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Necessity and Rules
Intelligence professionals often engage in activities that Christians would generally consider immoral. Lying about one’s identity and activities as well as invading others’ privacy to collect information clearly violate two of the Ten Commandments. Yet, in what is arguably the Old Testament’s best known case of spying, Israelite spies not only concealed their identity, they relied on the lies of the prostitute Rahab in order to evade capture.2
The risks the presence of the Israelite spies posed for Rahab demonstrates another ethically problematic aspect of spying. Intelligence professionals often must recruit sources who they must then put at risk by asking them to do something which for them is arguably immoral: betray their country. Analysts must then assess this information and provide finished intelligence products to key decision makers. Thus no one in the Intelligence Community (IC) escapes moral taint. While the Bible is not clear about how much lying they may have done, given the King of Jericho’s efforts to capture them it is likely they misrepresented their identities multiple times. If nothing else, their positive reaction to Rahab’s example suggests they would not have had moral objection to doing so.
Governments and militaries, of course, justify these kinds of activities because of their utility to national security. That national security is a morally worthwhile pursuit from the biblical perspective is evidenced by Paul’s injunction in Romans 13, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”3 But just because national security is a morally worthwhile goal does not mean that everything done in its pursuit is morally worthwhile. This uncertainty can result in feelings of guilt if intelligence professionals are not able to place their actions clearly within a moral framework they can understand and accept.
Of course, the problem of balancing just goals with seemingly unjust means is not exclusively a problem for members of the IC. The job of a professional, whether she is a doctor, lawyer, soldier, or intelligence officer, is to achieve some morally worthwhile result. For the doctor, it is a healed patient, for the lawyer, the just application of the law, and for the soldier, security. The activities of the professional often involve engaging in activities, like surgery or the use of deadly force, which would not be permissible for a non-professional. Thus, most discussions of professional ethics begin with a discussion of utilitarian ethics. Utilitarian ethics requires that a particular action maximizes some good, such as happiness or pleasure, or minimizes some harm, such as misery or pain. In the context of the intelligence profession, it is assumed that anything that contributes to national security maximizes the good. As long as the contribution of an action toward national security outweighs any accompanying harm the act is not only permitted, it is required.4When choosing any particular target, the means for collection or analysis is not always in itself a moral choice. Intelligence professionals still have a prima facie moral obligation to accomplish their assigned tasks. Therefore, when making moral decisions in the context of the intelligence profession, one must determine the utility of the act in terms of whether its accomplishment maximizes or minimizes the chance of success.
Decisions thus arrived at are often justified or explained under the rubric “necessity.” But if necessity were the only consideration, then acts that would otherwise violate treaties or intelligence oversight regulations would be morally obligatory. If this were true, then intelligence professionals would be free to disregard the law as long as it was necessary to achieving success. In fact, one would never have to consider the law in the first place.
In fact, some intelligence professionals will argue just that. One former intelligence professional was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “It’s (intelligence ethics) not an issue. It never was and never will be, not if you want a real spy service.”5 Not surprisingly, this same intelligence professional was once indicted for perjuring himself before Congress.
However, intelligence professionals are obligated to take the law seriously. By accepting their role, members of the intelligence profession promise to abide by treaties to which the United States is a party as well as intelligence oversight regulations. Given Paul’s words cited above, this seems especially true for the Christian member of the IC. Thus, always deciding in favor of necessity would undermine the professional’s ability to make promises; however, promise-keeping is an essential part of maintaining one’s integrity. For this reason, a policy that undermines an officer’s integrity, when pursued as a general policy, corrupts the profession.
But often necessity and rule-following conflict, and it is not clear which to choose. Interrogators who know a detainee possesses life-saving information will often claim necessity justifies crossing moral and legal lines to obtain that information. Case officers must sometimes choose between the welfare of their source and obtaining critical information.6 Sometimes analysts have to decide whether to whether to tell an uncomfortable and unpopular “truth,” knowing that their superiors will likely reject their conclusions. Unfortunately, space does not exist to develop scenarios to illustrate these kinds of moral conflicts.7
But to claim that even in the case of such conflict a good intelligence officer always abides by the rules will not always yield the best answer. In many of these cases whether a rule applies or what the consequences will be is not clear. When this is the case, resolving conflicts is especially difficult. To arrive at a better informed conclusion we need a moral framework that accounts for both rules and consequences and provides a means for sorting out conflicts and filling in gaps. Sometimes the answer to the question: “Should following the rules take precedence over mission accomplishment?” will be “yes,” but not always.8 Making the correct distinction is one of the primary tasks of the professional, and the distinguishing mark of a person of character.
There is a gap between the kinds of ethical questions intelligence professionals confront and the kinds of answers that consequence and rule-based approaches can give. When considerations of necessity are insufficient and rules also fail, what intelligence professionals do depends ultimately on the type of person they are. Thus, it is important to develop professionals of character who understand what it means to be good—not just what it means to follow rules, perform duties, or reason well, although these are important to being ethical. If professionals are to have the moral resources necessary to make ethically sound decisions, they need an approach to ethics that articulates what good character is, how it can be developed, and how it influences moral decision-making. Moral philosophers usually refer to the ethics of character as virtue ethics.
This approach to ethics seeks to determine systematically what kind of traits good people (or in this case, good intelligence officers) should possess, what it means to possess these traits, and how people can come to possess these traits. In this context, virtues are the traits of good character. A person of character is more concerned with being the kind of person who does the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, and is not as concerned with the act itself. The ethics of character avoids most dilemmas because the focus is no longer on deciding between two unfortunate outcomes or two conflicting rules but on being a certain kind of person. Virtuous professionals do not assign values to outcomes or preferences to duties. Virtuous intelligence professionals have habituated dispositions that make them the kind of people who do the right thing, even in the complicated and dynamic environment of modern intelligence operations.