"Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen's mail," declared Henry Stimson, who was U.S. secretary of state (1929-1933) and war secretary for two separate terms (1911-1913 and 1940-1945). Stimson even ordered the shut down of the War Department's code cracking unit, essentially dismantling U.S. intelligence. At the end of World War II, the legendary general William Donovan was asked to rebuild American intelligence capabilities by forming the CIA.
We are now in a period of time when everyone spies on everyone, while simultaneously condemning the phenomenon -- mostly after being caught. There is a great deal of hypocrisy in the reactions to the wiretapping scandal exposed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who told the world that the NSA has been listening to everyone. It even eavesdropped on 35 heads of state, including the German chancellor.
We grew up on John le Carré's spy novels, when the Americans were the good guys and the Soviets were the bad guys. These were the days when Western European governments would hail the considerable intelligence gathering capabilities of America, which stood by them in the face of the communist threat. London, Paris and Bonn (the then-capital of West Germany) welcomed the creation of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office in 1961, which became one of 16 American intelligence agencies. Its objective was to plan, build and operate satellite surveillance systems.
The French news paper Le Monde revealed how in one month Washington intercepted over 70 million phone calls and text messages from France. The elders of France, though, recall very well that former President Charles de Gaulle was fully aware that France's historical ally was keeping tabs on his country. The book "The White House and CIA Files on French Presidents from 1958 to 1981" documents that the Americans knew the shoe sizes of the mistresses kept by French presidents, even if they were more interested in France's foreign policy in general and its nuclear program in particular.
These days everyone feigns extreme shock and disgust at such revelations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her French counterpart François Hollande are pushing a "no-spy" initiative in the EU, while Germany and Brazil (two states targeted by the NSA whose leaders have been hugely offended) are formulating a decision to be presented to the U.N. General Assembly demanding the cessation of espionage and what they call the excessive invasion of privacy during the era of the war on terror.
I must admit that this whole story was much simpler in the past, when the world was split in two and spying was primarily for security purposes. I really loved knowing that America's ears had reached the bunkers of Baikonur (in Kazakhstan), from where the Soviet Union would have launched its missiles threatening the free world.
The Cold War may be over, but the world is still not the happiest place. In addition to military espionage, we have added economic and political espionage, which has been a boon for the spying business. It even happens between friends, maybe mostly between friends.
Since November 1985, convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew, has been locked up in federal prison serving a life sentence. Pollard, a former U.S. Navy Intelligence analyst, gave Israel information about the threats against Israel posed by Arab states, not information that posed a danger to his own country. He was never accused of treason.
The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was the first to act on Pollard's behalf. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued the sacred task of securing his release, which is considered part of the national consensus.
Pollard's intention was not to hurt the United States. His intention was to help Israel. He did this in an illegal manner and has paid the price for doing so. America, of all places, should understand better than anyone that there is also such a thing as friendly espionage.