An Exotic Tool for Espionage: Moral Compass
January 28, 2006
By SCOTT SHANE
WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 Is there such a thing as an ethical spy?
A group of current and former intelligence officers and academic experts think there is, and they are meeting this weekend to dissect what some others in the field consider a flat-out contradiction in terms.
The organizers say recent controversies over interrogation techniques bordering on torture and the alleged skewing of prewar intelligence on Iraq make their mission urgent. At the conference on Friday and Saturday in a Springfield, Va., hotel, the 200 attendees hope to begin hammering out a code of ethics for spies and to form an international association to study the subject.
Conference materials describe intelligence ethics as "an emerging field" and call the gathering, not sponsored by any government agency, the first of its kind. The topics include "Spiritual Crises Among Intelligence Operatives," "Lessons From Abu Ghraib," "Assassination: The Dream and the Nightmare" and "The Perfidy of Espionage."
Organizers said conferees would ponder such timely issues as how many civilian deaths can be justified in a C.I.A. Predator missile strike to kill a known terrorist, or what legal assurances a National Security Agency eavesdropper should demand before singling out the phone calls of an American who was linked to Al Qaeda.
"As an intelligence officer, you are confronted with ethical dilemmas every day," said Melissa Boyle Mahle, who retired from the Central Intelligence Agency in 2002 after 14 years as a case officer, much of it under cover in the Middle East.
Ms. Mahle, now a foreign policy consultant, was scheduled to speak Saturday on the practice of rendition, in which terrorism suspects are seized abroad and delivered either to trial in the United States or to imprisonment in other countries.
But in a required security review, the C.I.A. refused to clear about one-fourth of her proposed 23-page text, Ms. Mahle said Friday. She said the deletions "gutted" the paper and made it impossible to deliver. She decided to attend the conference anyway, because she believes its goal is "so important."
While she had received C.I.A. training on agency rules and the law, Ms. Mahle recalled that she got "none whatsoever" in ethics. But she found that her work demanded constant moral balancing.
Ms. Mahle said she came up with her own ad-hoc ethical checklist, including imagining what her mother would say about a proposed action or how she herself would feel if it were described on the front page of an American newspaper. But she believes any officer would benefit from more rigorous training in moral decision-making.
"You're the point of the spear, and no one's going to be there to make decisions for you," she said.
Not all agree. "It doesn't make much sense to me," said Duane R. Clarridge, who retired in 1988 after 33 years as a C.I.A. operations officer and who will not attend the conference. "Depending on where you're coming from, the whole business of espionage is unethical."
To Mr. Clarridge, "intelligence ethics" is "an oxymoron," he said. "It's not an issue. It never was and never will be, not if you want a real spy service." Spies operate under false names, lie about their jobs, and bribe or blackmail foreigners to betray their countries, he said.
"If you don't want to do that," he added, "just have a State Department."
Mr. Clarridge's view may be colored by his history; he was indicted on perjury charges in 1991, accused of lying to Congress about the Iran-contra affair. He was pardoned in 1992 by President George H. W. Bush.
But skepticism about the ethics project inside the agencies is widespread, conference participants said, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by their agencies to be quoted. "A lot of current intelligence practitioners are afraid to come," said one who is attending. "They think it could be held against them."
Judith A. Emmel, a spokeswoman for the director of national intelligence, said American intelligence officers received training on "legal issues appropriate to their responsibilities," and on ethical regulations governing matters like conflicts of interest.
Paul Gimigliano, a C.I.A. spokesman, said the agency had "a robust ethics training program" that focused on "integrity, honesty and accountability" and included the use of case studies. As for the agency's deletions from proposed speeches, by Ms. Mahle or any other former employee, he said such editing was based on the secrecy agreement employees sign and was "only to ensure that they contain no classified material," not to censor anyone's opinions.
One conference organizer, Jan Goldman, a 25-year intelligence veteran who teaches at the Joint Military Intelligence College, edited a just-published collection of articles on the subject called "Ethics of Spying" (Scarecrow Press).
The book includes 22 imaginary cases, from a female operative who must decide whether to have sex with a "repulsive" terrorism suspect in order to stay in contact, to a counternarcotics officer who must decide whether to relocate a drug lord-informant to protect him from arrest.
Less dramatic but more common ethical choices come routinely to intelligence analysts, who must decide each day what gets reported to policy makers. Melvin A. Goodman, a C.I.A. analyst from 1966 to 1990, is speaking at the conference on his experience with the politicization of intelligence during the cold war, which he believes has been echoed in the Iraq war.
"My feeling is that every problem with the intelligence in the run-up to the war was an ethical question," from the handling of the dubious defector code-named Curveball to the cherry-picking of evidence on Iraq's nuclear program, Mr. Goodman said.
"There's a lot of pandering at the C.I.A.," with the White House being given intelligence reports that suit known policy preferences, he said.
Mr. Goodman is a critic of the Bush administration's policies, but conference organizers say they have tried to avoid bias. The top intelligence officer of the National Guard, Brig. Gen. Annette L. Sobel, is a scheduled panelist. And one organizer, Fritz Allhoff, who teaches philosophy at Western Michigan University, has written an essay arguing that torture in interrogation is ethical in some circumstances.
Ms. Mahle, the former C.I.A. officer, says merely taking a tough line is not enough. If intelligence tactics are not supported by a public consensus of Americans, they can backfire, she said.
For example, the past capture of terrorists abroad who were then convicted in American courts stirred little controversy. But more recent rendition cases, like the delivery of a suspect to Egypt, where he complained of torture and provided information that turned out to be false, shifted the public focus from the would-be terrorist to the actions of the C.I.A.
"If there's not a consensus, then the public focus will be not on the bad guy you got off the street, but on what the C.I.A. was doing," Ms. Mahle said.