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opinion | Walter V. Robinson

Listen in on friends, but only when necessary

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Noah Guiney/The Boston Globe

Forty-four years before German Chancellor Angela Merkel discovered that the National Security Agency had been listening to her cellphone calls, President Nixon met with South Korean President Park Chung-Hee to discuss a substantial boost in American military aid to thwart a worrisome threat from North Korea.

That August 1969, summit meeting in San Francisco was as lopsided as a diplomatic mismatch could be: Well before the two men sat down, Nixon had a detailed list of what Park would ask for — and another list of what he was willing to settle for — all thanks to the cryptographers at the NSA, spying on yet another US ally. In that technologically primitive era, the agency easily intercepted scores of encrypted high-level South Korean government cables, handily broke the codes, and let the US intelligence community in on the most closely held secrets in the Seoul government.

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That year, I was an Army Intelligence officer based in Hawaii, assigned to watch over North Korea, and one among many analysts who read those cables every day. For nearly two years, thanks to the NSA, my regular reading also included the intercepted and decoded secrets of other Asian governments that posed no obvious threat to the United States — Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, the Philippines and, of course, South Vietnam. In the 1960s, NSA cryptographers were also flies on the wall inside the ostensibly secure foreign ministries of our allies across Europe, including the government of one of Merkel’s predecessors, Willy Brandt.

That the NSA engaged in Cold War snooping on our allies has been known for years, even if the extent of that prying and many of the particulars have not been widely known. It was done for a good reason: In the Cold War, with the United States and Soviet Union competing for global influence, the stakes were so inarguably high that we couldn’t afford not to spy on most of our allies. And it was done at a time — so unlike today — when the collection of such sensitive intelligence was so closely held that it remained that way.

So what are we to think of the NSA’s habit of listening in on cellphone calls, and reading text and e-mail messages from Merkel, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, and many other world leaders we count among our friends? The prurient monitoring of Merkel’s cellphone calls is no more defensible than reading your sister’s diary because she left it in plain sight. Perhaps new lettering is needed for the NSA’s shield: “If we can listen, then why not?”

But why? During the Cold War, we were trying to hold onto our allies. We had our doubts about some, our fears about others. But not so today: The vast majority of US security alliances are dedicated to fighting a specific global threat — the rise of radical groups and regimes. Leaving aside the fact that our economies are so interdependent, there is little need to worry about allies’ loyalty or intentions: Does the NSA think Merkel might be on the verge of entering into a secret military alliance with Iran?

Tapping into the cellphones of friendly leaders is all the more foolhardy because the surveillance state has become so large that, unlike 44 years ago, keeping our secrets secure has become nearly impossible. “Top Secret” security clearances are held by 1.4 million Americans, which is why a lowly private first class in Afghanistan had 250,000 diplomatic cables to pass along to WikiLeaks. And why an NSA civilian contractor like Edward Snowden was able to walk away with ever more damning secrets he should not have had access to.

In a post-9/11 world that began with intelligence failures, it has sometimes seemed to all of us that the country has never been in as much peril. But in the 1960s, there was the ever-present threat of nuclear Armageddon, to say nothing of the division of Europe that ran right through Germany with nuclear-armed forces on either side. It would have been foolhardy not to keep electronic tabs on the West German capital in Bonn where, it turned out, one of Brandt’s closest aides was an East German mole. Or even to check in on the government of French President Charles de Gaulle, who was trying to make friends with China, which was providing massive aid to North Vietnam.

It was a useful check on allies who sometimes told us only what we wanted to hear. Intercepted Japanese diplomatic cables were widely read for their candid insights about Japan’s neighbors. NSA monitoring was done out of concern that we had our share of “friends of convenience,” some of whom might tumble into the Soviet orbit. It was done out of fear that miscalculation caused by spotty intelligence would heighten the risk of nuclear war.

It was against that gloomy backdrop that Nixon and Park met in 1969 — just four months after North Korean MIG-17 fighters shot down an unarmed US reconnaissance plane 70 miles off the North Korean coast. Thirty-one American servicemen were killed, and the White House at first considered responding with a nuclear attack.

In Asia, where a half million American troops were engaged in Vietnam, the Korean peninsula had become an unwelcome flashpoint. In January 1968, a team of North Korean commandos was narrowly foiled in an attempt to assassinate Park. Three days later, North Korean naval vessels seized the spy ship USS Pueblo and its 82 crew members. And then came the downing of the reconnaissance aircraft 15 months later.

There were 56,000 American troops in South Korea, and deep concerns in Washington that the Korean War might well resume. For the United States, good intelligence was critical, from either side of the demilitarized zone. Indeed, South Korea foiled a North Korean mission to land another team of commandos in the south in 1969, thanks to signal and communications intelligence intercepts of North Korean military transmissions.

In the weeks before the Nixon-Park summit, the NSA provided the Nixon Administration with scores of secret cables between Park’s senior aides, the South Korean Foreign Ministry, and its embassy in Washington. Many of them dwelt at length on Park’s negotiating strategy: Ask for much more than he needed, in weaponry and other US assistance to combat the threat from Pyongyang. And the cables, which Park’s government presumed were secret, also spelled out what he actually needed.

Nixon had been dealt a full house. Park held no cards at all.

Were such efforts worthwhile? At the time, yes. Pyongyang backed down, and the Korean peninsula did not erupt in war. Elsewhere, did we use communications intelligence wisely to frustrate Moscow’s expansionist imperative while advancing our own? Not always wisely, but sometimes well. In some ways, North Korea today is a more serious threat. But the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In Asia, America is now preoccupied with daunting economic competition, something few dared hope for a generation ago.

Left over from Nixon’s NSA, there exists a guidepost for the Obama Administration: Listen in on those who are not your enemies, but focus on allies of convenience, not steadfast friends. Critics of what has been done to Merkel can only hope the NSA understands the ever-more critical importance of knowing what is being said secretly in Cairo, Islamabad, and Baghdad. If only the assets that were locked in on Merkel and Rousseff had been used to bolster the monitoring of competing Libyan factions before the attack on the Benghazi consulate claimed four lives.

Before Snowden, the United States and its allies faced a singular challenge — defeating our common enemy, terrorism. That task is now more complicated: How can we march in lockstep with our friends if they doubt our intentions and integrity? One useful hint for the United States: If you are tempted again to read your sister’s diary when she’s not looking, remember that the room is now full of people watching.

Walter V. Robinson, a former Washington and foreign correspondent for the Globe, is a professor of journalism at Northeastern University.
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