as half empty. You do not rise high in the CIA by being
an optimist about human behavior.

A corollary pattern during those Cold War years was that policy makers and ranking politicians could and frequently did justify what they did on the grounds that they knew things the
rest of us didn’t know and that justified whatever it was
that they were doing or advocating.

Well, dear friends, we are right back there again. There are, of course, differences this time, but the basic pattern is the

The invasion of Iraq was justified on the basis of intelligence
which even the President now concedes was wrong. And now
the President has publicly justified electronic eavesdropping on Americans because of information the rest of us are not privy to. The implication, of course, is that if we did know what the President knows, we wouldn’t be making a fuss about it.

Well, dear friends, that just doesn’t wash any more. There has been from the time of the Truman Administration forward what is privately (and politically incorrectly) referred to in Washington as “a Chinese Wall” between spying on foreigners and spying on Americans.

It is conceivable that these matters need to be revisited by the Congress. A part of the current administration rationale for
what is now going on is that the nature of the enemy has changed. The enemy is no longer a state or state-sponsored group. And so we, in this case the US Government, must change with the times.

Well, I am personally skeptical of that but maybe I am wrong. In any case, I think the White House ought either to conform to the law as it now stands or persuade the Congress to change it.

But revisiting the old Cold War paranoia really isn’t enough.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and of Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.

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