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Col. Manners on the Etiquette of War and Surveillance

Dear Abby he's not.

| Thu Oct. 10, 2013 2:40 PM EDT

Dear Col. Manners,

I have to ask for your discretion, for reasons that will quickly become apparent. There are 12 documented cases in which a National Security Agency employee used NSA surveillance programs to hack into a partner's, lover's, or romantic interest's email or listen in on his or her phone calls. And this is generally considered just "the tip of the iceberg." I am a civilian employee of the NSA. Consider me the unlucky thirteenth case.  I know that such acts are sardonically known as LoveINT, but in my case that wasn't it. As I've told my former partner, I just wanted to know if she and a friend of ours were planning a surprise birthday party for me. (I'm one of those people who doesn't like to be caught off-guard.)

The Agency took no action against me, but my partner has never forgiven me. (She's now living with our former mutual friend.) She still insists that I should apologize. I consider this irrational. I say that no harm was done. I've pointed out to her that the NSA hacked into the emails and phone calls of Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, and the president of the United States has refused to apologize. His only response was to launch a many months-long "broad review" of NSA practices. (Believe me, there's nothing to investigate. We did it.) As far as I can see, there's an equivalency in the two cases: like my partner, Rousseff responded in an overly emotional way, calling off a long planned trip to Washington and later denouncing the US at the United Nations. Here's my question: if the president doesn't have to apologize, why should I? Who's in the right here? Please settle this dispute for me.

Unlucky 13

Dear Unlucky 13,

I'm afraid that the rules of etiquette are different in the two cases you cite. While I regret to tell you this, you are in the wrong and should apologize. In our personal lives, it is important to say we're sorry to those we treat badly, and hacking into your partner's email is, by definition, bad manners. 

Similarly, on a global scale, if, say, the Argentinean government had hacked into President Rousseff's email, an apology would indeed be in order. It's clearly not a good neighborly thing to do. But I hardly need to add the obvious: the United States is not a normal nation. It's the planet's sole superpower. It goes by a different rulebook, which it writes itself, and that is as it should be. So if we Americans have been playing by house rules in the case of the NSA and Rousseff, then what is there to apologize for?

It's common knowledge that an American president does not apologize for the acts of his hackers or his soldiers or his spies or his officials or his drones.  In addition, it's obvious that such an apology would be impractical and set this country on the road to hell. After all, once a president stopped playing by the superpower rulebook and started apologizing, just consider the Pandora's box he would open (without a hint of hope at the bottom). If we were a normal nation, there would be a vast list of things he would have to apologize for, including, just in the last decade, kidnappings, torture, abuse, murder, imprisonment in black sites, assassination, and so on and so forth.

So, Unlucky 13, swallow your bad luck and say you're sorry, but don't ask the president to do the same.

Confidentially yours,
Col. Manners (ret.)

***

Dear Col. Manners,

I'm a housewife in Tulsa and I had a question for you about the president's plan for a Syrian intervention. I know that, in the end, it didn't happen, and I hope you won't think it's frivolous of me to bring it up a month later, but I simply couldn't get it out of my mind. Here's what I've been wondering about: Why is it called "humanitarian intervention" when the president's (and Pentagon's) plan, as best I understood it, was to loose Tomahawk missiles and bombers on Damascus? I don't see anything "human" or "humanitarian" in that. And here's another related question: why are such strikes always referred to as "surgical" and "precise" when, as far as I can tell, they invariably kill civilians?

Oklahoma Gal

Dear Oklahoma Gal,

Nothing frivolous about your thinking! Let me start with that "surgically precise." The answer is: American weapons makers are the best in the world and so all of our latest weapons are indeed surgical and precise in their impact. Keep in mind, however, that, as studies have shown, "surgically precise" is a term with significant latitude. Consider, for instance, that, according to a report published in the Archives of Surgery, in a six-and-a-half-year period, Colorado doctors operated on the wrong patient at least 25 times, and another 107 times on the wrong body part.  So, surgically precise—yes, indeed!

As for that term "humanitarian intervention," as you probably know, the Supreme Court long ago turned the corporation into a "person" for matters of law. The Pentagon has functionally done the same thing for weapons like the Tomahawk missile for matters of war. That transformation may not have the force of law, but it does have force, so to speak. Because the Tomahawk is an American missile (produced by the Raytheon corporation, a genuine American outfit), and because, by definition, what we Americans do always comes from the best of intentions and an essential goodness of heart, because, that is, we are as exceptional, as one of a kind, in war as in peace, a missile attack on Syria (or elsewhere) would, by definition, be both "human" and "humanitarian"—and to complete the phrase in question, no one could deny that, had it happened, it would also have been an "intervention." After all, Washington's record on interventions speaks for itself. No country in memory has been as prolific an interventionist as the USA.—and it's a record, like all records, worth taking some pride in.

Yours definitionally,
Col. Manners (ret.)

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (now also in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse's The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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