Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail

by John Quiggin on February 26, 2004

The news that British spies bugged the office of Kofi Annan during the Iraq debate has a number of implications. First, for me, this is the point at which Tony Blair should go. The whole idea of going to the UN for authority to invade Iraq was his, not Bush’s, and now it’s clear that it was corrupt from the beginning. I won’t argue this in detail – no doubt a lot of people already thought he should go, and others still won’t be convinced.

The main point I want to make is that it’s time for Britain to get out of the spy game. More than any other democratic country, Britain is addicted to spies and their natural counterpart, Official Secrets.[1] From Burgess and McLean to the present day, the spies have been a constant cause of embarrassment and worse. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that they’ve ever found out anything that was both useful and sufficiently reliable to act on[2].

This isn’t a matter of bad luck, or even incompetence. Standard game-theoretic reasoning shows that, outside the zero-sum case of war, there’s unlikely to be a net benefit from actions like bugging offices. The problem is simple. If I bug your office and you don’t suspect me, I can gain potentially valuable information that you don’t want me to have. But if you suspect me, and I don’t suspect that you suspect, you can use my bugs to mislead me. As with all game theoretic reasoning, you can iterate this as many times as you like, but the end result is that the net value of information derived from bugging is zero. On the other hand, the costs of the activity are substantial. In an environment where bugging is routine, everyone learns to communicate in various forms of code, and decoding is costly and prone to error.

He’s often been dismissed as hopelessly naive, but US Secretary of State Henry Stimson was right when he shut down the State Department’s cryptanalytic office saying “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

fn1. This is a case where life imitates art. The spy novels of Erskine Childers and John Buchan were written before the rise of espionage as a significant government activity and before the passage of the first effective Official Secrets Act (1911)

fn2. In this context, I’m excluding wartime codebreaking, which is always useful since, at a minimum, it disrupts enemy communications.

Notes

I’ve treated Clare Short’s allegation as fact, since Blair hasn’t denied it. His claim that he can neither confirm nor deny it for security reasons doesn’t hold up. Short made the specific claim that she had seen transcripts of Annan’s conversations. Blair could refute this claim without reference to whether or not such transcripts existed.

The argument about the uselessness of spies is developed at much greater length in this piece I wrote for the Australian Financia Review The conclusion:

The spy myth clearly served the interests of intelligence agencies, which prospered during the 20th century more than any set of spies before them. The real beneficiaries, however, were the counterintelligence agencies or, to dispense with euphemisms, the secret police, of both Western and Communist countries. The powers granted to them for their struggle against armies of spies were used primarily against domestic dissidents. Terms such as ‘agent of influence’ were used to stigmatise anyone whose activities, however open and above-board, could be represented as helpful to the other side.

The supposed role of the secret police, to keep secrets from opposing governments, was, as we have seen, futile. Secret police, and the associated panoply of security laws, Official Secrets Acts and so forth, were much more successful in protecting their governments’ secrets from potentially embarrassing public scrutiny in their own countries.

As spies and the associated fears have faded in their public mind, their place has been taken by terrorists. In many ways, this is a reversion to the 19th century, when the bomb-throwing anarchist was a focus of popular fears and the subject of novels by such writers as Chesterton and Conrad.

As the attacks of September 11 showed us, the threat posed by terrorists is real. Nevertheless, even if terrorists were to mount attacks ten times as deadly in the future, they would still present the citizens of the Western World with less danger than we accept from our fellow-citizens every time we step into our cars.

If the century of the spy has taught us anything, it is that we need to assess the dangers posed by terrorists coolly and calmly rather than giving way to panic.

{ 41 comments }

1

dsquared 02.26.04 at 8:27 pm

I’d add to this that it always surprised me that there was no outcry back in the late 1990s when MI5 coolly announced that post the collapse of Communism, it was going to transfer its officers to work on gathering intelligence on drugs syndicates (for younger readers, drug barons were the Big Figure of Fear before we had terrorists). Since drug smuggling is by any stretch a civilian crime and the ‘M’ in MI5 stands for military, I thought that someone would have objected to this fairly disgraceful blurring of the boundaries. Perhaps I should have done something myself …

2

praktike 02.26.04 at 9:07 pm

Why weren’t they doing a better job of spying on, um, Saddam F*cking Hussein instead of Kofi Annan?

3

Kieran Healy 02.26.04 at 9:16 pm

Well, spying on Saddam would have been pretty dangerous. And the food! If you spy on Kofi Annan, you can live in Manhattan and drink martinis.

4

roger 02.26.04 at 9:36 pm

I don’t think the zero sum argument about bugging makes sense. To get around a bug means managing conversation with one’s associates. But that is a much more difficult thing to achieve than you are implying. A good case is the bugging of mafia — this has gone on, now, for fifty some years, during which, if you were correct, there would have been a linear decrease in the amount of useful information that such bugging would yield. But I’d contend that the yield comes in clusters — that the tacit knowledge that conversation can be overheard is difficult to maintain, and still maintain organizational communication. Thus, in the famous Kansas City cases that were alluded to in Scorsese’s film, Casino, the bugging of various areas frequented by mob leaders led to break through information even though these were veteran mob leaders, i.e, they were well aware of government taps.

As for the usefulness of spying, surely one should include the Sorge ring in Japan, and the capture of Enigma equipment as the high points. However, it might be the case that spying is more effective in some hostile situations than in others. The cold war, with its long term hostility between two powers that engaged each other only via proxy, was not a triumph of spying. The proxies, however, used spying efficiently. Supposedly, the Vietnamese planted spies in various places in the Pacific to report on American bomber squadron movements, and used them to minimize bombing impact.

5

Matt Weiner 02.26.04 at 10:00 pm

No grad students wrote theses on Kofi Annan, so they had to do original research.

6

John Quiggin 02.26.04 at 10:03 pm

I think Sorge illustrates my case

Despite the reliability of his reports, Whymant notes, Sorge’s intelligence was often dismissed–as when he warned that the Germans were planning to invade the Soviet Union.

The same was true with regard to warnings about Pearl Harbour sent to the US. In both cases, the decision to disregard intelligence looks bad in retrospect, but is explained by the game-theoretic analysis.

As regards the Mafia, there are a couple of points. First, as in war, the disruption of Mafia communications is valued – presumably Blair doesn’t actually want to destroy the UN.

Second the main purpose of the taps was not to find things out, but to get legally admissible evidence of what the police already knew.

7

Theophylact 02.26.04 at 10:10 pm

John Keegan’s new book, Intelligence in War, argues that (by and large) intelligence is a wash. I’m not sure he’s right, and he does have a few specific examples where it might have been of some help. But certainly, in terms of the investment-to-results ratio, the yield has been poor.

8

Chris Bertram 02.26.04 at 10:26 pm

But is the story true? I’d be much more inclined to believe it if the source were other than Clare Short.

9

John J. Coupal 02.26.04 at 10:29 pm

Would Henry Stimson deem Mohammed Atta a gentlemen?

10

Matthew 02.26.04 at 10:40 pm

Why do you say that Chris? Has she a record for untruthfulness? This is a genuine question, I know next to nothing about her record, all I can remember is her claim that Blair decided to go to war with Bush back in September 2002. That didn’t seem outlandish, and surely Katharine Gun is some evidence this might be true.

11

enthymeme 02.26.04 at 10:52 pm

On the other hand, there’s no evidence that they’ve ever found out anything that was both useful and sufficiently reliable to act on.

And why do you think evidence is hard to come by? After all, semper occultus. What makes you think successes will be known to the public? It may be that, for political and operational reasons, these aren’t announced.

According to a Times report on Dame Stella Rimington, former head of the MI5,

“Intelligence “failures”, such as the bombing in Docklands near the end of Rimington’s term as Director-General, are front-page news: “You never hear about the terrorist incidents that have been prevented by prior intelligence.” During her term of office about 80 per cent of planned IRA attacks were prevented in this way. She feels fortunate to have served under a Prime Minister who “understood that there is no such thing as 100 per cent intelligence.”

Nor do you hear much about SAS, MI5, and Special Branch successes in Northern Ireland (Loughall is one). In Gibraltar, where the SAS’s trailing of IRA elements was bungled, it seems likely that the shooting of IRA operatives averted a terrorist incident, as indications up to that point suggest. The intelligence was handed over to MI5 by the Mossad, which had been tracking them for weapons smuggling, up till that point.

All this of course, fails to take into account the relatively successful Israeli intelligence apparatus (cue Operation Spring of Youth; Black September and the Kidon response; Operation Eichmann, etc.). Given the tip of the iceberg, as it were, of intelligence successes – to suggest that we be done with the spy game, as you recommend, is naive.

Now on to high theory. Of course, it could be argued that the net value of information derived from bugging is zero. But if we were to follow your suggestions and stop bugging activity altogether, then it would no longer be the case that a net benefit is unlikely for the party that continues bugging, for it now has (1) the luxury of re-directing resources from counterespionage to just plain spying, and (2) having done (1), a breakthrough may be rapidly built on – leading to penetration becoming pervasive since the enemy has no way of knowing that it has been penetrated, and no way of taking the appropriate countermeasures.

And of course, bugging isn’t the only spy trade there is. To argue from some game-theoretic modelling of one type of spy activity to “we should get out of the spy business” is a bit rich. Especially when the empirical evidence, where it is made known, suggests the opposite. Armchair academic theorising is easy when it’s unhinged from reality.

Lastly, Henry Stimson is indeed naive: the whole point is that not all men are gentlemen.

12

John Quiggin 02.26.04 at 11:00 pm

Contrary to enthymeme, there’s plenty of evidence on the (in)effectiveness of spying. Some of the best relates to attempts by Nazi Germany to spy on Britain, where the Nazi archives were captured at the end of the war. As I recall, a comparison with British records showed that every agent infiltrated by the Germans had been captured and many had been ‘turned’. No-one got nearly as close as the fictional agent in Eye of the Needle.

13

enthymeme 02.26.04 at 11:09 pm

Mr Quiggin, I’m not arguing that spying is always successful. Nor am I arguing that spying may not be ineffective.

I am arguing that by stopping spying altogether, the party which continues to spy will become more successful and more effective. How is the spyless party going to devise effective countermeasures to blunt this penetration when it lacks knowledge (and the means of getting that knowledge) of what and where they have been penetrated?

14

John Quiggin 02.26.04 at 11:21 pm

As I pointed out in the post and in at least one subsequent comment, it often makes sense to spy on enemies, if only to induce costly countermeasures. In particular, since governments have lots of resources, and their non-state enemies and opponents do not, it’s natural for them to use spies when they can – the negative sum game works in the government’s favour. But it’s still a mistake to suppose that spies will produce much useful information.

15

enthymeme 02.26.04 at 11:51 pm

Err, does this mean that you still stand by your main point (“The main point I want to make is that it’s time for Britain to get out of the spy game)?

I disagree that spies do not produce much useful information when the little that had been made known suggests the opposite. Israel has thwarted, assassinated, and captured hundreds if not thousands of enemies within and without since the Shin Beth’s and Mossad’s inception. If Dame Rimington is believed, then 80% is not a small number at all. Even if only 5 IRA attacks were planned during her tenure at MI5, that would still mean that 4 potential Omaghs were averted due to intelligence work. And this is presumably just the tip of the iceberg – i.e., the successes, we do know about. We simply don’t know how much “useful information” it produces beyond that which is made known.

If it’s “sensible” (and not just for the reason you cite but rather for the reason that to plug the leaks, we have to first know where and who the leaks are, the extent of penetration, etc; and this involves espionage on our part – indeed, capturing and “turning” moles requires that we know, or have at least a hazy idea of, what the enemy knows – or else piece together what the enemy knows from its actions – and this involves spying on what the enemy does), then Britain should not “get out of the spy game”, as you suggest.

16

Albert Law 02.27.04 at 1:51 am

Quiggin,

“In this context, I’m excluding wartime codebreaking, which is always useful since, at a minimum, it disrupts enemy communications.” and “But it’s still a mistake to suppose that spies will produce much useful information.”

The USSR got its first nuke in 1949, greatly helped by espionage.
http://www.bun.kyoto-u.ac.jp/~suchii/Sci.Ethics/soviet.bomb.html

Eli Cohen has been greatly appreciated and not only because he disrupted enemy communications.
http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/biography/Eli_Cohen.html

Pollard helped Israel learn about Soviet weapons shipments to Iraq and Syria ( chemical too for the latter ).
http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/US-Israel/pollard.html

If espionage isn’t efficient, one wonders why the industrial type is so popular with people whose bottom line is money.

17

Albert Law 02.27.04 at 2:02 am

Quiggin,

That said, I hope the Brits vote the bloody bugger out.

Bertram and now Quiggin, will anyone stand up for human intelligence?

18

John Quiggin 02.27.04 at 2:17 am

Albert, if you read the article linked at the bottom of the post, you’ll see that I observe

Spying may be worthwhile in cases where it is very hard or very costly to produce misleading information. Two potential cases are those of code-breaking in wartime, where the number of messages an enemy needs to send is so large that their validity can be checked fairly easily, and that of a secret weapon, where the information produced by spies can be checked by actually making the weapon.

, but also note

It is now clear, however, that the only real secret regarding the atomic bomb was that it could be made to work. This secret was successfully concealed from the Nazis, who focused instead on the other great secret weapon of the century, the guided missile represented by the V2 rocket. But once the existence of the bomb was known, any competent team of physicists, with access to the right resources, could duplicate it. The Russians had competent physicists of their own, and captured some of the leading German researchers. The secrets passed by Western spies probably saved them a year or so in their research program but did not fundamentally change anything. The Chinese, French, Israelis and others made their bombs without significant assistance from spies.

19

roger 02.27.04 at 2:32 am

Quiggen, I’m afraid I don’t really understand your counterargument about bugging and the mafia.

Other cases are more difficult to judge. While Keegan might dismiss Sorge, I have read other historians credit Sorge with information that changed the shape of the war — namely, that Japan was not going to attack the Soviet Union. I think you are confusing two separate instances in your use of Keegan. Yes, Sorge’s information that Hitler would attack the Soviet Union was disregarded. But when he did, Sorge’s information that the Japanese wouldn’t attack the Soviet union was crucial to freeing up the troops that Zhukov used to repulse Hitler in that climactic year, 1942.

Be that as it may, your idea that the taps on the Mafia was not to find things out doesn’t make sense. Your point about the bugging being only to get legally admissable evidence begs the question — evidence of what? Well, crimes which the FBI suspected the Mafia was involved in. Why would they suspect that? Because of bugs. This is especially true in the Casino case, and it is true in the so called Pizza cases that took down the Sicilians in the 80s in New Jersey, etc. etc. If you think that the FBI somehow got their information from other sources, I wonder what sources you think these are. Undercover agents? Aren’t those spies? Or did they look for announcements in the newspaper — “Mafia chief plans big Casino operation”?

The underlying problem, here, is that your zero sum game theory model doesn’t hold up. It depends on an inelastic idea of rationality that doesn’t take into account the real world pragmatics of discourse, and the addition of speakers, each with differing levels of knowledge about bugging and the limits of speaking.

20

Ray 02.27.04 at 2:48 am

Um … right. Have you considered that there are serious problems even if you suspect you have a leak? Losing your primary means of communication, or a leak hunt, can both be crippling — no matter the cost you inflict on the opposition by deception. Furthermore, it just doesn’t occur to most people to wonder if they are being bugged. It’s by no means a symmetric game you’re dealing with here. There are high costs to assuming you are bugged and acting accordingly, and indicators for that sort of thing are usually slight, unless somebody on the side bugging you commits treason.

Case in point: Washington Naval Conference of 1924. Herbert Yardley’s Black Chamber read the Japanese negotiators’ instructions, allowing us to force them to their bottom line. Now, the Japanese undoubtedly knew they’d been out-negotiated somehow, but there were many bases to cover, and the idea of having (at high expense) to completely redo all embassy codebooks worldwide probably wasn’t something they were eager to do. As a result, until Yardley turned traitor and wrote a tell-all book, we continued reading Japanese diplomatic traffic.

21

Dave 02.27.04 at 3:20 am

Mr. Thymeme: the reason gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail is because gentlemen make their living in an open and transparent manner (should you wish to know the source of their income, simply look at the property rolls), and hence have neither greed for “inside” information on others’ dealings, nor fear that their own dealings may be “penetrated” or “leaked”. Mafiosi and similar gentlemen of the road may, on the other hand, be more sensitive to the power of asymmetric information.

You may prefer your government to act like mafiosi; I would prefer mine to act like gentlemen.

22

John Quiggin 02.27.04 at 3:45 am

Naval affairs wrt Japan certainly turned out well in the decades following the 1924 success you refer to, ray.

23

enthymeme 02.27.04 at 4:39 am

You may prefer your government to act like mafiosi; I would prefer mine to act like gentlemen.

Simplistic. You might as well say that the state shouldn’t act like thugs and therefore should cede its monopoly on force. Yeah, in a perfect world, maybe. Get real. I say again: the whole point is that not everyone is a gentleman. To deal with those of ungentlemanly persuasion who use criminal force, the law applies state-sanctioned force. Likewise, subterfuge is met with subterfuge. If you prefer your government to sit on its hands when it could have done something to prevent, as per Dame Rimington, 80% of planned IRA attacks – then you have your head in the clouds. But I suppose real gentlemen prefer to stand idly by while lives are lost?

24

Dave F 02.27.04 at 8:20 am

Fool’s paradise is closing down, or hadn’t you noticed?

25

Hal 02.27.04 at 8:25 am

Are you serious?! I know CT has been going through a silly season recently, (some fun ideas, some just embarrassing) but hasn’t your hatred of Blair begun to, uh, warp the timber?

Atrios has it right:

Laughable

I don’t know what the hell to make of the claims by Tony Blair that intelligence officers always act within the bounds of national and international law.

I mean, even this liberal sure as hell hopes that isn’t true. And any person with an IQ above 50 knows it isn’t.

26

alex 02.27.04 at 9:14 am

I’ve treated Clare Short’s allegation as fact, since Blair hasn’t denied it. His claim that he can neither confirm nor deny it for security reasons doesn’t hold up.

In 1982 the British Navy sunk the Argentine ship Belgrano. Thatcher was accused by all and sundry on the left of a war crime – the Belgrano was heading away from battle, not posing a threat etc. etc.
Even today there are people who think worse of her for that incident. Next year there will finally be a top secret intercept published showing that the Belgrano, far from being a threat was under orders to help launch a pincer movement on the British fleet. The fact that the Government refuses to publish intelligence information that might help their case is not evidence that they don’t have that evidence.

Have you considered that these might be American intercepts, given to the British? That these Annan ‘conversations’ could have been conducted anywhere in New York; the Syrian embassy, the Chinese embassy, a phone intercept from the other conversationalist’s telephone?
Clearly to release any information of this nature to dissect Clare Short’s accusations would prejudice Security. Get into the real world.

27

alex 02.27.04 at 9:15 am

I’ve treated Clare Short’s allegation as fact, since Blair hasn’t denied it. His claim that he can neither confirm nor deny it for security reasons doesn’t hold up.

In 1982 the British Navy sunk the Argentine ship Belgrano. Thatcher was accused by all and sundry on the left of a war crime – the Belgrano was heading away from battle, not posing a threat etc. etc.
Even today there are people who think worse of her for that incident. Next year there will finally be a top secret intercept published showing that the Belgrano, far from being a threat was under orders to help launch a pincer movement on the British fleet. The fact that the Government refuses to publish intelligence information that might help their case is not evidence that they don’t have that evidence.

Have you considered that these might be American intercepts, given to the British? That these Annan ‘conversations’ could have been conducted anywhere in New York; the Syrian embassy, the Chinese embassy, a phone intercept from the other conversationalist’s telephone?
Clearly to release any information of this nature to dissect Clare Short’s accusations would prejudice Security. Get into the real world.

28

John Quiggin 02.27.04 at 11:14 am

Alex, you don’t seem to have responded to my point. Blair could perfectly well have denied that Short had seen any transcripts without compromising security.

29

alex 02.27.04 at 11:52 am

My point is that, on the assumption that Clare Short did actually see some sort of transcripts, it is not entirely clear what her main charge is. The suggestion seems to be that we directly bugged the Secretary-General’s office, although she seems to have no evidence that this is the case – presumably Kofi Annan doesn’t only have conversations in his own office.

In the circumstances that she has not been totally clear about what she is accusing of, the only ‘denial’ that would be of any use in satisfying anyone is for the Government to reveal what those particular transcripts were (although I notice today that Robin Cook among others who presumably would have seen them as well is openly saying he finds it a bit unlikely). For the Government to reveal what those transcripts were in any of the circumstances I gave would clearly compromise either a) security or b) confidentiality (in the case of the Americans). Of course I have to qualify this by accepting that you don’t believe any bugging should happen but there we are.

I only quoted the Belgrano example to show that there is genuine precedent for the defence of ‘not commenting’ that the Government is employing, however much they must be itching to reveal the truth as Thatcher must have been in 1983

30

common sense 02.27.04 at 12:52 pm

I don’t know what the fuss is about. Clare Short’s “revelation” isn’t really news.

Show me one high-ranking UN diplomat who (a) thinks that he isn’t bugged and (b) who isn’t bugged by the Americans, French, Russians and Chinese at the same time.

That’s normal business. Everyone in the diplomacy and intelligence community knows about this and kind of accepts this. So why now the fuss about this?

Some journalist should ask Presidents Chirac and Putin whether they can deny to have spied on Kofi Annan…

31

BP 02.27.04 at 2:53 pm

“Everyone in the diplomacy and intelligence community knows about this and kind of accepts this.”

That’s not really true. When foreign diplomats are caught spying they are booted out of the country. Foreign nationals without diplomatic immunity caught spying face prison time (or these days, possibly an indefinite stint at Guantamo Bay). There’s no “acceptance” here: spies are dealt with harshly.

The question is, of course, what the UN administration should do with spies. Intern ‘em in a gulag somewhere? Shoot them? Is this acceptable quid pro quo?

32

common sense 02.27.04 at 3:40 pm

I’m not talking old-fashioned Cold War-type spy stories here.

Some of the news agencies reported that UN staff regularly check for physical bugs and check translation and communications staff.

However, the most widely used source is non-human intelligence, eg satellite (for mobile phones) or cable bugs (for landline).

If you want to have a bug-free UN, then you should relocate the UN’s HQ out of the reach of Echelon (ie somewhere not on this planet).

By the way, I doubt that Clare Short as Development Secretary has seen any real secret transcripts. (She probably has read only transcripts from Kofi Annan’s communications with British government officials).

Finally to bp:

Yes, that’s true for diplomats. But there’s no international legal regulation at all with regard to the work of foreign intelligence services.

33

BP 02.27.04 at 4:02 pm

I’m not denying that there is no international legal regulation of spying, I’m pointing out that spying is not a shrug-and-accept it affair for any government on the planet.

If the UN had bugged the White House you won’t be hearing many “it’s all in the game” remarks, let me tell you.

34

common sense 02.27.04 at 5:10 pm

Granted, it’s no ‘shrug-and-accept-it’ affair. But why making a great fuss about it now, other than for political point-scoring against Tony Blair. His critics should attack him directly, not like this.

Small point: The UN is no sovereign state, so yes this would result in a big outcry from the White House.

Anyway, let’s not get distracted from the main point: This is hardly a big news story; it’s cheap politics on behalf of Clare Short in order to damage Tony Blair.

I think Robin Cook, no friend of Tony Blair either, was entirely right to clearly distance himself from this sort of politicking.

35

BP 02.27.04 at 5:57 pm

Beg to differ on two points.

1. Sovereign state or no, *any* spying incident would result in a big outcry from the White House. You think China would get a free pass for syping by reason of being a sovereign state?

2. This *is* a big news story. It’s on every major international outlet. Possibly what you meant was that it *oughtn’t* be a big news story, perhaps because you are blase about such matters, or perhaps because your loyalties do not particularly lie on the UN’s side. Which ever way, when a high (ex) government official publically reveals extensive spying operations, especially on non-hostile organizations, it *is* big news, and like any other spying operation revealed a big fuss is the most common outcome.

36

Jake McGuire 02.27.04 at 6:25 pm

Alex, you don’t seem to have responded to my point. Blair could perfectly well have denied that Short had seen any transcripts without compromising security.

You’re missing the point. If you want “I can neither confirm nor deny” to mean anything other than “You’re right, but I’m not going to say so,” you need to use it as the answer to questions that you wouldn’t otherwise mind answering, even (especially) questions that not answering gets you in a little bit of trouble.

And no one involved in the matter seems very surprised or offended by it, as can be read in this Washington Post article.

37

John Isbell 02.27.04 at 6:25 pm

“however much they must be itching to reveal the truth as Thatcher must have been in 1983.”
Yes indeed, if it vindicates them. And if not, not. They would then logically take Blair’s position. Funny how that works, eh?

38

Carlos 02.27.04 at 6:27 pm

In any case, one of the lessons of these and other incidents is that you shouldn’t trust anybody under any circumstances and that Saddam was right in fighting and interfering with UN inspections. If UN personnel function in fact as collectors of information for the US intelligence services (and they use the information to try to kill you) then maybe denial and deceit are the best policies and every good government should behave that way.

39

BP 02.27.04 at 6:49 pm

“And no one involved in the matter seems very surprised or offended by it, as can be read in this Washington Post article.”

Surprised, no. Offended, probably – reading past the it’s-all-in-good-fun-chuckle hyperbole in the WaPo article, spending millions on anti-espionage is not something you do if the practice causes no offense.
Powerless to chastize spying governments – yes. Which is why opportunities like this give the UN the chance to vent a little spleen, something Boutros Ghali, Blix and Annan seem to be doing.

40

Dave 02.27.04 at 6:59 pm

I’ll leave it to Quiggin and Thymeme to argue over whether spying on one’s enemies does any better than spying on one’s friends, but sticking with the case at hand, I have to wonder what subterfuge the British should be worried about at the UN. Maybe I’m being a pollyanna, and have simply forgotten all those foiled car-bomb attacks under Boutros-Ghali, and Annan’s penchant for black-helicopter ops.

41

Sigivald 02.28.04 at 12:02 am

bp: Maybe the whole problem is that the UN is not a soverign state.

As a collection of bureaucrats and the to a great extent the representatives of kleptocrats and dictators (the democratic nations can and do meet with each-other separately, in groups or individually, to hash out issues between them, without the “help” of the UN blob), I am not surprised that the UN is not treated as a “gentleman”. (Nor am I at all convinced that governments dealing with non-friendly governments or pseudo-governments like the UN, should be gentlemanly.)

Dave: The UN is not a “friend”. Kofi Annan is not a “friend”. They’re not necessarily enemies, but they are not friends, either. At best they’re disinterested neutrals with a penchant for self-aggrandisement and uncontrolled bureaucracy. At worst, simply the tools of dictators and murderers.

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