American soft power is undermined by allegations of widespread spying
Kevin Rafferty says the actions of US spy chiefs bring their own 'intelligence' into question
Many years ago when I was the founder editor of a daily newspaper in Malaysia, I was tipped off that the country's spy agency was tapping my office telephone. I was flattered.
These were the days before mobiles, so it was a complicated exercise to pick out a switchboard extension and quite an honour to be singled out by an agency that had limited capacity. My source said they could tap fewer than 100 telephones.
Why my blatherings about the daily task of producing a new newspaper should be of any interest or yield anything of value to anyone, I never understood. When I was told that the spy agency continued to tap my telephone at least 10 months after I had left Malaysia, I lost respect for both the intelligence (meaning brain power) and intelligence (spying results) of intelligence agencies.
The performances of the US spy chiefs before Congress this week yielded few surprises, but left many real questions about their intelligence.
General Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, claimed that his agency's swoop on the telephone calls and e-mails of millions of people was keeping America safe from terrorism. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, defended tapping foreign leaders' telephone calls on the grounds that it helped to know the intentions of foreign leaders.
Spying has always gone on. Moses sent spies into Canaan to "see what the land is like and whether the people living there are strong or weak … do their cities have walls round them or not?" Successful spies have often meant the difference between victory and defeat in war.
The coming of the internet and the speed of technological change have made conventional spies like James Bond redundant. Technologically strong governments don't need an intrepid hero to plant a bug or seduce a pretty secretary to know what is going on in a distant foreign capital. They can eavesdrop electronically and mop up zillions of transmissions of e-mails and telephones.
We should not be surprised about spying on such a scale. Bernard Squarcini, former head of French intelligence, said: "The Americans spy on French commercial and industrial interests, and we do the same to them because it's in the national interest to protect our companies." That's a particularly French, and Chinese, corporate view.
We should not be surprised that macho boys given hi-tech toys and the task of keeping the country safe from terrorists do not hesitate to use them. Nevertheless, there are important questions that should be asked.
The sheer scale and intrusiveness of the spying does boggle the mind. The latest claims that the NSA has secretly broken into the main communication links that connect Google and Yahoo centres around the world suggest that no one is safe from Big Brother, American or not.
There is still the question of how smart the intelligence agencies are and how they deal with the mass of data they collect. Their super-computers use sophisticated algorithms to sort out the few grains of wheat from the trillions of pieces of chaff flying at them.
But interpretation is still a tricky business. Presumably potential terrorists have learned to use code, so it is only innocents who would say that the play was a real bomb.
There are overarching questions as to whether all people in the world, whether non-Americans or Americans, should be legitimate targets. There are questions, fudged in the congressional hearings, as to whether the spy agencies are looking for terrorists or are trying to protect or discover commercial secrets, or are just playing with their powerful toys. Angela Merkel could hardly be accused of being a terrorist or of being a corporate wheeler-dealer.
Behind this question lies the age-old issue posed by the Romans - who will guard the guards?
The US needs to ask some tough questions of President Barack Obama: was he being economical with the truth in claiming not to know about the tapping of Merkel's telephone? Or was he asleep on the job? Or did his spy agencies cut him out?
In the US, the official watchdogs supposed to check the spy agencies seem to have become tame pussycats.
The more the spy chiefs try to pretend that they are merely doing their job to protect the country, the more they will seem to lack the basic intelligence. needed to be doing the job.
Obama and the US have to face several dangerous consequences of being caught with their spying pants down. As Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore write in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, revelations of massive spying "undermine Washington's ability to act hypocritically and get away with it".
Hypocrisy, they contend, is crucial to America's soft power, but by their stubborn attitudes Obama and his spy chiefs risk throwing away the remaining trust in US leadership.
Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University