Although US president Herbert Hoover’s term in office (1929-1933) produced various economic hardship, his administration boasted a remarkable Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson. The son of a prominent surgeon interested in religion, Stimson attended Yale University, where he joined the secretive Skull and Bones society that secured his career.

The Republican Party politician, who articulated a Doctrine that announced American opposition to Japanese expansion in Asia, was apparently presented with a small batch of Japanese telegrams deciphered by the Black Chamber, a secret government code-breaking outfit. Whether his reaction to these revelations was accurate or not, Stimson was appalled at the invasion of another nation’s private communications, which led to a sharp end to these cryptologists’ funding. Reportedly, he admonished underlings that “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” an idiom that became legendary.

In light of recent revelations that Washington authorised the National Security Agency (NSA), the organisation that replaced the Black Chamber in 1952, to collect intelligence on leaders of established non-Anglo-Saxon US allies — including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany, among others — one wondered whether any gentlemen and gentlewomen were left among the world’s overwhelmed leaders.

Still, as the Stimson episode illustrated, and long before Edward Snowden surfaced, the NSA eavesdropped on communications of friends and enemies alike, simply because of the country’s technological prowess. Moreover, and under the rubric “you never know what you’re going to need” peddled by former US vice-president Dick Cheney, the US spied on foreigners and Americans equally because it concluded that it was “vulnerable, as shown on 9/11”.

Lest one boasts naivety, times have changed and many more countries acquired similar skills, including France with its intrusive Echelon system that focused mostly on the Arab World and Russia’s Fapsi (Federal’naya Agenstvo Pravitel’stvennoy Svayazi i Informatsii) that operated with the Directorate of Military Intelligence (GRU). As a rule, one assumed that everybody spied because no two countries shared identical interests. Even members of the “Five Eyes” alliance, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States — that allegedly agreed to pool their resources at the end of Second World War and committed themselves to no longer spy on each other — looked at one another with suspicion. One wondered, for example, whether the NSA shared its 1,056 pages of classified information about Princess Diana, whose intercepted phone calls were monitored right until she died in 1997, with the Cheltenham, Gloucestershire-based British GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters). In the event, Washington maintained that these files could not be released to the public because any disclosure would “cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States”.

Agreement or no, the logic of government secrecy went beyond what ordinary men and women contemplated, though many acquiesced to excesses because of a belief that their tacit submissions were protected by relatively clear laws that were first introduced in 1978. Earlier, that is from 1919 until Stimson stepped in, Black Chamber officials arranged for Western Union to violate US laws by copying all telegrams coming into and going out of the country. In 1978, and as a direct result of the Senate Church Commission investigation, a special Federal panel of judges was created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) to review proposed eavesdropping targets inside the country. That was when violations of the law were allegedly addressed, after it was revealed that the NSA spied on antiwar protesters at the height of the Vietnam War, under direct orders from President Richard Nixon. Still, the seven Fisa judges always met in secret sessions, kept no records of their procedures and issued no written decisions. More important, Fisa almost always approved warrants for all surveillance requests, which diminished its impartiality.

Of course, recent surveillance disclosures of foreign leaders — hundreds of phone numbers connected with at least 35 world leaders — raised serious questions in their own right. While the German chancellor Angela Merkel was subdued a few months ago when the Snowden leaks hinted that billions of German calls and emails were monitored, she was taken aback after it was revealed that her own communications were not spared.

There is now a debate as to whether surveillance tools in the digital age carry inherent vulnerabilities especially for what truly matters — economic intelligence — when contrasted with their intrinsic and apparently illegal powers. Indeed, not only were privacy advocates and legal scholars questioning the very premise that total spying is always better, serious officials have began to argue that the payoffs might not be worth the costs.

Stimson de-funded cryptologists in his time only to see a major expansion after Second World War and then the Cold War, when Washington created the largest, and we now know, the most intrusive signals and electronic intelligence agency ever. In the post-9/11 world, a fellow Skull and Bones alumni, George W. Bush, exponentially increased the NSA’s raw capabilities as well, which led to President Barack Obama’s current choices. Although not a Stimson-like statesman, Obama displayed no qualms about additional intrusions, further illustrating his style. That was a shame, since the Constitutional scholar surely knew that immediate exigencies seldom served the long-term interests of the nation. For even the powerful needed allies, if not friends, to remind them of what was truly worth in this life.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an author, most recently of Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (Routledge, 2013).