The Ethics Of… Spying

You know, the funny thing is that when you say “Spy” nearly everyone immediately think of James Bond. It’s funny, because in reality you’d be hard pressed to find someone who is less like an actual spy. Between the psychopathic body count, the multi-national trail of property destruction, the blatant assassination of foreign figures, and the fairly distressing fact that everyone knows he’s a spy, James Bond is less ‘International Man of Mystery’ and more ‘a one-man declaration of war that makes George W. Bush look subtle’.

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There are cruise missiles with more subtlety than James Bond.

It’s probably worth pointing out at this point that I am talking through my arse even more than usual with this topic. What with my complete lack of involvement in the intelligence-gathering community, everything I know about spying comes from popular media, ham-handed Cold War novels, anything juicy that has been officially declassified (which is to say at least 30 years old), and the various tit-bits folk like Snowden, Assange and Manning have managed to leak to the public.

So while I’m quite sure that I have no idea how espionage really works in 2015, the information that is available paints us quite a picture.

In reality, the great game of international espionage appears to have a lot more in common with your average HR department than anything else. Gathering contacts, sounding out sources, setting up meetings, making deals and generally gathering information is the name of the game, with the goal being less ‘find the rogue nuclear weapons’ and more ‘patch together a vague idea of how India might be pricing soy beans this quarter’. It’s all about the ‘National Interest’ you see, and these days that means keeping a trade advantage over your neighbours than anything else. If anything explodes in this process then something has gone dramatically wrong – turns out that sort of thing tends to undermine the whole ‘secret’ part of secret agent.

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But while the vast majority of espionage just seems like state-sanctioned white collar crime, that’s not to say that the spooks don’t get up to some fairly terrifying shenanigans from time to time. This was never more true than during the Cold War years, when everybody went a little bit mental.

We’re not talking about recent scandals like internet monitoring here. Passive surveillance of civilians is indeed a pretty awful thing for the government to get up to, but assassinating both enemy and perhaps even allied leaders is another entirely in the scale of ‘things the government shouldn’t be doing’. Remember that Kony 2012 thing that sprang up (and then suddenly disappeared) calling for world governments to bring a particularly nasty warlord to justice? Well in addition to being disturbingly naïve, that campaign was also rather ironic given those same world governments routinely supply arms to very similar warlords, oppressive governments, and collective shitheads on a regular basis. Why? Because as long as those shitheads are aimed at our enemies and not us, the ends justify the means, that’s why. And if the whole NSA spying thing worried you, then just cast your eye over some of the bizarre and terrifying crap the CIA got up to during the height of the Cold War;

Remember the Unabomber? That crazy hermit guy who sent out all those mail bombs in the 80s and 90s are part of his nutty back-to-nature manifesto?

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Rocking the hipster look before it was cool.

Well it might surprise you to know that Ted Kaczynski was once a highly successful Assistant Professor in Mathematics… and probably still would be if the CIA hadn’t recruited him into the infamous MK Ultra experiments, during which he was pumped full of LSD and psychologically torn apart to see if mind control was possible. No seriously, I couldn’t make this crap up if I tried.

How about Project Acoustic Kitty? Sounds like a nifty code phrase, right? Wrong. Some nutters in the CIA literally forked out $20 million dollars to see if they could implant a microphone in a cat, and then send it into the Kremlin to record secret talks. Turns out you cannot – the second the poor thing was released for testing it immediately ran in front of a taxi and died. Probably just as well, really.

But as crazy as these examples are, both pale in comparison to the proposed Operation Northwood. This perfect piece of madness aimed to build public support for a US-lead invasion of Cuba. How, I hear you ask? By perpetrating a series of hijackings and bombings on its own citizens, and planting fake evidence to blame them all on the Cuban government. That’s right, the CIA actually proposed to physically attack its own citizens in order to justify starting a war. That’s Bond villain stuff, right there.

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And we wonder where people get wacky ideas like this from. No I don’t agree with them.

To be clear, this isn’t an anti-American thing I’m doing here either; if the CIA and allies went nuts during the Cold War then you may rest assured that the USSR went totally and utterly bananas. Fun fact about dictatorships; you don’t even have to pretend you give a shit. Read up on the way the Soviets treated their astronauts if you don’t believe me. A people’s paradise it was not.

And the scariest thing? This is just the stuff we know about. Given that the whole point of espionage is to keep things secret, imagine the sort of madness that is likely happening off the books…

So ok, mad crap like this is pretty incredibly unethical. Hell it was positively innovative in how unethical it was – breaking new ground in the pursuit of unethicalness right here. But this is just the mad stuff, right? The guys confined to the basement that everyone throws some cash on occasion and tries to pretend don’t exist. Surely the more conventional information gathering, cloak and dagger, high-stakes HR Department end of things is far more ethical, right?

Well you’d be working hard to be less ethical than wiring up a cyborg cat for giggles, but since ethics aren’t relative that doesn’t mean much. What we’re really asking then is whether espionage can be justified – specifically, can the theft of information from other countries for our own advantage ever be ok?

On the face of it, the answer is an obvious ‘no’. While theft can be justified in some circumstances (dire circumstances, no alternatives) it is in general a bad thing to do. It breeds distrust and insecurity, which in turn results in a lot of wasted time and effort as we are forced to watch our backs, often eventually resulting in some really nasty violence the second anything goes mildly wrong. This is also true of espionage – there is nothing more damaging for international relations than having one of your agents caught, up to their elbows in confidential material. Distrust between states becomes a serious issue, ironically forcing everyone to actually invest MORE in espionage to keep track on their rival’s intentions, which further increases the tension. Next thing you know, some citizen wanders over the border and the entire world is on the brink of thermonuclear war.

You may think I’m exaggerating here. You would be wrong.

Even in times of relative international peace, spying on your neighbours can do some serious damage to important factors such as trade, tourism and security. Ironically seeking information to secure our ‘national interest’ in these cases actually works against those interests.

And that’s to say nothing of the costs involved; in a post-Global Financial Crisis world, forking out $384.7 million in Australia and $52.6 billion for the USA seems kinda excessive when they money could be spent on, y’know, literally anything else. Sure keeping tabs on other nations may help us to gain advantages economically and protect ourselves from danger, but is it really worth that much?

Sadly this is a hard question to answer since, by its very nature, we have no idea whether what the intelligence community does is worth it or not. Maybe it is all soy bean prices and insider gossip, or maybe they’re valiantly fighting space Nazis on the moon.

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Probably not, right? Right?

And that right there is the whole point of espionage: we don’t know. And we won’t know unless we check. Sure it may be unlikely, even ridiculous to suggest that a rogue Russian general sold off a nuclear device to Yugoslavian separatist, who managed to pack it down into a suitcase and smuggle it right into New York before George Clooney and Nicole Kidman disarm it with a hammer, but here’s the thing – without a well-establish intelligence service you’d never know until the nuke went off.

Forget terrible 90’s action film premises, even the soy beans are a problem here. So the spooks keep tabs on the soy market – hardly in the national interest, right. But if they didn’t, and that market were to suddenly and dramatically take a dive? Without an intelligence community we would have no idea that was going to happen, why it happened or who was responsible. How then could we ever respond effectively? And while you might not find soy all that big a deal, you probably should given the market is currently worth approximately $10 billion. Cut an unexpected 10% out of that and we now have quite a lot of very angry unemployed farmers on our hands, not to mention an economy in some serious trouble.

At its core, espionage is a matter of cost pragmatism: life is not perfect, terrible things can and do happen, and our best defence against those things is to know about them before they happen. If the best way to get that information is to steal it, then the cost and occasional international incident are a worthwhile price to pay.

But what about when the definition of ‘national interest’ morphs from ‘self-defence’ into ‘domination of all competition’? What’s to stop a well-established intelligence service, with assets deep in the government of other nations, getting hold of information that would give our country a nice little advantage over others? What if, instead of detecting and preventing the manipulation of markets, we were to be the ones doing the manipulation ourselves? What if our intelligence services got it into their heard that torture was a completely fine way of gathering information? What if they went full-blown Cold War on us again and started up the crazy once more?

Well, we’d have quite the problem on our hands, wouldn’t we?

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One thought on “The Ethics Of… Spying

  1. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Killing ISIS | The Ethics Of

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