Memo From Michael: Secrets, Surveillance, Trust & Credibility – What’s a President to Do? Take this simple survey illuminating the complex issues involved in the apparent eavesdropping on heads of state of friendly countries.

Take the survey here.

I have been disturbed about the shallowness of public discussions concerning the revelation that U.S. intelligence agencies have been and still are conducting extensive surveillance on the phones (and presumably other communications) of heads of state (and presumably other top government officials). I have heard well known and respected pundits and politicians base their opinions (often stated as facts) on assumptions without any factual support and without considering the full ramifications of those positions.

In response to my dismay, grounded in the discipline I tried to teach as a law professor, I prepared a short survey that I hope will illuminate the importance and complexity of the issues and help each of you formulate a principled position that I can share with all of you. Please take 10 minutes to expand your understanding by taking this survey. Here are some thoughts you may want to consider before or after taking the survey:

The Facts.

As I understand it, since 2002 the NSA (presumably at the direction or approval of President G.W. Bush) and consciously continued by President Obama at least since this summer (the Administration says this is when the President was explicitly made aware of the surveillance) has apparently engaged in extensive, limitless surveillance on the top officials of friendly governments. The stated justification is this is as aspect of our efforts to protect American citizens and presumably our allies against terrorism.

So far the only country to publicly protest and condemn this practice is Germany but this has apparently been the topic of much heated discussion in other countries, particularly in Western Europe. The German position is that they view this an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individuals whose communications were intercepted and the autonomy of their country as there is no basis to believe that evidence of terrorism would result from these acts and that secret surveillance of this sort by a friendly country is a betrayal of trust. Some people in this country  doubt the sincerity of this protest based on the belief that 1) they knew that this types of surveillance was going on and 2) all countries who have the capacity, including Germany are doing the same thing to the U.S.  Germany denies that it is or has conducted any such surveillance on American leaders.

Values and Principles

How each of us evaluates this sort of situation will be determined by our values and principles determining the priority we give to issues of security, self-interest, privacy, trust and credibility. In most cases, but not all, these values and principles and our opinions as to the propriety of a particular act correlates to political ideology (conservative vs. liberal)

You may disagree, but I view trust and the credibility that flows from trust to be an exceptionally important ethical issue that pervades and defines all relationships – international, in commerce, in the workplace, in the family, and among friends.

I believe that our country’s reputation among both friends and foes is important in shaping collaborations and conflicts. But I also believe trust and credibility are very important in relation to the way governments and businesses deal with the public, the way employers and employees treat each other and i think it is particularly vital in the way spouses, boy friends and girl friends, platonic  friends, parents and children, siblings, etcetera relate to each other. I think trust is the soil in which meaningful, rewarding and lasting relationships grow and that distrust is toxic to all relationships.

Some believe that the importance of trust depends on the relationship and that different standards apply in different contexts, especially when very strong self interest (e.g.,self-protection) is involved.

I had the opportunity to conduct a full day intensive workshop with top CIA operatives and executives more than a decade ago and  I became aware of the many very difficult ethical issues faced by the intelligence community and our leaders who decide what they can and cannot do. Surveillance methods and scope is only the tip of the iceberg.

Consider, for example, what is proper and permissible to “turn an asset” – the phrase for getting someone to betray their country to provide information to our intelligence agencies. Bribery, extortion, threats, kidnapping a relative, torture? What do you think? Are there any moral standards that are important enough to govern international relations and all things done in the name of national security?

Thus, I find that  the phrase national security and the term terrorism almost immediately evoke a range of reactions that take the decision out of the normal realm of morality for many people. Our respective views and reactions to this prolonged (13 years), secret, and extensive surveillance on friends as well as foes may reveal a need to formulate different moral principles. Take the survey here.

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