Sunday, January 29, 2006

Ethics and Intelligence: Not an Oxymoron

By Melissa Boyle Mahle

Yesterday I attended a conference on ethics and intelligence. I had prepared for this conference for the past five months as I was presenting a paper entitled, “Renditions: The Ethics and National Security Debate”. I was unable to deliver my paper because of CIA censors. But before going into these details, let me say a bit about the conference.

The purpose of the conference was to explore whether intelligence professionals could and should adhere to a formal ethics system as part of a best practices approach. For example, in the legal and medical profession, professionals must rigidly practice professional ethics. The professional associations provide guidance on ethical dilemmas and encourage professional debate on the do’s and don’ts. If found in breach of ethical standards, doctors and lawyers can be sanctioned by their colleagues through their professional association.

Presenters at the conference covered a wide range of perspectives, from the military, academia, philosophy, law, anthropology, and psychology, and of course folks from the intelligence community (IC). This was the strength of the conference.

Topics of the presentations were all over the board. Some very good. Some very bad, in my humble opinion. To the bad first. There were kooky and malicious allegations by some of terrible past deeds by the CIA and special ops folks. I am not going to repeat these in specific because why spread falsehood. But in general, some accused the IC of kidnapping, murder and other immoral behavior on a grand and pervasive scale. As they described their image of the CIA in particular, I was left bewildered because never in my time at the CIA did I ever participate, read about, hear at loud or in whispers any hint that such terrible acts were are part of our history or present.

What I found most beneficial were the discussions of ethical frameworks already well developed that could be used within the intelligence world. Particularly, the military concept of Just War. If in our society, it is ethical to be a soldier and protect the nation’s security within a well developed ethical framework, why can we not create a similar construct for intelligence professionals? I am sufficiently intellectually stimulated that I will explore these concepts in greater detail in the coming months.

Some of the questions were writ large: Do we have a right to privacy from eavesdropping activities? Should there be informed consent before collection, recruitment or intelligence exploitation? What does commensurate force mean in intelligence collection? What is the intelligence equivalence of last resort? Does the American democratic right to know the activities of its government extend to the activities of the intelligence community?

Many of the questions were focus and tactical: Should the US engage in and condone torture? When is domestic surveillance permissible? Can leaking to the press ever be considered ethical? And many more.

What were the views of the IC on this conference? If they had any, they were silent. In my opinion, a conference such as this could be openly supported by the IC leadership. I firmly believe that our officers think about ethics a lot because the nature of the work presents them with dilemmas on a daily basis. It is worth countering the ill-informed statements that intelligence officers have no ethics or lose their ethical footings the moment they walk into the shielded enclosure of the intelligence community.

The idea that intelligence officers are amoral is just not true. I consider myself a very principled person with strong moral foundations. I look at my past career, at the ethical dilemmas I faced. I am comfortable with the decisions I made and I sleep well at night. From my conversations with my former colleagues, I know this to be true of many of them.

Why did the CIA not participate or sponsor or encourage this conference? Perhaps it was under their radar screen as I was told by one serving official. Why did they hinder the conference by not letting me add to the debate? The official response was that my paper contained classified information. The real answer is that they did not wish for me to participate. I am too high profile and speak with too much authority. My paper, admittedly controversial, contained no classified. Much of the material the censors blacked out can be found on the CIA website. Some of the material was directly pulled from the United Nation’s website in the form of a ratified convention by the UN and the US Senate. Other information came from published reports by Human Rights Watch. There were footnotes and quotations to source the information.

No, the CIA bureaucrats were hiding behind the false flag of the censors. We tend to think of censors working in small rooms, their weapon the black marker. Under Porter Goss, the censors today use a paint roller and work in the dark. They assume that if the topic is related to intelligence, it is classified. This is the result of the bubble in which they live.

At the end of the day, I have full confidence the paper will be cleared. I am sure I will find a suitable journal to publish it. The CIA will look silly for their effort. Perhaps it is a tactical win on silencing debate, but ultimately a strategic loss. I don’t lose if the CIA is roundly viewed as unethical and immoral; serving officers do.

This all me think about issue of secrecy and ethics. Is silencing debate ethical? Is it abuse of power? Is it necessary? Is it productive?


Blogger Pete's Blog said...


If you look at my blogsite via my nickname you may notice some similarity of approach.

I think you pose the right questions. Your reasoning about the lack of management support also seems correct.

The Administration does not want bad press, foreign or domestic. A high profile ex CIA officer discussing the morality of rendition (almost) in public is the last thing Goss wants (unless the wording is cleared in advance…). While Goss has an Agency background he was appointed primarily on his political skills rather than institutional loyalty.

Regarding your questions:

“Do we have a right to privacy from eavesdropping activities?”

In terms of the NSA’s ability to monitor telephone networks (from exchanges) for key words or phone numbers used, privacy is always “invaded”. As I see it a better question is “does the NSA’s criteria for retaining (or discarding) records of phone calls provide privacy.”

Ideally in sifting through the mass of data what is not of intelligence interest should be quickly (say 2 days or less) discarded. Same for the FBI.

“Should there be informed consent before collection, recruitment or intelligence exploitation?”

A case officer giving the agent informed consent? Sometimes. But I imagine often agents do not want to be “informed” because definite knowledge that they are committing “treason” or breaching “group rules” may make things worse if discovered. Also psychologically they may not want it spelt out to them what they are doing. So it depends on the personality and culture of the agent concerned.

Please post a comment on what I’ve writtem (maybe look at my site) then I’d like to continue the discussion.


2/02/2006 8:50 AM  
Anonymous Jean Maria Arrigo said...

Dear Ms. Mahle,

Thanks so much for your commentary on the conference.

As one of the conference organizers, I should say that we welcomed participation by individual CIA employees and veterans. However, we would not have been able to accept CIA sponsorship. We needed to maintain neutrality—and an appearance of neutrality— as an international organization.

I am deeply sorry for the omission of your paper due to CIA censorsip.

Jean Maria Arrigo, Ph.D.

2/17/2006 3:51 PM  

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