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Give it a REST: Making an International Agreement on Spying

One of the joys of writing this blog--and something I think we are particularly good at here at On Violence--is coming up with wild ideas to improve our national security. Some favs: An International Criminal Court for Terrorists, Criminals and Pirates. Sending US Brigades on peacekeeping missions. Making Iran our ally in the Middle East.

Today, I present a new one: governments around the world need an Espionage Control Treaty.

I came up with this idea after revelations that the US had been spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel It was later revealed Angela Merkel had authorized German foreign intelligence service to spy on Germans for the NSA and she is now paying a political price for that. Since that revelation, there have been several repeated espionage snafus that make me think we need this more than ever.

- During negotiations with Iran, it was revealed that Israel was spying on US Secretary of State John Kerry and the negotiations.

- Recently, we discovered that the Russians had tapped into President Obama’s cell phone.

- China has been accused of spying on American corporations to steal intellectual property.

Since you can’t have a really good treaty without a really good acronym (START is probably the king of all treaties in this regard), we need one for this too. I propose “Restrictions on Espionage and Spying Treaty”, or REST.

REST would prohibit, ban or limit forms of international spying. For instance, it could say that governments won’t steal secrets from private individuals or corporations. Or it could prohibit sweeping up electronic communications and sharing them with allies. Or even all human intelligence collection on other governments. In short, it would make most clandestine spying illegal and against international norms.

Now I can hear some established national security voices clearing their throats to call me naive. They’re already preparing to say, “Did you really not realize that we spied on foreign governments? Did you not think they spied on us back?”

Of course I did.

But the brazen spying on a supposed ally by the US did surprise me. In hindsight, it was fairly easy to predict the diplomatic damage. But just because something--like espionage--is always done, doesn’t mean we have to--as a global community--keeping doing it (like slavery or war). And there are two great reasons why we could use this treaty.

First, intelligence could be the biggest waste of national security spending in the world right now. A lot of countries (not the US!), have dramatically restrained their spending on their militaries, but still spend boatloads keeping spies in the field. As Eric C wrote in his “Two Thoughts on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” post, spying often just wastes time, energy and money. Spies try to collect information, while counter-intelligence folks spread misinformation, and then the spies get that misinformation, understand it is misinformation then spread more. A lot of it seems not much better than guesswork.

Second, this is really the only way for the citizens of the global world to ensure our rights to privacy. Right now, the US can promise not to spy on its own citizens, but that doesn’t apply to British, German or Australian citizens. And those countries can agree to protect the privacy rights of their citizens, but still spy on Americans. Then the intelligence services can just swap information. And even if you trust the UK, Australia and other western governments, do you trust the Chinese or Russian governments? Me neither.

So let’s get to some obvious counter-arguments.

First, we wouldn’t “unilaterally disarm”. I bring this up because I can imagine someone saying, “We’re going to give up all our spies and let China spy on us?” Absolutely not. The entire point of a treaty is to ensure a country doesn’t do something unilaterally. So the US isn’t going to stop spying on other countries until it has agreements in place.

This leads to the second counter, which we receive on the blog all of the time, “Is this really enforceable? Do you trust other countries?” Well, as much as I trusted the Russians when we first established arms control treaties. Or trust opponents in war to follow the Geneva Conventions. Essentially, any Espionage Control Treaty would have the same safeguards as any international treaty. Having a treaty, though, gives us a pathway to both inspections and starts the world on a path for a new global norm.

Of course, America doesn’t always follow its treaty commitments. Think Geneva Conventions and the war on terror. That said, treaties help create international norms and I would love for a norm that enforced the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution worldwide. As a person who believes the values that founded America are universal, I’d love a treaty that starts that conversation.

The next argument, what about all the useful information we would lose? As I said above, I’m not too worried. For the most part spies write reports that become footnotes in other reports that are synthesized in even larger reports and no one ever reads most of them. Those reports, the slight edge we go for, are really just one or two steps above news reports, and maybe not even that high. (Remember when the CIA failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union? Remember when the CIA said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction?) We could still fund analyst shops to analyze the world; we just don’t need spies collecting vague human intelligence sources and collecting all our digital history.

And what about the terrorists? As I linked to above, a hypothetical “International Criminal Court for Terrorists” would handle those criminal investigations.

Do I think this one will ever happen? Of course not. The spies would hate it. Would we be in a better world with it? Of course.

three comments

A fallout of the Snowden revelations is increased counterespionage because of public demand. Members of the EU parliament didn’t bother to get crypto smartphones, now they do.
The utility from spying is thus bound to decrease further.

The U.S. spending on “intelligence” exceeds the German military budget. What’s more useful? Spying or almost half of the U.S.Army?

Finally, it has been acknowledged that open source collection of information is extremely useful (and unproblematic). Most of what the most productive spies do is legal talking with people, doing phone calls, reading newspapers while on station in a foreign country etc. It’s legal information collection. Most errorism-related (real) successes were based on normal people tipping LE off, simple observation who’s visiting an extremist hub or exchanging info between agencies.
Domestic errorist groups could be treated by LE with a RICO-like operation. There’s no need for genuine intelligence services, and certainly not for stings or subsidizing the group through paid informants.

The latter is a serious issue in Germany, where the constitution protection agencies infiltrated the extreme right to a degree that apparently hardly any of their leaders isn’t being paid by the government. The constitutional court rejected an outlawing of a neonazi party (which is in possible) because it appeared that whatever they were accused of, paid informants had been involved.
During the course of this scandal it became known that the paying of extremists for information even kept them from leaving the milieu and sustained the extremism. It’s the German equivalent to errorism inciting and sponsoring through FBI stings.


I’m curious if you’re watching or have watched any of the Direct TV documentary series The Fighting Season about the ANA/ANP etc and US military supporting them leading up to the 2014 Afghan elections.

I think you should do a piece on it. In the episode so far, I was impressed that the 82nd Airborne unit had to call the JAG who was the “Devil’s Advocate” and checked over all their intel from both their own sources and the ANA/ANP, before they were allowed to go Kinetic. Several of the commanders and staff Intel officer said how important it was to not kill the wrong person. In the end, they made no strike, because the weapon couldn’t be verified, or they dropped the RPG.

Other parts of the show seem to fall inline with what you’ve postulated.


@ Jeff – We haven’t seen it yet, but we do know they want us to advertise it on the blog. (They’ve already reached out twice now.) Maybe if they send us a screener, we can review it.

Other than that, neither Michael or myself gets Direct TV, so it may be a while.