Our true pastime: Spying

There’s a famous story about baseball legend Christy Mathewson. It was said that he was so honest that when the umpire called one of his pitches a strike when he knew it was a ball, he would demand that the call be changed. 

Mathewson was an anomaly in sports. Ty Cobb, the notorious dirty player, was known to use every trick in the book to help his team win. 

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These days, you just have to watch baseball a little while to see how much trust there is in the game. When pitchers have a conversation with their catcher on the mound, they automatically assume that their opponents are trying to read their lips, so they put their mitts over their mouths to protect against prying eyes. 

Spying is endemic in American society. From the very beginnings of our democracy, when Benedict Arnold’s plans to give up West Point to the British were found in Maj. John André’s backpack, espionage has played a significant role in our nation’s development. 

Some politicians might be shocked, shocked that the National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting phone records of millions of our American citizens, but if you ask the normal guy on the street what he thinks, I betcha he would be shocked if the NSA wasn’t doing it. 

We live in a society that has a healthy distrust of its government, but we also live in a society that has an equally healthy distrust of the bloke down the street. 

That’s why so many voters hold the Second Amendment is such esteem. Sure, it is nice to have a gun to keep the government at bay, but it is equally important to keep the family safe from violent criminals. 

J. Edgar Hoover got his start in 1917, investigating Germans as part of the Justice Department’s War Emergency Division. At the conclusion of the war, he began to investigate communists, and became the guy who led the Palmer Raids that put hundreds of Red sympathizers in jail. From there, he helped to build up the Federal Bureau of Investigation, spying on mobsters, politicians, civil rights activists and others he found to be dangerous for more than five decades. 

Hoover survived and prospered because politicians — and by extension, the American people — approved of what he was doing, which was spying on other Americans that were seen as a threat to the status quo. 

Spying fell out of favor post-Watergate, as then-President Nixon’s abuse of the Constitution came to light. It should be noted, though, that Nixon made his career in the spy business. He exposed Alger Hiss for hiding state secrets in the famous pumpkin patch, and from that one episode, he catapulted himself to the vice president’s office and eventually to the Oval Office itself. 

We love spies, especially spies who work on our behalf. 

In the Facebook Age, it has become a lot easier for our spies to spy on us, mostly because the American people are so eager to expose their private lives to anybody who cares to take note. 

We might not like the traffic cameras that ding us with speeding tickets, but we are fine with security cameras at the local 7-Eleven, although I wish they would give us clearer pictures of the hoodlums who so often terrorize the clerks in midnight robberies. 

It was with no sense of irony that Edward Snowden fled to China to escape the clutches of the evil American spy agencies, but it is weird nonetheless. China is a country that is so concerned about internal security that it won’t let Google operate freely within its borders because its people might too freely share their opinions of their government. The Chinese can’t allow that to happen, because then their government would collapse under the weight of collective unhappiness. 

Snowden likes the think of himself as a “whistle-blower,” but before he pats himself on the back too much, he should ask himself what really happens to whistle-blowers in China. They end up in prison camps. 

That being said, spying has been a national pastime in America for a long, long time. We may be the land of the free, but we are also home to a lot of spies. 

Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.