The first reports in early May of 1960 were that a U.S. weather plane, flying out of Turkey, had gone missing.
A silent Moscow knew better. After letting the Americans crawl out on a limb, expatiating on their cover story, Russia sawed it off.
Actually, said Nikita Khrushchev, we shot down a U.S. spy plane 1,000 miles inside our country flying over a restricted zone.
We have the pilot, we have the camera, we have the pictures. We have the hollow silver dollar containing the poisoned-tipped needle CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers declined to use.
Two weeks later, Khrushchev used the U-2 incident and Ike’s refusal to apologize to dynamite the Paris summit and the gauzy Spirit of Camp David that had come out of his 10-day visit to the USA.
Eisenhower’s reciprocal trip to Russia was now dead.
A year later, President Kennedy would be berated by Khrushchev in Vienna. The Berlin Wall would go up. And Khrushchev would begin secretly to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from Key West.
Had there been no U-2 incident, would the history of the Cold War have been different? Perhaps.
Yet, while there were critics of launching Power’s U-2 flight so close to the summit, Americans understood the need for espionage. Like us, the Soviets were installing ballistic missiles, every single one of which could incinerate an American city.
Post 9/11, too, Americans accepted the necessity for the National Security Agency to retrieve and sift through phone calls and emails to keep us secure from terror attacks. Many have come to accept today’s risks of an invasion of their privacy – for greater security for their family.
And there remains a deposit of trust among Americans that the NSA, the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency are not only working for us, they are defending us.
How long Americans will continue to repose this trust, however, is starting to come into question.
Last week, we learned that a high official of the U.S. government turned 200 private phone numbers of 35 friendly foreign leaders, basically the Rolodex of the president, over to the NSA for tapping and taping.
Allied leaders, with whom America works toward common goals, have for years apparently had their private conversations listened to, transcribed and passed around by their supposed U.S. friends.
Angela Merkel has apparently been the subject of phone taps since before she rose to the leadership of Germany and Europe. A victim of the East German Stasi, Ms. Merkel is not amused.
We are told not to be naive; everyone does it. Spying, not only between enemies but among allies, is commonplace.
This is how the world works. Deal with it.
But why are we doing this? Is it all really about coping with the terrorist threat? Or is it because we have the ability to do it, and the more information we have, even stolen surreptitiously from friends and allies, the better? Gives us a leg up in the great game of nations.
U.S. diplomats say that one of their assignments abroad is to know what the host government is thinking and planning politically, economically, strategically – that this is an aspect of diplomacy.
But relations among friendly nations are not unlike the NFL. While films are taken of rival teams’ games and studied, scouts observe practices, and rumors are picked up of injuries; there are lines most opposing NFL teams do not cross.
The lines of unethical conduct and criminality.
To learn that an owner or coach of one NFL franchise had wiretapped the home phones of coaches and players of a Super Bowl rival would, if revealed, be regarded as rotten business.
What kind of camaraderie, cooperation or friendship can endure in an environment where constant snooping on one’s closest friends is accepted practice?
In the Nixon White House, there were serious leaks that revealed our secret bombing of Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia to protect our troops, and of our fallback position in the strategic arms talks.
Wiretaps were planted on aides to Henry Kissinger and White House staffers who had no knowledge of what had been leaked.
Relationships were altered, some poisoned for a lifetime.
Why should we not expect a similar reaction among foreign friends who discover their personal and political secrets have been daily scooped up and filed by their American friends, and found their way into the president’s daily intelligence brief?
The Cold War was a clash of ideologies and empires for the future of the world. Men took drastic measures to preserve what they had. At the end of the Cold War, the old tactics and measures were not set aside, but improved upon, and now are no longer restricted for use against the likes of al-Qaida, but against allies.
At the Cold War’s end, the late Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick talked hopefully of America becoming again “a normal country in a normal time.” Seems as though the normal times are never coming back.