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The Etiquette of War and Surveillance
Posted on Oct 12, 2013
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
Tabled in Kalamazoo
Dear Tabled in Kalamazoo,
That table is quite real. I saw one once. I obviously can’t say where, though it held a set of bunker-busting missiles. I should add that it is not a table in the normal sense—i.e., one of those four-legged, flat-topped structures we tend to place in our dining rooms or kitchens. Again, I can say no more. Rest assured, however, that when the president says “all options are on the table,” he means it. And you are quite accurate in pointing out that on such tables “all” the options are indeed military. Though always referred to in the singular, in reality, there are a number of such tables for each country mentioned; the Syrian ones, for example, hold Tomahawk missiles and B-2 bombers; the Iranian ones, those bunker-busters, among other major weapons systems.
I don’t know if you noticed, but on the night before the recent government shutdown, the Pentagon went on a buying spree, dumping $5 billion into the accounts of major weapons makers (and others). According to someone I trust in Washington, the intelligence community similarly dipped into its black budget accounts and bought a number of things, including at least three back-up “option tables” at a cost of millions of dollars. (Again, I can’t tell you exactly how much.) Unfortunately, you cannot purchase such products for your store. The good news is that neither can IKEA.
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Col. Manners (ret.)
Dear Col. Manners,
I have to ask for your discretion, for reasons that will quickly become apparent. There are 12 documented cases in which a National Security Agency employee used NSA surveillance programs to hack into a partner’s, lover’s, or romantic interest’s email or listen in on his or her phone calls. And this is generally considered just “the tip of the iceberg.” I am a civilian employee of the NSA. Consider me the unlucky thirteenth case. I know that such acts are sardonically known as LoveINT, but in my case that wasn’t it. As I’ve told my former partner, I just wanted to know if she and a friend of ours were planning a surprise birthday party for me. (I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to be caught off-guard.)
The Agency took no action against me, but my partner has never forgiven me. (She’s now living with our former mutual friend.) She still insists that I should apologize. I consider this irrational. I say that no harm was done. I’ve pointed out to her that the NSA hacked into the emails and phone calls of Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, and the president of the United States has refused to apologize. His only response was to launch a many months-long “broad review” of NSA practices. (Believe me, there’s nothing to investigate. We did it.) As far as I can see, there’s an equivalency in the two cases: like my partner, Rousseff responded in an overly emotional way, calling off a long planned trip to Washington and later denouncing the U.S. at the United Nations. Here’s my question: if the president doesn’t have to apologize, why should I? Who’s in the right here? Please settle this dispute for me.
Dear Unlucky 13,
I’m afraid that the rules of etiquette are different in the two cases you cite. While I regret to tell you this, you are in the wrong and should apologize. In our personal lives, it is important to say we’re sorry to those we treat badly, and hacking into your partner’s email is, by definition, bad manners.
Similarly, on a global scale, if, say, the Argentinean government had hacked into President Rousseff’s email, an apology would indeed be in order. It’s clearly not a good neighborly thing to do. But I hardly need to add the obvious: the United States is not a normal nation. It’s the planet’s sole superpower. It goes by a different rulebook, which it writes itself, and that is as it should be. So if we Americans have been playing by house rules in the case of the NSA and Rousseff, then what is there to apologize for?
It’s common knowledge that an American president does not apologize for the acts of his hackers or his soldiers or his spies or his officials or his drones. In addition, it’s obvious that such an apology would be impractical and set this country on the road to hell. After all, once a president stopped playing by the superpower rulebook and started apologizing, just consider the Pandora’s box he would open (without a hint of hope at the bottom). If we were a normal nation, there would be a vast list of things he would have to apologize for, including, just in the last decade, kidnappings, torture, abuse, murder, imprisonment in black sites, assassination, and so on and so forth.
So, Unlucky 13, swallow your bad luck and say you’re sorry, but don’t ask the president to do the same.
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