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Latest Snowden Revelations: How Very Far We've Come From the Days of 'Gentlemen Do Not Read Each Other's Mail'

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The weekend's sudden revelations in the Snowden affair show how very far we've come from that old notion that "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail."

As a result we have another inventive German protest sign to join the "Yes We Scan!" that greeted President Barack Obama during his visit to Berlin less than two weeks ago: "Stasi 2.0 -- All Your Data Is Belong To Us" with an image of Obama wearing headphones. The new slogan is lifted from the Internet meme "All your base are belong to us." The Stasi was the dread East German State Security, enforcer of the late police state.

As entertaining as the movie-ish aspects of ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden's interrupted dash from Hong Kong to Latin America -- he's currently hung up in the Moscow airport -- may be, the Snowden affair yielded much more substantive fireworks over the weekend. These came in the form of articles in the German news magazine Der Spiegel and elsewhere reporting massive surveillance of German citizens and government by the National Security Agency, as well as extensive spying on the European Union and allied governments. Snowden's revelations had already shadowed last month's big U.S.-China summit in California, complicating efforts to execute America's geopolitical shift from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to heightened engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific. (Pivot archive here.)

The latest developments have resulted in a chorus of condemnation from leading European officials for the U.S. and the Obama Administration, all of it pending confirmation that the reports are accurate.

Are they? The U.S. government certainly didn't issue snappy denials over the weekend.

But there are promises of private consultation with publicly outraged allies, as well as very general-sounding statements about all governments taking security steps. A big transatlantic trade deal hangs in the balance.

Germany seems to be a particular target for the extremely expansive U.S. surveillance of phone and Internet traffic.

The U.S. was already dealing with the ongoing aftermath of controversy around outgoing Ambassador Philip Murphy's cables (in many if not most U.S. embassies, the ambassador's name is on all cables, whether he or she is the author or not), which Wikileaks released a few years back to the embarrassment of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and others who were treated to "full and frank" assessments. Between that and the central role that Germany plays in the European Union, Eurozone, and NATO -- not to mention its heightened levels of energy and commercial engagement with resurgent great power Russia -- my highly capable old Gary Hart for President colleague John Emerson, Obama's recently announced pick to be our new ambassador to Germany, was already in for a very interesting time of it once he goes through the confirmation process. The situation coming out of the weekend is now such that it gives new meaning to the old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times."

Meanwhile, aside from some vague language about other governments -- in this case the governments of longtime American allies -- also conducting espionage operations, not that they have anywhere the technologically advanced capabilities or extremely expansive programs of the NSA, I'm not seeing rationales from the Obama Administration to explain these big new revelations.

What might they say, if they tried? Well, it's true that some transnational jihadists have based terrorist operations out of Germany in the past.

But does that justify the breadth of surveillance?

In any event, that leaves the question of a rationale for the spying on allied governments and the European Union.

Of course, we shouldn't be naive. Spying and secrecy have been part and parcel of the international system for a long time. That may be for the purpose of monitoring the political stability of the E.U. and the financial stability of the Eurozone, the latter of which has at times seemed to threaten the rickety global economic recovery. But that can't be rationalized in terms of any potential terrorist threat, which is of course the uber-rationale for all these new heightened surveillance programs.

* "Gentleman do not read each other's mail."

That's the famous line from Henry Stimson, the old-line Republican Skull-and-Bones Yalie who served as secretary of war under President William Howard Taft from 1911 to 1913, secretary of state under President Herbert Hoover from 1929 to 1933, and secretary of war again for President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1940 to 1945.

While Hoover's secretary of state, Stimson notoriously dismantled the Cipher Bureau, better known as the Black Chamber, a joint venture between the Army and the State Department that masqueraded as a New York City company. This forerunner of the NSA read the coded cables of virtually all the delegations, especially those of Japan, to the Washington Naval Conference of the early '20s, at which global naval power was apportioned in the aftermath of World War I. It's one of history's ironies that Stimson, who promulgated the Stimson Doctrine, which placed the U.S. in official opposition to Japanese expansionism in the Asia-Pacific, as secretary of state also did away with the cryptographic outfit which had already shown it could break the Japanese codes.

But in reality, by the time the U.S. entered the run-up to World War II, espionage, code-making and code-breaking were very deeply entrenched in the system. And Stimson, no longer bound by an old gentlemen's code of honor, was very much in the thick of it. Battles famously turned on the ability, and inability, of spy agencies to read someone else's "mail."

As for Snowden himself, he still sits short of his goal, with officials saying his application for asylum from Ecuador could take weeks or months to process, and that that period has not yet begun because he must make the application on Ecuadorian soil, either in an embassy or in the country itself. Venezuela may beckon instead. But that's more problematic for Snowden's image, given the late Hugo Chavez's highly publicized feud with the U.S.

There may or may not be a rift between Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, sheltering in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and major elements of the Ecuadorian government. While it's an interesting question, it's hardly central to what's going on. The Snowden affair plays like a cyberpunk novel, as I wrote here last week in "Snowden Crash," in which I also noted that such stories often ended rather poorly for the protagonist. (And yes, the title is a play on Neal Stephenson's classic Snow Crash.)

In fact, the Obama Administration may have been well advised to make sure Snowden got where he was going, rather than be grasped by the gentle talons of Vladimir Putin. The ex-Cold War KGB colonel, who rode to national power in the post-Soviet Russia of Boris Yeltsin as director of the successor FSB agency, is not simply a spy as president of a major nation. He is the spy of spies. Russia is a fascinating country, but should not be Snowden's ending point.

Incidentally, the word "treason" is frequently bandied about with regard to Snowden's actions. In reality, and by design of the Founders, the U.S. Constitution has a very narrow definition of treason.

Here it is: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort."

So unless Snowden is a spy for al Qaeda, which I very seriously doubt, he is no traitor. Even that might well be arguable. If he is a spy for China or Russia, since we are not at war with either, and in diplomatic terms, neither is an enemy, treason would not apply. Most likely, Snowden wasn't a spy at all. Though he may end up one after the fact.

Snowden is, however, probably guilty of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, under which several NSA whistleblowers have been prosecuted in recent years.

Meanwhile, a group of 26 U.S. senators, including four Republicans, wrote a few days back to national intelligence leaders complaining that the Obama Administration is relying on "a secret body of law" to justify its expansive surveillance programs.

I have a feeling their questions have only increased after the weekend revelations. Perhaps even to the biggest question of all: Where do we draw the line on surveillance? Or will we draw no line at all, using 9/11 as the rationale for an era of ubiquitous surveillance of all, demonstrable friend and potential foe alike? If that's the case, this country's image is likely to plunge around the world.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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