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When the Iron Curtain fell at the beginning of this decade, many optimists hoped that the world's complex web of espionage would fall as well. Most corporate mavens could see through the naivete of this supposition; industrial espionage could only intensify with the dropping of formal national barriers. But, evidently, a large number of people on the inside could not tolerate the curtailing of their purportedly obsolete brand of spying.
Whether to preserve their allegedly glamorous lifestyles or for lack of a better profession besides the world's second-oldest, spies clearly want to keep the old networks alive.
Observe the case of the KGB. Following the departure of Mikhail Gorbachev, its divisions were split into a multitude of less potent directorates eventually accountable to the democratically-elected government. But in the last year, these remnants have reassembled themselves into a spying apparatus not far off in domestic and international power from their predecessor.
If this new reincarnation of the KGB sought only to crush the growing Russian Mafia, its formation would undoubtedly have the public sanction of more than one major government. But, in a characteristically spy-like manner, the new KGB has suddenly arisen behind the scenes and away from the spotlight.
We in the West are not immune to the effects of a re-freezing of Cold War proportions. Two weeks ago, the expulsion from France of American government workers accused of technology-related espionage carried waves of indignation and, for some, surprise. With the eroding of collective security agreements, perhaps the French became impatient with the peripheral spying the had knowingly endured for decades.
Should the United States continue to keep such a close eye on its allies? Surely, we have better things to do with government funds. Espionage only interferes with the establishment of an international free market of ideas.
Nevertheless, for those who have the best interests of their nations' security at heart, one can understand a continued conviction of the necessity of espionage. With biological, chemical and nuclear weapons materials seeping out of the former Soviet Union and into a new and unregulated climate, the positive effects of a network of trouble-shooting operatives are obvious.
In an ideal situation, this kind of espionage would come under the purview of an international authority such as the United Nations. But who would believe that the U.N. could administrate a fair and yet effective arm for this altruistic espionage? Even such a broadly-based group, which would inevitably be perceived as the instrument of the United States, would find its share of avowed enemies and alienate a fair number of smaller U.N. members.
Moreover, the currently existing intelligence agencies of the world (and their controllers) would never allow themselves to be subsumed into such an organization. Every nation would have an incentive to found its own clandestine net of spies; superpowers would again come to the fore in intelligence.
The solution could come by way of a convention to which U.N. members would be expected to adhere. Proof of abuses might be hard to find and punishments still harder to determine and mete out, but at least spy agencies would have some incentive to decrease the scale of their cloak-and-dagger operations.
From a fiscal perspective, the billions of dollars the Central Intelligence Agency absorbs every year could certainly go to better ends. Even left with only the military intelligence branch, the U.S. would still be able to out-spy any foreign powers. But the Republican Congress, with its usual does of paranoiac xenophobia, has not considered cuts to the Central Intelligence Agency as seriously as the Democrats had only a year ago. Hopefully, the Republicans will not engage in the deleterious escalation that the Russians have stealthily begun.
Daniel Altman's column appears on alternate Mondays
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