H. Brandt Ayers: Do gentlemen spy?
Nov 10, 2013 | 2512 views |  0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Henry Stimson, left, shakes hands with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Photo: The Associated Press
Henry Stimson, left, shakes hands with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Photo: The Associated Press
Try to reconcile the high-minded assertion of the Republican statesman Henry Stimson that “Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail” with the wide-open maw of the National Security Agency, which will dine on the tiniest morsel of gossip.

If such a feat could be accomplished — and it can’t — it would create more questions than it answered.

Spying is as old as war, which is to say as old as mankind.

America’s first significant effort to learn what enemies and allies were thinking and saying was “The Black Chamber,” a World War I cryptology center to break foreign code messages.

In the balmy days between the wars, before terrorism was invented, Stimson as Secretary of State withdrew support for the Black Chamber, perhaps thinking it was an unnecessary expense as well as unmannerly.

When he made his famous remark about gentlemen’s reading protocol, the Black Chamber had produced nothing more interesting than the Japanese position on reducing the size of war-making navies.

Since code-breaking had not yielded much, discovering no immediate threat from any nation at the time, it seemed logical to save the government some money and project a spirit of mannerly relations among nations.

The Japanese position against reducing naval armaments was a portent hard to see at the time. As a dangerous reality penetrated American thinking in the form of Japanese arms buildup and the invasion of Manchuria, Stimson’s views hardened.

When Stimson, a prominent Republican leader, was asked by Democratic President Roosevelt to be his Secretary of War, the two men were of the same mind about issues larger than politics.

Roosevelt and Stimson knew that Japan was going to attack the United States but our intelligence couldn’t tell when or where.

Sensing the need for better, centralized intelligence, Roosevelt asked New York lawyer and World War I hero William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan to build an agency that, after Pearl Harbor became the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services.

Enhanced intelligence, which included breaking the Japanese code, allowed a much smaller naval force to surprise the Japanese fleet at Midway, eliminating Japan as a dominant force on the sea.

After the war, the OSS was disbanded but the menace of an unfriendly, nuclear-armed Soviet Union inspired the creation of the CIA.

The shock of Pearl Harbor was a factor in an enlarging role for intelligence, but now instead of Japan it was Russia whose every movement needed monitoring so, if it intended to attack, we would know where and when.

But as the Cold War wheezed to an end with the implosion of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Communist Party, the Pearl Harbor-driven need for more and more intelligence waned.

That is until a Tuesday in September 2001.

The surprise attack on the World Trade Center buildings sent the appetite for intelligence spiraling off into infinity — literally.

Our response was outsized, for several reasons. Unlike London during the attacks of the Nazi “buzz bombs” and the random bombings by the IRA or Israel under missile and terror bomb threats, we have remained secure with friends to the north and south and protective oceans to the east and west.

We are tender; our pain threshold is low. We haven’t developed the psychological opiate of fatalism, the knowledge that some awful event is going to happen but we can’t do anything about it except live our lives as cheerfully as possible.

We are embarked on a war that does not have a single definable enemy or, unlike conventional wars, a date certain when the fighting stops.

Because we do not know exactly who the enemy is or from where an attack might come, we have a gargantuan appetite for intelligence from everywhere — even from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s grocery list.

At some point we need to instill in ourselves the brave fatalism that comes with the knowledge that we can’t prevent every hurt for all time, and then set some affordable and more definable limits to our intelligence needs.

H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.
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