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  • Jonathan B Graves

Ethical Constraints: Intelligence Communities Moral Dilemma

Ethical constraints on the Intelligence Community are not only a necessary deterrent that limits the abuse of power but also in preserving America’s moral compass which is guiding by social norms in an ever-changing environment.

Arthur Applbaum, an ethics specialist at the Kennedy School of Government posits, "if a claim of professionalism is to have any moral force, it has to refer to ideals and commitments" which is precisely why American security agencies incorporate moral values into their ethos and mission statements.

The CIA blends ethics with integrity and states that “we uphold the highest standards of lawful conduct. We are truthful and forthright, and we provide information and analysis without institutional or political bias. We maintain the Nation’s trust through accountability and oversight”. One of the FBI’s core values is “uncompromising personal integrity and institutional integrity” that is beholden to ethical constraints.

Ethical constraints throughout U.S. history have arisen due to gross violations of the public’s trust. As technology advances, so must the moral framework that limits abuses of power from going too far in the name of national security at the expense of civil liberties.

The can-do attitude of the CIA starting in 1940 and the need for national security against terrorist threats after 9/11 created an environment of systemic abuse in the IC that cut ethical corners to get the job done; human rights abuses and the illegal search and seizures of U.S. citizens sparked public outrage and rightly so.

This culture of winning at all costs ended in humiliation for the CIA starting with the MK-Ultra operation, then the Church and Pike committee findings, and lastly with Edward Snowden publicly dumping information about PRISM and UPSTREAM on the internet for all to see.

While ethics in the intelligence business is complicated, Judge Webster said it best when he stated “in the United States, we obey the laws of the United States. Abroad we uphold the national security interests of the United States”.

Intelligence works in an amoral universe and yet moral constraints are prevalent and necessary to curb rogue agencies from abusing their power and escaping oversight as evident by the MK-Ultra, Church and Pike committees, PRSIM, and UPSTREAM. Every situation is different but a guide to moral stringency and ethical decision making is necessary to protect primary security and public security.

Abuses of Power

Dulle’s MK-Ultra Experiment

Allen Dulle’s, fearing Soviet capabilities in mind control regarding LSD was authorized by the CIA to find a truth serum drug under the program MK-Ultra. Dulle’s recruited unsuspecting U.S. citizens and prisoners to test behavior modification through electro-shock therapy, hypnosis, polygraphs, radiation, and a variety of drugs, toxins, and chemicals.

Test subjects were purposely chosen and preyed upon including “mentally-impaired boys at a state school, to American soldiers, to sexual psychopaths at a state hospital”. While secrecy is essential for effective intelligence, “better efforts need to be made to balance agency independence and effectiveness with individual security, democratic values and law, and how these concerns converge in intelligence gathering activities”.

Further LSD research within the MK-Ultra umbrella included George White’s operation midnight climax; after the CIA’s independent audit board analyzed the MK-Ultra project “the Inspector General insisted the agency follow new research ethics guidelines and bring all the programs on non-consenting volunteers to an end”.

The CIA had resorted to torture and cruelty in the name of national security with distasteful and unethical force that fomented “serious adverse reaction in US public opinion”.

Church/ Pike Committees

Seymour Hersh, in 1974 exposed mass surveillance abuses by the CIA in publishing an article titled Huge CIA Operation Reported in U.S. against Anti-War Forces in the New York Times. The lasting damage of Operation Shamrock and the fact that U.S. companies were complicit in spying on Americans shook America’s faith in the IC to its knees; legislation to curb the abuse of power was a natural inclination of Congress and one that remains a necessity in the 21st century.

Citizens have rights granted to them by the Constitution and the government has a responsibility to protect U.S. citizens from harm. These two rights/responsibilities clash in the sphere of national security but can be managed with a blend of agency training and empathy by U.S. citizens.

Ethical constraints must walk the fine line between abuse and inaction that deliver 100% success in maintaining freedom while thwarting all threats foreign and domestic against the U.S. The FBI created watchlists with Project Minaret and the CIA spied on college activists with Project Chaos which were both successor programs to Operations Shamrock.

Not only has spying increased as the IC has grown since 1940 to its current day behemoth status but spy programs on U.S. citizens has been a recurring theme over the past 70 years littered with details of abuse by the IC.

Prism and UPSTREAM

PRISM, leaked by Edward Snowden is a flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution that sacrifices American liberties for the greater good of capturing all terrorist activity. Fiber optic splitters capture transmissions by tapping into cables owned by Google and AT&T which copy data such as emails or anything else transmitted via internet to government servers.

The deputy director of the NSA, Chris Inglis testified to Congress that PRISM and UPSTREAM collects information three hops away from any terrorist. While three hops may not sound like much, “it can amount to up to 27 million people under the surveillance umbrella due to just one suspect”.

According to NSA Director Keith Alexander, “the U.S. government’s sweeping surveillance programs have disrupted more than 50 terrorist plots in the United States and abroad, including a plan to bomb the New York Stock Exchange”.

It is obvious that the collection of data and its analysis have led to a safer U.S. homeland but ethical constraints on keeping data that is not found to be important to national security should be severely limited as to how long it can be stored as well as when it should be deleted from government records.

Indefinite data collection is simply a violation of basic human rights and privacy laws that all western democracies hail as the cornerstone of a free society.

U.S. intelligence officers operate in the grey area of the law whereby preventing terrorist attacks is a top priority and ethical norms are vague if existent at all. Intelligence assets must make difficult decisions in the field and since ethics is unique to an individual, “that’s where the moral and ethical rebuilding of the organization should begin”.

Every decision intelligence agents make should be beholden to a set of subjective ethical and moral questions that utilize utilitarianism’s greatest good principle coupled with logical and realistic human rights principles and oversight. Since the IC must protect America, incorporating the greatest good principle into the decision-making process will provide guidance to serving America’s national interests and protecting American freedom.

“A clear understanding and consistent application of ethical values will advance and not compromise agency contributions to our natural security”. Ethical abuses of power relating to Dulle’s MK-Ultra project, the findings of the Church and Pike committees, and Snowden’s revelations about PRISM and UPSTREAM indicate a need for oversight and a logical balancing of what is necessary for national security and the fundamental human rights and freedoms of U.S. citizens.

Ethical constraints can walk the tight rope between primary security and public security and will remain vital to balancing public opinion vs threats to America and her belief system.

Author: Jonathan B Graves

Jonathan is Founder and President of the Confucius Global Institute, an international think tank that advocates for democracy, freedom, and human rights through harmony, humaneness, and morality.

©2018 by Foreign Policy Press