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.

See the Secret About Secrets at


Comments 6

  1. Michael,
    I think what this President should do is start taking responsibility for his actions and stop throwing his country under the bus to save face and appear innocent in the eyes of the world. I have never seen a President that is so quick to point blame and shame at the very people who put him where he is and protect his very life, it is appalling how Obama defends other countries before his own, where is the loyalty!!!!!!! I would say to him show some courage, be honest(oops…. how foolish am I to ask that of a politician) and support your country even when we make a mistake, you are our so called leader, but then again all this shows his character when it counts.

  2. Our NSA and CIA intelligence is crucial to our nation. Call it “spying” or “data mining”, information is the key to knowledge and understanding and protecting ourselves against our enemies and attack. All nations do it. We have saved millions of lives and would not have won World War 2 without intel.

    This is not a partisan issue, but part of our foreign policy and it is clearly in our national interest to have great intel.

    In fact, we and many countries share intel routinely. In fact, Merkel’s cell phone was viewed by another nation which forwarded that information to the US.

    Many American and our press confuse US domestic spying (limited under our Constitution) with foreign spying (not limited). That makes for a lot of emotional, confused analysis.

    Clearly there are issues of what is foreign vs. domestic intel , how far to go in the foreign intel arena and what our allies expectations are (trust issue). Another issue is receiving a lot of data vs. what is done with it. For example, it was the Justice Department’s self imposed restriction preventing the FBI and CIA from looking at the 20th hijacker’s computer prior to 9/11 that would have foiled of the 9/11 attack!

  3. I agree completely with Mr. Hamlin’s comments, we live in a very dangerous world which requires us to use whatever means we have to keep us safe; that should include total secrecy from the media and others. My point is that Obama came out quickly and told the world how this spying has to stop like he had no idea, again throw us under the bus and make himself the hero!!!!!! that is my problem with all of this when I was growing up we called it being two face!!!!!

  4. A need for perspective. Employers are not your friend an will let you go without notice. People you know are not your friends and will do what is in their best interests. Even staying in touch with a “friend” can be a one way street and is usually motivated by wanting something. Congress does what is in their interest not yours

    So why should it different in the international world. Information is power and has the ability to shape the world both for the good and bad. A secret is only a secret until you tell someone else. If you are going to play the game do it with integrity you will have a much stronger position. When “caught” doing controversial things (like spying) make no excuses. Simply state it is the way it is and part of our culture as a nation PROVIDED it really is! Trying to lie or cover up is a slippery slope that will ruin your integrity and bite you in the rear. It is always better to address a problem with honesty when confronted by it.

    I am not saying you need to tell people what you are doing just do not cover it up when caught. Better to find out who you “friends” are now than when you need them.

  5. Excellent website you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew of any discussion boards that cover the same topics discussed here? I’d really love to be a part of group where I can get opinions from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thank you!

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