Have you heard the news? Europe is up in arms about reports that the U.S. has been spying on EU countries! It's incredible! It's an outrage! It's ... March 17, 2000? Damn, did the Flux Capacitor go out of alignment again?
Hmm. Thirteen years ago ...
In fact, this super sensitive Top Secret document -- "The Wall Street Journal" for that date, published a little piece by a former CIA director, entitled Why We Spy on Our Allies.
Golly, that's confusing, isn't it? I mean, to hear the politicians talking now, all this spying on communications and such is a new phenomenon that comes as a shock to everyone -- especially the politicians (vote for me!) themselves.
It may in many ways be outrageous, but it is anything but new and anything but a shock -- to anyone who has been paying attention.
When you really think about it, even NSA apparently didn't really consider this stuff to be as important to keep secret as the politicos are making out today. Otherwise, how would it have been possible for a relatively low level contract worker -- on the job for just a few months -- to dump so much data so easily into a thumb drive or two?
Either you have to assume that NSA is utterly incompetent -- and that's not a good bet, they've got some very smart folks there -- or else you're faced with the facts of the matter -- it's all a big game of Spy vs. Spy, and pretty much everyone knows it (even though speaking this truth in public is an ultimate spook and political sin).
You remember the Spy vs. Spy comic strips? The brilliant Antonio Prohías created them for "Mad" magazine in 1961. In the ensuing decades, the two spies, identical in appearance other than one being dressed in white and one in black, tried to gain the upper hand over the other (sometimes even as ostensible colleagues) with every possible bit of subterfuge and tradecraft at their disposal.
They were sometimes cunning, sometimes inept. We never knew what countries they represented, and it didn't matter -- the whole point was that they were fundamentally indistinguishable from each other in terms of modus operandi.
While their antics were humorous, some stories from the real world of spying are even more amusing. For example, back in 2002, a German intelligence operation, apparently tapping the phone lines of some 20K Germans, accidentally triggered the sending of telephone company bills for the tapping circuits to the targets of those taps! Oops! Paging Agent Howard, Agent Fine, Agent Howard -- nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!
Of course, intelligence ops aren't supposed to be funny, and can carry enormous costs, potentially in terms of dollars, euros, and lives.
But the point is -- and yes it's painful but the truth often is painful -- everybody with the resources to spy ... is spying.
The U.S., Germany, UK, Australia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, and on and on. Likely even -- as speculated in 1968's "The President's Analyst" -- Canada. ("Canadian spies?" Oh my.)
They spy internally and they spy externally. They trade data like kids used to trade baseball cards. They spy on their enemies and their allies, for one never knows when your current ally may become an enemy in a given situation, or an old foe a useful source of info someday, in the best tradition of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
This is a truth that reaches back to the very dawn of civilization, merely updated for each new technology as developed and deployed in the continuing triumph of human ingenuity.
The ancients, given a chance to observe today's intelligence and spying brouhaha, would likely assert that the gods are laughing at us, finding hilarious our public attempts at indignation not only over what is being done, but our laughable efforts to pretend that we didn't know about it all along.
With Snowden's leaks we have more details now, some that make sense, others that -- given the limited context available -- have been wildly blown out of proportion by media and used to damage the reputations of innocent parties.
But while U.S. politicians who approved NSA's ops via PATRIOT, and their counterparts in other countries who have supported their own nations' intelligence endeavors, will hem and haw and pontificate and lecture, mugging for the cameras and the voters -- they all know what's really going on and has always been going on.
And so, frankly, do we.