Ethics and Intelligence

By Nolte, William M. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Ethics and Intelligence


Nolte, William M., Joint Force Quarterly


The phrase ethics of intelligence, with intelligence understood to mean espionage and related activities, may seem oxymoronic. For most of the history of what has been called the world's second oldest profession, that sense of incongruity would be justified. Intelligence services have long been instruments of regime survival, often on behalf of regimes willing to take an anything-goes approach to that survival independent of any electoral mandate. Even in societies with relatively significant popular involvement in government, England in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, intelligence was truly a "secret service," an instrument of the Crown to be shielded from scrutiny and bound ethically to little more than serving the monarchy.

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Even with the emergence of democratic, constitutional government, this situation was slow to change. For the United States, the way to deal with the incompatibility of espionage with democratic government was largely to eschew espionage. From the Revolution, to be sure, American leaders from George Washington on understood the importance of military intelligence (seen largely as reconnaissance) and would even resort to the use of spies, secret writings, and other methods. But these activities were considered as aberrational as war itself, with commensurate and temporary adjustments to standard norms of behavior.

Historical Context

In retrospect, American participation in what constitutes intelligence work is part of our history. The Lewis and Clark expedition is generally understood as one of exploration. It was also an intelligence operation, enhancing the Nation's claims to the territories included in the Louisiana Purchase and providing leaders with mapping and other information considered essential to westward growth. For much of the 19th century, two of the principal missions of the Navy were hydrographic and astronomical, for purposes both scientific and operational. Even to the turn of the 20th century, a major function of American military intelligence was the collection or creation of maps and other geographic documents. A generation accustomed to Google maps may find it hard to believe that the Duke of Wellington's first charge to intelligence--to reduce uncertainty of what lay over the next hill--remained an often unsolvable problem until well into the last century.

Even when the United States accepted the idea of intelligence, largely in a military context, an aversion to secrecy and spying remained part of the American experience. As recently as 1929, Secretary of State Henry Stimson, upon learning that his department was funding a codebreaking operation--one that had achieved spectacular success against Japanese ciphers in the 1920s--reacted not by awarding medals and honors, but by shutting down the operation on the grounds that "gentlemen do not read one another's mail." Twenty years later, Dwight Eisenhower, at that time retired from the military, noted that "the American public has always viewed with repugnance everything that smacks of the spy." (1) Only a few years before, Eisenhower had benefited from the activities of spies and other intelligence operatives, as he would again as President.

By the end of the Eisenhower Presidency, in fact, the United States hosted the largest, most complex, and most technologically advanced intelligence establishment in history, one that has only continued to grow. How, then, do we discuss the ethics of intelligence, defined here to include the collection and analysis of information by human and technical means, counterintelligence, and covert action? (2)

Ethical Considerations

Before turning to the ethical considerations associated with these functions, we should note several basic reasons why intelligence must operate within an ethical framework. First, there exist those considerations that apply to any branch of public service--that public servants must not confuse public interest with personal interest. …

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