Stop listening to gossip

It about time we turned the NSA’s big ears away from our friends and allies.    Amidst all the hubbub about the National Security Agency listening to US citizens and foreign leaders, no one really questions the value of the information we obtain. Let me put it bluntly: it’s gossip and rumor, not worth the trouble, expense or effort.   Sure, authorities can tell a few stories about finding tip offs about terrorist activity, but most of those appear to come from targeted listening, not the wholesale vacuuming of the Internet. The more politically charged issues are of listening to the cell phone of Angela Merkel and other foreign leaders, what do they produce?

We must get something out of it, right? After all, “everybody does it.” The French, Brazilians, Israelis, Chinese and Russians, have all been reported to listen to whatever they can and use it for political and commercial purposes. The Russians are said to have given bugs, in the form of USB keys and battery chargers, to all the G-20 leaders who met in Saint Petersburg in September, presumably to figure out what their negotiating positions were.

Politicians and senior policy people love the gossip: “have you seen the intel?” is a familiar question in policy discussions. Intel has an air of authenticity that newspapers don’t, even though newspapers are far better researched and edited. Intel may be extremely valuable when peering into closed spaces: North Korean nuclear programs, Chinese leadership maneuvers, or Middle Eastern money transfers. In the modern world, particularly in democratic societies, the problem is not too little information but too much.

When it comes to European leaders, the newspapers, Twitter feeds, rumor mills and scandal mongers produce so much information that the secret to knowing what’s going on is in the analysis not the collection. Embassy analysis, CIA career analysts, and reliable columnists understand what they are hearing better than politicians and policy makers who read a juicy tidbit in the intel. Even in China, intelligent reading of the Weibo micro-feeds can tell you almost everything. The key to intelligence is intelligence, not transcribing. If we have an indication of duplicity or conspiracy, then maybe we should carry out a targeted bugging, but listening to everything someone says or everything everyone says is no better than standing next to their water cooler.

Finally, lets ask who is talking to whom? If we hear some Major talking to some other Major about a coup, how do we know they are serious? During one coup in the Philippines, our intelligence chief at the State Department told us: “we had a warning this might happen. Actually, over the past year, we have had 1400 warnings of coups.” A politician, even a blunt one like Angela Merkel, is always trying to persuade and often shades the truth. Listening to two people lie to each other is unlikely to produce a reliable basis for action. If we heard Merkel trying to convince the French President to block a US proposal in trade talks, what good would that do us? We’d have to deal with him, we’d have to maneuver around him or turn him. It’s not hard to figure out their intentions, intentions are all over the newspapers, but it takes real intelligence to outgun or outsmart them.

So, let’s stop listening to our friends’ phone calls. Just because ‘we can’, doesn’t make it a worthwhile effort. Let’s spend our money on intelligent analysts who can figure out what’s going on and intelligent diplomats and politicians who can work their way to a good deal.

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