Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail (repost from 2004)

One of the more tiresome points being made in relation to the revelations from Edward Snowden is that there is nothing really new here. And, of course, it’s true that, if you’ve been paying careful attention to all the news on this topic, disregarding both official assurances and the wilder conspiracy theories, and thinking through the implications, the material leaked by Snowden is more confirmation than revelation. But, sad to say, that’s not the case for most of us. I think I’ve been paying more attention than most, and I still learned a lot from the latest news.

That’s all a preamble for a repost of a piece I wrote in 2004, in relation to an earlier revelation along similar lines, with a link to an even earlier piece from 2001, making the general case that secret intelligence is useless.

Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail (repost from 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. 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 (in this context, I’m excluding wartime codebreaking, which is always useful since, at a minimum, it disrupts enemy communications).

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.”

h4. 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 Financial 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.

37 thoughts on “Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail (repost from 2004)

  1. The Soviets managed to nick the US a-bomb plans, which is supposed to have sped up their own nuclear program.

  2. @Andrew
    The linked 2001 article argues that secret weapons represent the only case apart from wartime where there might be a case for the usefulness of espionage, but then goes on to say that the only really essential information is that the weapon is possible–armed only with that clue, several countries were able to put together teams of physicists that could build their own A-bombs without stealing secrets, and although Soviet espionage may have saved them a year in building the bomb, they would still have got there on their own, just a little more slowly.

  3. The off-balance US government has compounded the Edward Snowden folly by petulantly demanding that China and Russia hand the man back.
    The Surveillance State is required not by Americans but by Booz-Allen, Carlyle and others whose contributions pay for politician’s elections and therefore command favours back, which require vast taxpayer contribution for paying for the designed “service”.
    It’s a cognitive version of a “bridge to nowhere”, but as the detention racket has already demonstrated, there is much money to be made, provided the right decisions are made by politicians.

  4. so we hear today report of a high ranking marine, vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the nation’s second ranking military officer, under investigation about classified information he’s alleged to have leaked about u.s. cyber attacks directed at iran. operation olympic games.

    so when the conditions are right even a general will leak. patriotism, or treason? or whistleblower on war mongers in high office?

    there aren’t enough fingers on all the spooks in america to plug all the holes in their wall of secrecy.

  5. But Snowden, Assange and Manning have been pointing in the right direction and it is debatable that what these people have uncovered is any less relevant than malfeasances uncovered during the era of Woodward, Bernstein and Ellsberg.

  6. “bob woodward book’s reveal far more than either snowden of manning”

    And most of it leaked from within the Administration by the subjects of his hagiographies, who will of course not be prosecuted.

  7. daniel elleberg in the heyday of the gutenberg era leaked xeroxed copies of pieces of paper taken from locked cabinets in locked rooms.

    the full pentagon papers are 7,000 pages, published in four paperback volumes, plus an index.

    the current leaks are like an industrial park of warehouses of pentagon papers. and they come with audio & video, too.

    compared to the pentagon papers bradley manning leaked:-

    (1) the Aaghan war logs comprising 91,731 documents.

    (2) the iraq war logs comprising 391,832 classified military reports .

    (3) the “cablegate” leak comprising 251,287 state department cables.

    snowdon has three laptops with terabytes of storage. the pentagon papers would fit in the boot directory of one of his laptops. -a.v.

  8. and woodward’s most recent “revelations” are all about the appearance of leak.

    as John Quiggin noted, no one fell from power lost status or went to jail over these leaks.

    they are using woodward like a tool. he adds a patina of authenticity to their shadow play of deception.

    post modern society is power mediated through simulacra, the appearance of things, the signifier having replaced the signified. -a.v.

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