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Spying sustains peace

  • September 18th, 2014

The Green/Labour/journalist/InternetMana approach to spying was finally balanced by  excellent pieces in NBR by Nathan Smith, and Paul Buchanan. Sadly they are behind the paywall. I’d reflected on some of the issues late last year, when Angela Merkel was being hounded by the German political commentariat to denounce the US for hacking her phone calls.

This post contains those thoughts, first published in a post yesterday prompted by the pathetic coverage of the Snowden/Dotcom show in the last week of our election.

Edward Snowden and Assange may have sent many people to their deaths. Perhaps they should be executed for treason. But one can still admire their courage, and respect spies the world over because what spies do is also essential, while supporting laws against treason.

Without spying, without the risk that what is hidden could become public,  behaviour can and would be so much worse. Indeed there is a strong line of argument that a world without spies is far more dangerous, because others will cautiously assume the worst about what is happening when they do not know. They over-react. They will not trust. Very effective spying helps the countries that are more often than not honest. Because spies confirming that a country is telling the truth to its neighbours, reinforces the foundations of trust. When spies revea that the truth is being ‘shaded’ or spun, the targets will apply their own morality – if the shading is within the bounds of the spin in which they too indulge, relative trust remains feasible. When spies and hackers reveal that another country is totally untrustworthy, but the truth is that they remain incapable of really damaging their neighbours, the spying is still a force for peace. The target of the lies need not over-react.

It is only when spying and hacking are in the service of a country already bent on doing its worst to the country spied upon, that is becomes a thoroughly malign force. And that malignancy is compounded if the target country has inadequate spying or hacking capacity itself to be aware of the threat, and to prepare to counter it. In other words, a serious imbalance in spying or hacking capacity is as serious a threat to peace as any other drastic inequality in power. Armed neutrality and the so called ‘balance of terror’ have served humanity well and better than foolish volunteering to be over-run (by pacifism or obvious inability to defend) for as long as we can look back in history.

The conditions that are most likely to result in war calamity are perceived imbalances in capacity, when the aggressor gets over confident, or the potential target of aggression over-reacts defensively, with pre-emptive defences that prove to have been unnecessary. The Bush/Blair Iraq invasion is reported as one of those cases. The intelligence was insufficient to dismiss the fears that Hussein could use weapons of mass destruction. As he was pretending to be able to deploy them he does not get the sympathy that might otherwise be due.

As nations can never be certain that a friend will not become at least the covert or de facto ally of enemies (as NZ did when it unilaterally abrogated the ANZUS Treaty with Australia and the US) it is prudent to ensure that you know as much as possible of the inner workings of anyone important to your future. I hope that our intelligence services always maintain a prudent eye on even our ‘most-of-the-time’ friends, while focussing on those whose behaviour and interests show clearly that we should not trust them.

Angela Merkel would know all that. I’m sure that her outrage at the US eavesdropping on her calls is feigned. By and large, if a friend has ways to know just where your words and actions diverge, they can be more accommodating and more confident in their dealings with you.


  • Jim Maclean
  • September 18th, 2014
  • 10:00 pm

As usual an interesting and eloquently expressed point of view. If I may however, I would take issue with the claim NZ unilaterally abrogated the ANZUS Treaty. NZ merely required confirmation that ships visiting were not nuclear powered or armed. The US threw a hissy fit at doing for NZ what they had long ago done for Japan (albeit by temporarily disarming nuclear weapons where carried on board)despite NZ being a longstanding ally and Japan having carried out a sneak attack at Pearl Harbour.
The nature of the “Treaty” was also less than impressive with a right to “consult” if one of the parties was attacked, rather than a guarantee that an attack on one would be considered an attack on all.
I don’t believe it is fair comment to say NZ unilaterally withdrew at all. NZ sought accommodation for a democratically endorsed government policy which the US chose to try (unsuccessfully) to bully us out of.

  • David
  • September 19th, 2014
  • 3:01 pm

Interesting and logical opinion, as one would expect from a trained lawyer. However, persuasive though your post is, I cannot help feeling you are displaying a degree of naivity inherent in kiwis when looking at situations from a global historical context. I am a citizen of a democracy…I did not vote for a reduction in my civil rights, no one debated or voted in Parliament for an invasion of nzers privacy, whilst being in full command of the facts. If, indeed, you regard mass collection of data as essential to the well being of nz citizens then let us have far more rigorous oversight by non partisan and independent representatives – not political appointees. Members of this current government are under and will be under investigations due to misuse of ministerial powers relating to SIS and OIA requests and the full force of the law should be applied. I would recommend some of the excellent TED tv talks from some of the people who do know and have experienced first hand the dangers inherent in the US strategies.

  • Stephen
  • September 21st, 2014
  • 5:09 pm

David – there is no argument from me against a need for institutional controls against abuse of the powers. But ultimately the ‘who watches the watcher?” problem means we depend on electing people we trust.

  • Stephen
  • September 21st, 2014
  • 5:11 pm

I think the effect of abrogation came from the combination of termination, and the US finding that Lange had persistently told them one thing while telling his Cabinet and left faction caucus members something else.

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