Ethics for spies is a true oxymoron, since breaking laws is part of their daily work. But it is an important oxymoron, because the lives of millions swing on what spies tell leaders who employ them. When weapons of mass destruction enter the mix, the fate of the entire planet can depend on whether spies are wise at moments of exceptional stress. Wisdom is not possible without ethics. So even though spies break laws every day, often lie for a living, and live in a strange world of bizarre customs, semi-random danger, rampant paranoia, and extremely twisted thinking, the quest for ethics among spies is important.
I study spies and call their strange world “spooky-luky land” in honor of Al McCoy, a career officer for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Division. In retirement, he became a private investigator devoted to defending whistleblowers from within this secret world, people who risked everything to defend the Constitution by getting forbidden truths out to a public that is theoretically in charge of the Republic (emphasis on “theoretically”). Spooky-luky land does not like employees who reveal secrets, and it punishes most who do relentlessly.
Intelligence bureaucracies are systems that depend on secrecy for their power and life’s blood, which is money. Good personnel help too, but money is essential. Secrecy protects identities and empowers methods used by “intelligence professionals” (the preferred label for most who make their living spying for governments). In human intelligence, as opposed to electronic, image and other forms, those methods are largely blackmail, extortion, assassination and threats of assassination (if you cannot just pay someone to betray their government). That begs a few other ethical questions.