The Ethics of Spying

Article co-authored with Svetlana Izosimova, Master’s student of International and European Relations at Linkoping University, Sweden.

Whenever we come across the topic of intelligence and security services we instantly think about controversy and secrecy. Most of the time this area of government is considered to be a threat to ethics and morality. We can agree that the issue is very important , so in this paper I will focus exactly on the place ethics has in the intelligence services. But what is ethics? It is the method by which we categorize fundamental values in society and which we ought to follow. Exploring the issue in the perspective of good and bad is helping to highlight problems that should be resolved. Raising the ethical questions help to decide a course of action. Without it actions could appear random and even harmful.

The theme is not only important but interesting too for a few reasons. First of all because a strong debate on the conduct of secret services is helpful in underlining the differences between reality and theory in Political Science. Also, it can reveal the hypocrisy and even worse, corruption and abuse of power in the political systems of the most developed countries. Finally, paying great attention to this can be a gateway to further consequences like the disclosure of a politicized intelligence community and to other debates on the resolution of these problems by the means of reform.

5790408612_8952178d3f_z

Source: [email protected]

The starting point for the analysis of ethics from the intelligence services’ spectrum is the fact that what we consider to be ethical varies from time to time and from a political system to another. More precisely, those things that could be justified during war time seem to be not acceptable during peace time. In the past, the balance of power put countries in constant fear of one another so survival under anarchy meant more compromises when it came to values like liberty and transparency to the profit of stability and security. Nowadays, most of the Western world’s citizens tend to agree that the international arena is safer due to historical developments. In this situation, there is an opinion that secret services and spying activities should assume only a marginal role in the governance process.

With regard to the political systems, there is a view that the Occident has formed a post-modern system characterized by erosion of sovereignty and shared values. In this part of the world, there would be no need for the traditional international relations instruments that secret services promote and the debate about the ethics of it is very fierce. However, there still exists in the world modern and pre-modern systems that continue to be a threat to the high level of evolution reached by Western democracies. Inside those areas, for a country like  say Israel, which is under perpetual state of threat , that debate has no place.

2262559383_8a869ca7a8_z

Source: MATEUS_27:24&[email protected]

Another focal point of the discussion on ethics and security is the dilemma between the efficiency of some of the methods used by the services like the gathering of information and data in large quantities, targeted assassinations, the use of drones and the potential violations of human rights that they bring about. A development of this leads into another dilemma between serving the people by employing intelligence gathering instruments meant to protect them from terrorist threats and damaging people’s private lives or trust in the government because of secrecy and controversy.

These dilemmas take shape in real life in the case of whistle-blowers. The motivation of people who decide to leak classified information is a legitimate one. In the US, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution provide guarantees to the citizens against potential threats from their own government. What people like Manning, Snowden, Joe Wilson and his wife Valerie have done is to report misconduct of government officials or institutions. Every wistleblowing case is unique but they are all ethical. In Manning’s case, the revelations were about the abuse of power of soldiers who were taking the lives of civilian innocent people. This case shows that high officials are not responsible  for the acts of the people under their command.

10002044773_412865ded0_z

Source: AK [email protected]

In Snowden’s case, the NSA came under scrutiny for running a huge mass surveillance program on all US citizens and apparently on foreign and ally governments. The scandal it created shows how the abuse of power and violation of human rights and private lives for the sake of security is no longer tolerated by the public opinion. This could be a clear indicator to the people in power how to shape policies from now on and to remember that it is the people whom they are representing that matter in the end, and not their private agendas.

Read  Golden Jubilee of World's First Human Flight to Space; Space Race and Russian Technology

Finally, Joe Wilson disclosed how he personally debunked for the CIA the myth that Iraq was purchasing Uranium from Niger for the construction of nuclear weapons. This myth had been one of the founding arguments proposed by the Bush administration that justified the Iraq invasion. By destroying this supposition, Wilson clearly showed how the American administration falsely claimed to have a right to invade another sovereign state.

4907222713_375427c096_o

Source: jeanne [email protected]

In all three cases, the whistle-blowers had to suffer serious repercussions for their actions, instead of being honored for their courage in putting the truth out there. It has nothing to do with morality necessarily. But it is ethical because they followed the American values as the founding fathers proposed them.  The US is after all the land of the free and home of the brave.

As mentioned in the introduction, all these show the distinction between theory and practice and also the malfunctions or breaches in a solid and stable political system like the American one. Such weak points should not have the aim to eliminate the security apparatus itself but to provoke a real debate. This debate should be centered around the question: has the moment arrived to truly reform the system of the intelligence services so that it better responds to the context of globalization, liberal democracy and transparent societies?

References:

Gill and Phytian (2006). Intelligence in an Insecure World. Cambridge: Polity

Herman, Michael (2004). Ethics and Intelligence after September 2001. Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 19 (Summer): 342358

Lowenthal, Mark M. (2012). Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy. (5th edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press

Lyon, David. (2001). Surveillance Society: Monitoring Everyday Life. Philadelphia, PA: OpenUniversity Press.

Claudiu Sonda
Passionate student of IR and European politics with an interest in developing a high-level expertise in International Security and geopolitics.