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Col. Manners Takes Your Top Secret Questions on CIA Practices, Invasion Etiquette and More

Our man on the inside gives advice too secret to ignore.

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Spend your career in Washington and you’ll discover soon enough that these are the realities.  In fact, you’ll be interested -- and now undoubtedly relieved -- to know that among the options being explored by U.S. cyber experts is the possibility of providing dedicated cyberforces to the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, the EPA, the IRS, and possibly even Head Start.  (What, just to take an obvious example, if a group of disgruntled tax-paying cyberterrorists is plotting to launch a first strike on the IRS?)

"Be prepared" isn’t just a saying for boy scouts -- not any more, not on our new, totally connected, and remarkably dangerous cyberplanet.

Head straightly yours,

Col. Manners (ret.)


Dear Col. Manners,

Honestly, what gives?  Since Vlad Putin sent his troops into the Crimea, it seems like every American official from the  president on down has called what he did a gross violation of international law.  It is, of course, but I haven’t seen “international law” invoked this often in Washington in my lifetime.

How time flies (if you’ll excuse a note of sarcasm).  It seems like only yesterday that the Geneva Conventions were being called “ quaint” by American officials, that we were invading another country (nowhere near our border) on trumped up  weapons of mass destructioncharges, and that there were all those not-so-internationally accepted acts we were enthusiastically involved in.  (You know, setting up  black sites, Abu Ghraib, torture, kidnappings, etc.)  More recently, to offer just a couple of examples, the president has been ordering the drone killings of American citizens based on a Department of Justice legal finding so secret it has  yet to be made public, and his officials,  according to the New York Times, have seconded the Bush administration in claiming that a bill of rights-style international agreement the U.S. signed onto in 1995 does not apply to our treatment of anyone outside the boundaries of the United States.  This is evidently an internationally unique interpretation of that document. 

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m a local lawyer and not especially enamored of “international law,” but really, what is it?  Is the law ours to determine or is it the international community’s?  Can we really have it both ways, depending on whether we’re doing the bad things or they are?  You tell me.

Local Law Man from Baltimore

Dear Local Law Man,

There's a “law” you ignore in comparing Russian and U.S. actions.  Call it the law of exceptionally good intentions.  Manners and intent do matter, whether in our personal lives or in international invasions.  I’ve noticed, for instance, that John Kerry has been taken to  the woodshed by critics for supporting the invasion of Iraq in the Senate back in 2002 and then making  this statement about Russian actions in the Crimea: “You just don't in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped up pretext.”

This is a typically bum rap for our secretary of state.  Our invasion of Iraq and the recent Russian troop movements into Ukraine shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath.  Admittedly, we launched a war that killed many on the basis of a nonexistent arsenal of weaponry, while Russian troops crossed an international border in an intervention in which, so far, no one has died.  Still, the difference lies in the intentions of the invading parties.  Think of it as invasion etiquette.  Even when, as in Iraq, a U.S. invasion results in massive collateral damage and mistakes are made, they are honest ones taken with the best of intentions to bring freedom and democracy to peoples under tyranny.  This is commendable, whatever the results, and highlights the exceptional nature of our country.

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