The Ethics of Espionage?

More than 20 years ago, I discovered a secular religion (Yes, there are such things.) called Ethical Culture. Founded in the 1800s by an ex-rabbi, Felix Adler, Ethical Culture’s focus was on “deed not creed,” that good works and compassion were more important than memorizing dogma. More than a century later, it’s one of the smallest religions in the U.S.

But its Eight Principles appealed to me with their themes of equality, respect and dignity for all, acting with integrity, educating ourselves, and democracy.

All throughout my government career, I had tried hard to adhere to the tenets of public service, as my father had taught me. What was harder than acting ethically as a federal employee was dealing with people who didn’t, whether they were fellow employees or the operators we regulated. I did have a thick tome of aviation regulations to fall back on to support me, and that was helpful. As well as the liability insurance those of us above a certain pay grade had to carry.

What Does This Have to Do With Espionage?

I’ve had members of my former Ethical Society ask me how I could possibly support the intelligence community and write about it because espionage and the people who conduct it are inherently unethical.

I beg to differ. Behind every intelligence or counterintelligence organization is the task of ensuring a country’s national security, perhaps even the country’s existence.

Because he was a gentleman of the Enlightenment, General George Washington understood that in wartime there were certain standards of “gentlemanly conduct.” He also knew that the fledgling American army fighting the British was going to get its ass kicked if he couldn’t gain an advantage. A big advantage would be to know troop movements and the British Army’s planned strategy.

Though he considered it somewhat distasteful, Gen. Washington approved the founding of the Culper Spy Ring, which operated in and around New York City. The spy ring’s handler or runner was Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who recruited from among professions the British Army wouldn’t suspect, people who could move among the British officers as “invisibles,” later in the 20th century to be called “grey men.” Washington quite often directed their operations, and those operations delivered key intelligence to assist Washington in winning significant skirmishes and in sabotaging British plans.

And we all know the outcome of that revolution.

But . . . did the creating of a republic with democracy as its basis overcome the questionable ethics of spying?

I’ll leave that answer up to you. I know what I think.

Those Distasteful Spies

After the Revolutionary War, this organized spy ring disbanded. Both sides in the Civil War used spies, though not in such an organized way as the Culper Ring. Quite often, it was private citizens who decided to spy and pass along the intelligence they found. Both sides accepted that intelligence because, like Washington, they understood the need for it, but they didn’t have to like it. In World War I in the U.S., branches of the armed forces maintained small espionage organizations, but they mostly directed their activities inward on people they suspected of being traitors or spies for the enemy. In World War II, Great Britain’s intelligence service, well-established for decades, was reluctant to share intelligence with the U.S. because there was no organized entity to receive it

Espionage has been used since pre-history by most countries, whether in wartime or in peace. Some have argued that espionage is more important in peacetime, so a country doesn’t get surprised. However, throughout history, people have always had qualms about conducting espionage, one of the reasons why the U.S. did not have an organized espionage agency until World War II, the OSS, which laid the groundwork for the CIA.

After World War II, when former OSS operatives tried to convince President Harry Truman America need to have a permanent, hierarchial intelligence service, Truman was hesitant. He found it all distasteful, unethical, and perhaps undemocratic.

Then, there were some who eschewed espionage because only the “bad guys” did such questionable things. However, organizations like Churchill’s Special Operations Executive, which conducted espionage and sabotage operations all over Europe proved that intelligence-gathering and counterintelligence operations were essential for the war’s eventual outcome. It was somewhat naïve to believe that the U.S. could operate in the post-war world without espionage.

The early bumblings of the CIA, its dubious use of Nazi collaborators, and its lack of understanding how it all worked certainly lived up to Truman’s and President Eisenhower’s doubts. President Kennedy came to distrust espionage after the CIA’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion and was dubious at first of the photographic evidence that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even closer to present day, the George W. Bush administration rejected warnings of Osama bin Laden’s plans for terrorism in the U.S. because that intelligence came from the Clinton administration, which they considered immoral. Whether you were a Democrat or Republican, there was a general distaste and distrust of espionage and the people who practiced it.

Some Countries Like to Spy

The Russians, in their various iterations, have always spied, at least from the time of Ivan Grozny aka Ivan the Terrible and his Oprichniki. They were more like a secret police, but they spied on Ivan’s internal and external enemies. This type of organization continued down through the years to the NKVD and KGB in the Cold War era to today’s SVR, FSB, and GRU.

Espionage has always been a more than accepted practice for Russian governments, and operatives for the various organizations were trained to believe that they were doing this for their country.

Well, of course, an officer of any intelligence service believes his or her work is for the good of the country.

The Russians, however, came to equate it with an individual’s patriotism, their love of country, and that’s a highly motivating factor, even for the lowest level KGB officer. This is why they treat traitors so harshly throughout Russian history and even use those traitors as an object lesson for other officers. I believe that’s why the KGB officers were so “enthusiastic” and, believe it or not, so efficient. They believed what they were doing was not only ethical but essential to the safety of Russia.

But they’re not the only ones. Operatives from any country’s intelligence organization feel the same way, but the tendency of the “good guys” to look upon the “bad guys” as mere evildoers motivated only by evil is naïve. They love their country as much as we do. We see our espionage activities as “good” and theirs as “evil” or unethical, if you will. But, it’s all the same.

Some of the CIA’s early failures were because they underestimated the KGB in particular. The Communists were evil, and the U.S. was good, so the U.S. was better at the spy game. Not. In many cases it was the other way around.

So, Is Espionage Ethical?

Again, it’s all a matter of perspective. If espionage engaged in by a sovereign government – regardless of its politics — uncovers intelligence that will save lives, prevent a war, and so on, I offer that it has served an ethical purpose of protecting the dignity and worth of a country’s population.

Corporate espionage to gain an advantage over a business competitor? Eh, not so much. Again, my opinion.

Espionage to betray your own country?

Again, it’s the perspective. Robert Hansenn, the FBI agent who sold secrets to the Russians for nearly three decades, was clearly unethical and a criminal and a traitor. But the Russians, who paid him for his info, thought having him as an asset was in the best interests of their country. The same is true when a U.S. operative “turns” someone from another country into a spy for the U.S.

And when we in the U.S. howl in indignation at the discovery someone is spying on us, friend or enemy, it’s the height of hypocrisy.

So, is espionage ethical? Much like espionage itself, there is no black or white answer. It’s all shades of gray.