- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2010

As unaccustomed as I am to write this, commentators need to give Hillary Clinton a break. The secretary of state is under fire for ordering American diplomats to engage in detailed information collection against foreigners with whom they come into contact during the course of their duties. Among the documents released by WikiLeaks is the 8,300-word National Humint Collection Directive and similar orders that direct State Department employees to ferret out things like telephone numbers and directories (“in compact disc or electronic format if available”); e-mail addresses, Internet nicknames, personal websites, credit card and frequent-flier account numbers; health, biographic and even biometric information such a fingerprints, iris and facial-recognition factors; and signatures. In short, the government wanted to know anything that would be relevant to relations with the leaders of foreign countries, which, in practice, could be anything at all.

The directives also asked for detailed assessments on a country-by-country basis on things like “vulnerabilities, capabilities, and planned upgrades to national telecommunications infrastructure and information systems, command and control systems, networks, and technologies used by government, military, and private sector.” Anything that might be useful to keep an eye on a country would be fair game. These reflect the needs outlined in the National Intelligence Priorities Framework issued by the director of national intelligence. Mrs. Clinton noted that State Department staff members overseas play a critical role in providing information used in intelligence community products.

None of this should come as a surprise. The notion of a cordon sanitaire between diplomacy and intelligence is hopelessly outdated. The world is well past the point where it was when Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson said, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” By the time he had become Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of war, Mr. Stimson had changed his tune, and theUnited Statesembarked on a comprehensive program of global intelligence collection. The stakes were too high during World War II for Queensbury rules, and since then, America has used all the tools at its disposal to gain advantage in international affairs. Today, the fact that every U.S. embassy around the world is host to a CIA station is well-known, and many in the intelligence community’s clandestine service consider the idea of “diplomatic cover” to be an oxymoron. The quickest way to come to the attention of foreign counterintelligence is to claim to be a diplomat.

Reports on collection efforts targeting specific leaders have generated splashy headlines, but they are legitimate diplomatic efforts. Seeking information on Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s “nerves and anxiety” is not gossip writ large; dealing with leaders requires more finesse when they are emotionally unstable than it would otherwise. And implications that the State Department targeted British conservative politician Alan Duncan because he is homosexual overlook the fact that the Duncan analysis was part of a January rundown on the entire Tory leadership that assumed power five months later. Inquiries about his “relationship” to Conservative Party leader David Cameron is not an exercise in homophobia, fulminations of gay activists to the contrary notwithstanding. The fact that Moammar Gadhafi invited “bands from Mexico, Russia, New Zealand and a number of other nations” to play at the celebration of his 40th year in power might come in handy some day - who knows?

Other countries have no scruples about collecting personal information at every opportunity. Official visitors to China understand that any information they have on wireless-enabled electronic devices will be dumped, copied and put into the intelligence stream at first opportunity. Foreign officials in Russia are watched closely by counterintelligence operatives acting within diplomatic parties. Collecting on the personal peccadilloes of influential people in target countries can take more active forms. The ring run by Russian spy Anna Chapman that was broken up last summer is a case in point. Any Americans who were keeping company with Miss Chapman - a list the FBI has not released - should be considered ineligible for government positions requiring security clearances because they have been compromised, one way or another.

Those calling for Mrs. Clinton to resign for ordering “spying” are living in a fantasy world. Had the Obama administration ended this collection program, it would have been engaging in unilateral disarmament. If it makes the country safer for State Department employees to collect information on “indications of invasive species affecting food security or development” in Burkina Faso or former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark’s frequent-flier number, so be it.

James S. Robbins is senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at The Washington Times and author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive” (Encounter Books, 2010).