10A091 In Praise of Spies by Jim Davies, 12/4/2010    

The current furore over the big leakage of diplo-cables that government people thought were private has exposed not a lot more than that they call each other rude names behind their backs, yet they are livid; and are baying like wolves for a taste of Julian Assange's blood. To have made so many of those pompous asses so angry with a single move is a magnificent achievement; in Jack Shafer's words, he has "restor[ed] distrust in our most important institutions" and as expressed in Gander Sauce, I wish him a long life and offer many congratulations in bringing about, even though very much against its will, a more transparent government - as a prelude, I trust, to one that vanishes altogether.

The event brings up the rather more serious question of spying in general. In the culture so carefully manged by government propagandists, Our spies are good and brave, while Their spies are rotten, treacherous vermin good only for extermination. Even when a spy from a supposedly "friendly" country - Israel - is caught, he is sent up for the rest of his life; these creeps are brutally determined to keep their information (or more accurately, ours) private.

Spies are most important in times of war or pending war, when information about the opposing government's intentions and capabilities is like gold dust and can make the difference between war and peace, life and death, victory and defeat. Given that such situations exist (and in a zero government world, they could not) it's instructive to consider: is spying a beneficial activity, or not? Right now for example, it's probably very critical in Seoul and D.C. to understand the mindset of that mysterious clique of misfits in Pyongyang. Is it all bluff, or are we on the cusp of WW-III? Inquiring minds would like to know, and only spies can tell.

Spies reduce uncertainty, by providing information that is deliberately concealed. This can only be good. It will not stop governments waging war, because they do that as naturally as breathing - always have, always will until they vanish from the human scene. FDR, for example, had almost perfect foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but did nothing at all to stop it - for his whole intention was for the USA join WW-II. But generally, to the extent that knowledge of the adversary's plans and resources is better known, it may reduce their incidence; there may be fewer. Wars are quite often fought on the basis of beliefs that are quite mistaken - and that's a double tragedy. Given perfect spying, those would not be waged.

For example, it's at least possible that Shrub really believed that Saddam had WMDs in 2003. Had the truth been undeniable - that none existed - he might well have been unable to win support in D.C. for the war on Iraq that he had wanted since the day he and his Neocon friends took office; and in that case the history of the last decade would have been far different and much better. Another example: if on December 10th, 1941, Hitler had had better spy data from behind the Russian front (notably, that a powerful counter-attack was about to be launched) he would never have declared war on the USA on December 11th; he thought he could leave the USSR "on hold" while disposing of his enemies in the West. Again, better intelligence would have dramatically improved the course of history.

It's often accurately said that wars are won by the side that makes the fewest mistakes, and I reckon that goes for how they start as well as for how they pan out. More, and more accurate spying would reduce the death and destruction that governments cause. Until they disappear altogether.

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