Casablanca’s chief of police was “shocked, shocked” to discover that gambling was going on in Rick’s Bar – moments before he collected his nightly winnings.
The hooting and hollering among world leaders who have discovered that Uncle Sam has been listening in on their most intimate plots and stratagems is similarly disingenuous.
One may not think much of the Obama “administration’s” characteristic ineptitude in getting caught eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of the leaders of other nations.
Yet the notion that world leaders ought to enjoy privileges and immunities denied to mere mortals – understandably widespread though it be among world leaders themselves – is a dangerous fantasy.
One example will suffice to demonstrate that treating world leaders as though they were canonized saints can lead to catastrophe. The Allies could – and arguably should – have arranged for the assassination of Hitler long before he invaded Poland.
Yes, our tradition is to arrest murderers and put them on trial for their life. But no such delicacy stopped U.S. Special Forces from taking out Osama bin Laden as soon as they had tracked him down.
One difference between bin Laden and Hitler is that once the Special Forces had found bin Laden they could listen to his telephone calls, but the capability to listen in on Hitler’s private phone calls did not exist in the late 1930s.
If we had been able to listen in on the insane details of Hitler’s plan to turn himself into a latter-day Napoleon rampaging across Europe, our resolve to take him out before he could set that plan in motion would perhaps have been strong enough to overcome Chamberlain’s qualms.
If we had knocked Hitler off the board, World War II could have been prevented before it began. So could the Holocaust. As it is, we did nothing until it was far too late. Tens of millions died. In the end, we became so brutalized by war that we became mass murderers ourselves, bombing Dresden and Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Whatever the provocation, our mass bombing of civilians was without moral justification. If we had overcome our earlier scruples about killing one man, we might have retained our scruples about killing the millions of innocent civilians we later murdered.
Before the Second World War, British Intelligence had the capability and the manpower to listen in on every telephone conversation that took place anywhere in Britain. As a result, every German spy in Britain – except one – was rounded up, tried, and flung into jail before the Second World War began.
The sole exception was a very senior air marshal who had been planted deep in the British Air Ministry years before the war. He eventually exposed himself by countermanding the order to send up the aircraft whose job was to disrupt the X-beam guidance systems that directed German bombers to their targets. Coventry was bombed with very high loss of life.
By the 1960s, John Bull and Uncle Sam both had supercomputers capable of identifying key words spoken by anyone on either side of the Atlantic. The computers would flag up all conversations containing those key words, and human operators would examine the transcripts for any potential threat.
Left-wing journalists complained endlessly but futilely about this practice – which is light-years more sophisticated and more capable these days than it was 50 years ago.
The world is a dangerous place. I have no particular objection to having my telephone conversations monitored – indeed, because I once worked at 10 Downing Street such monitoring is routine.
The British security services take a particularly close interest in the conversations of anyone who has become or may become a major player in British politics or in the Armed Forces. They do not want another Coventry.
In fact, the first and most unavoidable appointment every new British minister has to face is with the cabinet secretary, the head of the Home Civil Service, whose office (grander than that of the prime minister) is right next door to 10 Downing Street and communicates with it by a secret passage with a well-guarded door.
On the cabinet secretary’s desk as one goes in there is a single file – the new minister’s file. The cabinet secretary sits the minister down in front of him and goes through his past life in a detail so intimate that everyone who endures this process becomes fully aware that just about every conversation he has ever had has been monitored and analyzed.
The implication, of course, is that the minister will continue to be listened to throughout his career, however far he rises. His emails will be read. His bank transactions will be examined. Whatever he has done, for good or ill, They will know.
In theory, under the European Human Rights Convention, everyone has the right to privacy in his communications. In practice, the ancient Roman principle holds good. Salus populi suprema lex. National security comes first: it is your security and mine.
Now, if it is thought prudent to keep this close a watch upon our own people – the destruction of Coventry being a painful reminder of what can happen if the watchers overlook just one traitor – how much more obviously necessary is it that our intelligence community should keep a still closer watch on the actual and potential enemies of the West?
So the sniveling and blubbing and murmurs of “Shocked, shocked!” among world leaders at the news that your National Security Agency has been doing its job by listening to them is not only misplaced but downright cynical. For they are listening to us just as avidly as we are listening to them.