Do Not Read Each Other’s Mail

October 29, 2013, 4:57 pm

Henry Stimson
Henry Lewis Stimson cph 3b21803

David Kurtz, writing for Talking Points Memo, quotes Dianne Feinstein:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, declares: “Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers.”

He titles the post “Unilateral Disarmament?” Much of the discussion around the American bugging of (among others) Angela Merkel, PM of Germany, has centered around the idea that since everyone might be doing it, we should be as well. Example here. It’s all impressively Realpolitik and stuff. Hard men doing hard but necessary things to get an advantage. It would be more impressive it it didn’t exactly echo (at a much lower and less critical level) the debate over torture during the Bush Administration. That was supposed to be for an advantage, as well. Hard men, etc. These kind of incidents always get weighed down in the practical discussion: does it work? Does it help? They thus skip right by the entire question – an ethical one rather than a practical one – of whether we should be doing it in the first place. Even if it does give us an advantage, should the United States be spying on the leaders of its allies? That’s a question worth considering for this, the supposed city upon a hill. It can’t be answered with the practical “well, it works.” Lots of things work, but that doesn’t mean they’re ethical.

Henry Stimson’s (gendered) declaration that “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail” seems naive in this day and age, and it should be noted that Stimson reversed himself post-Pearl Harbor because of the exigencies of total war. But we are not in a grand global war at the moment, with our very existence at stake. Absent that existential threat, perhaps we might think about whether Stimson had a point.

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