‘The End of Hypocrisy’ and the new N.S.A. Revelations from Canada

by Reihan Salam

Ian Austen of the New York Times reports that Canadian opposition politicians are outraged over new revelations that the Canadian government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, cooperated with an ambitious U.S. surveillance operation during a gathering of world leaders in June of 2010. The incident brings to mind Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore’s ”end of hypocrisy” thesis, i.e., the “leakiness” of national security states in “the age of the cell-phone camera and the flash drive” has greatly eroded the ability of the U.S. and its allies to say one thing in public and do another thing in secret. (Mike Masnick has written a good summary and analysis of the article at Techdirt.) I’ve argued that we’re going to miss the age of strategic hypocrisy, but I accept that Farrell and Finnemore are right that it is coming to a close. So be it. Whether it is Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald or some other disgruntled contractor and entrepreneurial journalist, national security secrets are at far greater risk of exposure than they’ve ever been, regardless of the severity of the laws we pass to punish leakers.

What I find frustrating about Austen’s article is that Harper’s Canadian critics seem to deny an important fact about the U.S. relationship with Canada. Both countries are part of Five Eyes, an intelligence-sharing agreement that entails an extremely high degree of trust among partner governments — the level of cooperation is much higher than it is within NATO, for example. So when Joyce Murray, a Liberal MP, asks, “why would the prime minister allow a foreign agency to set up shop on Canadian soil and spy on some of our closest allies?,” she raises a very deep and discomfiting point, which is that some countries are more “foreign” than others and Canada treats a select handful of countries, including the U.S., Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, differently when it comes to core national security matters than it treats other close allies like France and Germany. This is where the “end of hypocrisy” comes in. Harper’s critics claim that allowing a foreign agency to conduct surveillance on Canadian soil violated a number of Canadian laws. This may well be true. But in the past, there was an understanding in the political class that the Five Eyes countries cooperated in this manner as a matter of course. Leaks have now brought this cooperation to the surface, and some people who weren’t previously “in the know” are outraged. Indeed, opposition politicians have little choice but to be outraged, lest they allow their political rivals to capitalize on the opportunity. If the Liberals stand in solidarity with Harper, and by extension the U.S., the left-of-center New Democrats will get to beat up on Harper by themselves. And if the NDP gives Harper a pass, the Liberals will outflank them, and so on. 

Rather than rely on hypocrisy, politicians in the U.S. and Canada and other allied countries need to make a frank and open case for deep intelligence cooperation, and for revising laws as necessary in keeping with it. But that will take guts, and a willingness to bite some bullets. 

One thing I find remarkable about the Canadian N.S.A. news is that it was broken by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, an independent publicly-owned enterprise (a crown corporation), in collaboration with Greenwald, the independent journalist who has been at the heart of the Snowden leaks. In the past, one suspects that an entity like like the CBC would have been reluctant to divulge state secrets. Now, however, the CBC is willing, and even eager, to report stories that could compromise the ability of the Canadian government to achieve national security objectives. Whether you see this decision as a mark of the CBC’s editorial independence — a feather in its institutional cap — or a grave failure of judgment, it certainly reflects an important cultural shift.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.