All the things I knew I didn’t know …

by Henry on March 25, 2014

This apology by former NSA head Michael Hayden to Angela Merkel is pretty interesting as apologies go.

Although I’m not prepared to apologize for conducting intelligence against another nation, I am prepared to apologize for embarrassing a good friend. I am prepared to apologize for the fact we couldn’t keep whatever it was we may or may not have been doing secret and therefore put a good friend in a very difficult position. Shame on us. That’s our fault.

Hayden is very explicitly not apologizing to Merkel for the US tapping her cellphone. He considers this part of the ordinary business of relations between nations; even “good friends.” He’s apologizing because the US was caught doing it, hence putting Merkel in “a very difficult position.” I was in a radio debate with Die Zeit editor Josef Joffe a few months ago, where he drew an analogy between this scandal and the kind of everyday stuff that you know, happens in marriages, when husbands hire private detectives to spy on their wives and makes sure that they’re not cheating and vice versa. Hayden’s apology actually goes one step further in the weirdness stakes – the cheating spouse apologizes not for having cheated, but for not having hid the affair (which he/she still resolutely refuses to confirm or deny) well enough, hence making for social awkwardness.

The only way this kind of apology makes sense to me is as an apology for making it harder to hypocritically affect that one doesn’t know exactly what is going on. Hayden is apologizing because the US has made it impossible for Germany hypocritically to pretend that it doesn’t know that the US is spying on it. A la Hayden, Merkel now has to affect a public outrage that she doesn’t feel, because not being publically outraged would seem indecent to German voters, and might furthermore make other states think that she’s a pushover. The logic of Hayden’s argument is that Merkel, like a complaisant political spouse who privately knows about her/his husband’s or her/his wife’s infidelities and doesn’t really care, needs to feign outrage so as to preserve face.

Hayden’s analysis is likely rather self-serving (it wouldn’t surprise me if Merkel were genuinely upset, and certainly many Germans are upset). It does point to the value of thinking systematically about hypocrisy in international politics in ways that most post-Snowden commentary doesn’t (admittedly, I’ve got international hypocrisy on the brain – my colleague Martha Finnemore and I are thinking a lot about it). Nearly every piece of US commentary I’ve seen about European reactions to the Snowden scandal stresses European hypocrisy. Next-to-nearly every piece of commentary quotes that bloody “shocked, shocked” bit from Casablanca, as if the analogy weren’t already hopelessly overused.

Of course, international politics is suffused with hypocrisy. What’s interesting about Hayden’s apology, if my interpretation is even half-right, is that it conforms to most of the tropes, but implicitly acknowledges that the previous European tolerance of US spying was equally hypocritical. The logic of Hayden’s argument (which he may not care to follow through himself) is that there are different kinds of hypocrisy, with different consequences for US power. Sometimes hypocritical relations of pretending not to know what is happening break down, and give way to public recriminations. The latter may be equally hypocritical, but have different consequences for other countries’ willingness to cooperate with the US on various forms of information sharing. By getting caught, the US has put itself in a worse position, moving other states from a form of hypocrisy that overlooked US excesses, to one where some Europeans at least are becoming hypersensitive to US surveillance. That, plausibly, is a significant change.

{ 21 comments }

1

BruceJ 03.25.14 at 8:01 pm

“I’m sorry you caught me!”

It’s right up there with “I’m sorry if someone was offended by my words.” nopology that politicians have turned into an art form.

2

faustusnotes 03.25.14 at 8:05 pm

To me this situation is quite closely analogous to a certain sort of marital relationship, in which both sides assume the other side is cheating, and allow it provided that their relationship is treated very seriously, and the affairs are conducted discreetly so as to not offend family and society. You can see this in a lot of court activity in e.g. the UK or Japan (see e.g. Tale of Genji). In this case all the world leaders know this kind of thing is going on, but the deal is that it is done discreetly and it is assumed that the core international relationship (e.g. Gemany-US relations) is not actually affected by it. I suspect all countries involved in this scandal were aware that this kind of stuff was going on, they just didn’t realize how ham-fisted the US was being.

I think the situation between Australia and Indonesia is a little outside of this arrangement, though: Aussie spies listened in on the president’s wife’s private cellphone, and that is just rude.

3

Brian 03.25.14 at 8:34 pm

4

Bill 03.25.14 at 8:50 pm

“I’m not sorry I did it, but I’m sorry you found out,” is not an apology for anything other than being deceptive incompetently.

5

CJColucci 03.25.14 at 8:54 pm

I’ve always assumed that even friendly nations have always had some low-level spying going on and that this was acknowledged as long as it was sufficiently discreet. But it’s one thing to open the host’s medicine cabinet while you’re in the bathroom, or take a quick peek in the host’s underwear drawer when you’re getting your coat out of the bedroom, and another to break into the safe or let others see pictures of her (or his) Victoria’s Secret thongs.

6

Anderson 03.25.14 at 9:28 pm

I’m not clear why this “apology” is itself public.

But broadly, this is a rare instance of agreeing with the NSA. If the Germans could eavesdrop on Obama’s phone calls, would they? Of course they would. Politics ain’t pushpin.

7

novakant 03.25.14 at 9:38 pm

Merkel only escalated the issue when it became known that she had been targeted herself. Before that she tried her best to play down the NSA scandal and basically return to business as usual. I’m not comfortable with governments spying on other governments, because those with the most resources gain an unfair advantage. But the real scandal here is that politicians don’t care at all about governments spying on citizens, be it their own or those of foreign countries, like those millions in Europe the NSA spied on just because they could.

8

Mario 03.25.14 at 9:58 pm

The logic of Hayden’s argument is that Merkel, like a complaisant political spouse who privately knows about her/his husband’s or her/his wife’s infidelities and doesn’t really care, needs to feign outrage so as to preserve face.

It is also interesting that Hayden does not seem to realize (or care) that putting forward an argument of this sort amounts to a public humiliation of Merkel.

9

Nick Caldwell 03.25.14 at 10:06 pm

To jump off on a tangent, I would say we should try and push back against the notion that mostly this spying is “OK” in a realpolitik, for-the-good-of-the-nation kind of way. Mostly, as the Australian example shows, it’s really just about fucking over smaller countries during trade negotiations.

10

tony lynch 03.25.14 at 10:28 pm

Corey, what you are talking about is a type (the “force for good” type) of pure hypocrisy. I and a colleague have written about it here:

Philosophy in the Contemporary World. Volume 19, Issue 1, Spring 2012. Tony Lynch, A.R.J. Fisher. Pages 32-43. DOI: 10.5840/pcw201219114. Pure Hypocrisy.

11

Anderson 03.25.14 at 10:55 pm

“It is also interesting that Hayden does not seem to realize (or care) that putting forward an argument of this sort amounts to a public humiliation of Merkel.”

I’m pretty sure he realizes it; to answer my own question, the only reason for making this public is, in fact, to sneer at Merkel. Which, if that’s what a Cabinet-level officer of the executive branch is going to do, I at least hope Obama signed off on, rather than learning about it from the papers. (Note to self: when I become President, issue standing order that all public sneers at foreign heads of state must be cleared through Oval Office.)

12

P O'Neill 03.26.14 at 3:23 am

Hayden’s rationale for tapping Merkel’s phone is revealing

SPIEGEL: Is there any good reason for conducting surveillance against Merkel’s mobile phone?

Hayden: It’s hard for me to answer as I’m not in the government. But leadership intentions are always a high priority, a foreign intelligence objective … Whether that [Camp David] circumstance applies to the chancellor is an entirely different question, but I would add that the chancellor’s predecessor … SPIEGEL: … Gerhard Schröder …
Hayden: … conducted a whole variety of things that were kind of inconsistent with the American view of the world, which is not claiming the American view is right. We did the Iraq war with very different points of view. His approach to Russia was very different than the American approach to Russia, and then finally, this whole Gazprom billion-euro loan guarantee also raised questions, which might be answered by this kind of activity.

Given that the US was caught by surprise by Putin’s invasion of Crimea, either they’re not still tapping Schröder’s phone or Vlad didn’t tell Gerhard what his plans were.

13

a.y.mous 03.26.14 at 9:20 am

I do not think this is an example of a nopology. Hayden specifically apologized sincerely for incompetence (“shame on us”). Given that his job was international eavesdropping, this is exactly the thing to apologize for.

novakant,

I’m curious about this statement. “……..because those with the most resources gain an unfair advantage.” When can an advantage be termed as fair? Or is it that having an advantage is, by itself, unfair?

14

maidhc 03.26.14 at 10:19 am

Things have not changed too much since the days of the Zimmerman telegram.

15

Barry 03.26.14 at 12:01 pm

A.y.mous, it’s because the fruits are available to the highest bidder. When Australia (undoubtedly working with the NSA and UK spies) were eavesdropping during trade negotiations with Indonesia, it wpuld not have been small businesses or individuals benefitting, but the big players who paid for inside knowledge.

16

Alex 03.26.14 at 5:54 pm

Hayden’s apology actually goes one step further in the weirdness stakes – the cheating spouse apologizes not for having cheated, but for not having hid the affair (which he/she still resolutely refuses to confirm or deny) well enough, hence making for social awkwardness

This frame would make more sense if it wasn’t for the fact that the German secret services also co-operated extensively with the NSA. Before the #Merkelhandy, the point of the scandal was Roland Pofalla’s increasingly unconvincing denials that the BND or Deutsche Telekom had ever shared any information with the Americans. In many ways, the spying on Merkel served the purpose of framing Germany as an innocent victim and therefore protecting continued cooperation rather well.

17

a.y.mous 03.26.14 at 6:02 pm

Barry, big players pay for inside knowledge of other big businesses. It is a level playing field, so to speak. Small business and individuals are not beneficiaries. Nor are they the targets of this scale of espionage.

Governments should hold other governments in higher regard than companies of their country? Governments should not actively assist their countries’ businesses?

I guess my question is , if international spying is acceptable, where is the unfairness in all of this?

note: I’m formulating an opinion on the whole NSA leak business. Been following it from the beginning. Have collected, am collecting, some thoughts, So, please bear with questions from one end of the argument to another.

18

roy belmont 03.27.14 at 3:03 am

It’s a tangent, but if there were an intentionality to the reveals, where the snooping presence wanted the surveilled-upon to know it, it would be more fruitful to have that come about without the Voice From The Cloud saying “I’m watching you, everywhere, all the time.”
Which would create focused disgruntlement even more than this stagey look behind the curtains – at what is being presented at one and the same time as a technologically omniscient demi-god and a mess of bumbling dorks – has created.

All that Greenwald has so far revealed to the little people is they’re being stared at and listened to 24/7. Which serves nicely to intimidate the unparanoid, without being an overt act of intimidation, and must be having profound if subtle behavioral effects.
Assumption of godlike power without having to assume anything like godlike responsibility. Sort of a pseudo-bashful hypocrisy, with overtones of sadistic dominance.

Hypocrisy’s over-rated as a condemnatory anyway.
It’s impossible to survive in the present without some of form of collaborative hypocrisy, unless it’s by the purer form of direct complicity, or some version of mindless unaware stupidity.

19

ezra abrams 03.27.14 at 1:15 pm

Regarding Kristof, you could find other people more worthy of criticism
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/27/opinion/kristof-a-nation-of-takers.html?rref=opinion&module=Ribbon&version=origin&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&pgtype=article

I guess I’m still really pissed – of all the people to pick on…

20

reason 03.27.14 at 4:17 pm

Anderson @6
“If the Germans could eavesdrop on Obama’s phone calls, would they? Of course they would. Politics ain’t pushpin.”

You writing this, makes me think you are not familiar with Germany. I live there. Believe me – Germany takes privacy very seriously. It is a big deal if you post a photo somewhere with somebody in it and you don’t first ask their permission. Many cities have rejected Google Streetview.

21

mojrim 03.27.14 at 6:53 pm

Merkel’s objections resemble DiFi’s in that they are born entirely from the narrowest of self interests. This is how States deal with one another; they have neither friends nor enemies, only interests. To pretend otherwise is to engage in a bizarre anthropomorphic fantasy that ignores the underlying anarchy of the international system. So long as we have states they will seek advantage; spying is just one way it’s done.

@reason: You are making the exact kind of logic error I’m referring to above, mistaking State behavior for individual. They are very different animals.

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