Ambassador Charles R. Stith speaks at Boston University
Boston University

A month after then-President Bill Clinton appointed Charles R. Stith as his new ambassador to Tanzania, the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam was bombed by Al Qaeda.

It happened pre-9/11, in August 1998, and Stith was tasked with restoring the embassy while “promoting American trade and investment in Africa.”

Today, Stith is director of the African Presidential Archives and Research Center at Boston University, and says that the one of the main things keeping us from facing similar attacks like the one that rocked Dar es Salaam, or recent incidents such as the Boston Marathon bombings or the terrorist attack on a shopping mall in Kenya, is our intelligence apparatus. Or, in layman’s terms, the health of our spy network.

In an interview with The Root, Stith talked about how intelligence gathering—even spying on our allies—is necessary to prevent future attacks, why former NSA contractor Edward Snowden isn’t a hero and how both counterterrorism measures and economic development are needed to combat terrorism in Africa.

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the conversation:

The Root: What are your thoughts on Snowden and the NSA spying leaks? Is it really that surprising that we’re spying on our enemies, allies and own people alike?

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Charles R. Stith: It’s a tempest in a teapot. Everybody involved has had to express a degree of righteous indignation for those folks who were spied upon and those folks who did the spying to convey some sense of contrition, but the reality is this is nothing new. And it’s not going to stop. Nor should it stop.

[To protect the U.S. from future attacks] you can’t do that reactively. You’ve got to do that proactively. If we weren’t doing it and we were exposed to or subjected to some major attack, either the physical or fiscal in terms of a cyber-attack, the first question people would be asking is, why weren’t we doing more surveillance. That would be the first question that was asked. Frankly, if the partisan political environment in this country weren’t so poisonous at the moment this [Snowden] would be a one-day story. People who know better on both ends of the aisle would have tried to make sense of this and get to the business of defending the people of this country.

TR: What do you think of Edward Snowden and his actions?

CS: This guy Snowden is not a hero. There is no real upside for us, for Americans or for American interests or for our allies for the kind of leaks that he’s made. The only people that it’s benefited are the people that have been willing to give him safe haven, and that ought to tell you something.

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If we don’t want a world where military intervention or where militarism is the first-line response, you’ve got to be able to engage in diplomacy. People have got to be able to convey information confidentially and be able to protect that confidentiality. If you destroy that world, destroy that infrastructure in the name of transparency, then you’re left then with very little in your arsenal to try to have a more ordered world.

So, you know, for all those folks that think that Snowden is a hero: Has he provided fodder for the evening news and talk shows and Comedy Central? Yes, he has. Has it been helpful in terms of us trying to realize an objective of making the world a more peaceful and tolerant place? The short answer to that question is no.

TR: Why is it necessary to “spy” on allies like Germany or other European leaders we’re friendly with? What do we gain from that? And what do we lose if we stop doing it?

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CS: You get a better sense of what folks are thinking—that they wouldn’t necessarily say publicly or say to you. Not to be overly simplistic or reductionist, but say you have a significant other and you all got a disagreement or a difference of opinion. It’s not unusual to ask what they’re thinking so you can get a better sense of what’s on their mind. Sometimes it’s helpful to have another source in order to understand why someone that is your friend is acting in a certain way in a certain situation.

Better understanding their point of view might cause you to temper your point of view. Give you insight how to change their mind—at the end of the day, not that big of a deal. [The New York Times’] front page was the president of Brazil taking great umbrage that we’re spying on a state visit. But page seven was, “oh, yeah, we spy on the Americans.” It’s not necessarily malevolent. We’re trying to pursue a particular objective, and it helps to understand the backstory of what even our allies are thinking.

TR: How do you think the Obama administration is doing in regard to their counterterrorism and international relations policies?

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CS: We could have been better. The intelligence gathering that has been done under the Obama administration has been particularly high grade. We’ve killed bin Laden. We found out where he was and killed him. We’ve identified a number of high-profile threats. Al-Qaida’s activity has been disrupted greatly. It didn’t happen by fiat. It happened by intelligence.

[The administration’s] biggest problem is in terms of the stagecraft of governance—how you explain this kind of stuff to the American people. I don’t think the administration has nearly been good enough on [doing this]. Something along the lines of the explanation I gave about why the U.S. intelligence services seek the kind of broad swath of intelligence that they do, even in so-called friendly countries, is the way he should have responded and then basically said, beyond that, this is why this is important, and I’m just not going to talk about it any further.

The pundits are going to do what pundits do, but to put the president in a position where he feels compelled to say, "I didn’t know what’s going on" is not good for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is it helps feed the narrative of this hard right wing that is trying to undermine, minimize this presidency.

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TR: Moving on to Africa, in a column for CNN, Alex Vines [director of area studies and international law and head of the Africa program at Chatham House) said U.S. “counterterrorism policies live on the edge of international law” and that our polices have caused more instability in already weak states. Do you think our counterterrorism efforts in Africa are effective, or do they cause more instability, as Vines believes?

CS: I think they’ve been reasonably effective—at a number of levels. Again, the development work [that the United States has done, including AFRICOM and various health and economic initiatives] has most definitely added to the climate of stability in a lot of countries on the continent. Which is again why we have found so many willing partners.

I don’t think it’s accidental that we got the level of cooperation we have with the government of Kenya, the level of cooperation we have with the government of Tanzania, the level of cooperation we have with the South Africans. It’s our holistic approach to development and engagement. We have a much more acrimonious relationship to the leadership in Afghanistan, Pakistan. 

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It’s interesting that [Vines] would insinuate that our counterterrorism policies have added to the instability when quite frankly, the reality is the initiative in Libya, for example, was not an anti-terrorism initiative, and did not have anti-terrorism focus. The French were on the point, and we were supportive, but the reality is that’s been more destabilizing than anything fighting terrorists. The West went into Libya, got rid of Qaddafi and Mali fell. While the cause du jour is “let's deal with drones, let's deal with mining meta-data for intelligence,” the reality is, compared to the more traditional things that are being done, it’s those much more heavily tilted towards military intervention that have been the most destabilizing.

TR: Vines also said that “jihadi” terrorist groups thrive in weak states that are poorly governed, and that means “institution building, promotion of good governance and more jobs is the way to address terrorism, rather than the quick fix of military action.” With the time you spent overseas and working in diplomacy, do you agree with this line of thinking? Is developing infrastructure more viable than a military or counterterrorism solution?

CS: The short answer is, it’s not either-or. We’re going to need economic development. We need help to build up capacities in these countries. But we need to have very specific strategies to deal with terrorism in these countries.

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Challenges these countries face are huge. When you’ve got countries where two-thirds of the population has been marginalized because of the way these economies were structured during colonial regimes, you can’t grow economies quickly enough, efficiently enough, to overcome those kinds of gaps in generation. It’s physically impossible to do that.

It took Berlin in Germany a generation to overcome the East-West divide. And that’s one of the strongest economies in the world. There’s a common language. Some of the most creative people in terms of economic development were working to reconcile Eastern and Western Germany, economically, politically and culturally.

If you can’t overcome it in a place like Germany in a generation, you can’t do it in some of these African countries in less time than that.

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Danielle C. Belton is a freelance journalist and TV writer, founder of the blog blacksnob.com and editor-at-large of Clutch magazine.