COLUMN: A Malat Musing: Apologizing for Spying

Updated: 05/06/2014 1:39 PM By: Phil Malat

Demonstrators holds up banners with the photo of Edward Snowden during a protest outside of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013. Protesters demanded that the U.S. Congress investigate the NSA's mass surveillance programs.
Demonstrators holds up banners with the photo of Edward Snowden during a protest outside of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013. Protesters demanded that the U.S. Congress investigate the NSA's mass surveillance programs.
Photo: Photo: AP/Jose Luis Magana

Oh how the media loves that Russian rascal Mr. Snowden.  They absolutely revel in gnawing on every bone he throws them.   The most recent is the revelation that America was spying on its allies.  My Lord, the horror of it all – allies spying on allies.  But Wait…

In 1917 America was an isolationist nation that wanted no involvement in “the war to end all wars” - World War One.  As a result, President Woodrow Wilson was actively engaged in attempting to broker a peace agreement. 

Naturally England was not comfortable with our position – they needed our help to defeat Germany.  England was also concerned that America may not consider England’s best interests as a priority in the negotiations.  So the British broke our secret codes and began spying on us by intercepting and translating every communication they could get their hands on.  Hence, our ally was spying on us.

In due course, the English intercepted what is commonly known as the Zimmermann Telegram or Zimmermann note.  The message was sent by the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmermann.  It was originally transmitted as a classified, coded communication through an approved American network on January 16, 1917 to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt

The communiqué was a proposal that strongly encouraged the Mexican government to declare war on the U.S.  Zimmermann sent the telegram believing America would be drawn into the war in support of the allies with Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare scheduled to go into effect on February first.  To allay those fears and minimize American impact they wanted to embroil America in another war which would have tied down U.S. forces and slowed the export of U.S. arms. 

To encourage such a military alliance, the Germans offered to help fund the Mexican war against America.  Germany also promised to help restore the territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to the Mexican government which had been lost to the United States from 1836 to 1848.  

Once the British intercepted and decoded the Zimmermann dispatch they moved as quickly as possible to make it public.  Revelation of its contents outraged Americans and was instrumental in generating the support necessary for the United States to declare war on Germany in April of 1917.   

Forty-five years later, on October 16, 1962, President Kennedy was presented with photographs taken by an American U-2 spy plane clearly showing the Soviet Union was constructing offensive nuclear missile sites in Cuba.

On October 18, 1962 President Kennedy met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in the Oval Office.  With the proof of those pictures sitting in a desk drawer not 20 feet behind the president, Kennedy asked Gromyko about the weapons being placed and constructed by the Soviets in Cuba.  Kennedy provided the following account of that conversation:

“Only last Thursday, as evidence of this rapid offensive build-up was already in my hand, Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko told me in my office that he was instructed to make it clear once again, as he said his Government had already done, that Soviet assistance to Cuba, and I quote, ‘pursued solely the purpose of contributing to the defense capabilities of Cuba,’ that, and I quote him, ‘training by Soviet specialists of Cuban nationals in handling defensive armaments was by no means offensive,’ and that ‘if it were otherwise,’ Mr. Gromyko went on, ‘the Soviet Government would never become involved in rendering such assistance.’

Gromyko lied just as Anatoly Dobrynin (the Russian Ambassador to the United States) and Valerian Zorin (the Russian Ambassador to United Nations) had lied countless times to America and the world concerning the soviet missile buildup in Cuba.  We only knew the truth because of the information we had received through spying.

Assuming our allies would never lie to us is like assuming your adolescent child will always be truthful.  For decades the English lied to us as to how they gained knowledge of and access to the Zimmermann transmission.  They certainly didn’t want us to know they had broken our code and were spying on us. 

The harsh reality here is that our government cannot function effectively or in the manner we want it to function without knowing exactly what it is we’re NOT suppose to know.  Rushing forward to enthusiastically apologize for attempting to protect our best interest should be way down the apology priority list.   America has engaged in worldwide indiscretions far more improper and embarrassing than spying.   After all, it has now been 23 years and no one as yet has apologized for “Goodfellas.”  Let’s start there.

Phil Malat is a columnist for