As the war in Ukraine continues, the pressure on western, Ukrainian and Russian spies to gain intelligence that will give one side a battlefield advantage is intense. At the same time, spies from all around the world are trying to gain insight into President Putin’s mind and predict what he might do next, including under what circumstances he would use nuclear weapons. There are also, hopefully, spies trying to gain insight into who might succeed Putin. Yet there has been little focus on the espionage activities associated with this war. There has, rightly, been scrutiny of how soldiers have been acting on the battlefield, but next to no attention has been paid to how the spies involved have been acting. However, in my own professional experience, intelligence officers are very concerned about the ethics of what they are engaged in, including who they should be spying on, and how they should spy.
The collection and analysis of information has never been more important than it is today, in our fast-moving, interdependent, multi-polar world. Espionage is a response to uncertainty—and uncertainty abounds. After pivoting from the ideological conflict of the Cold War to the Global War on Terror, intelligence agencies are shifting their focus once again: this time, to a web of state rivalries that threaten to spill over from competition into conflict. We live in a world where a dictator’s dreams of establishing his own legacy can launch an invasion force that crashes global markets; where malware passed to a terrorist group by a hostile state can turn off the life-support systems in our hospitals; and internationally coordinated political ideologues can collaborate with private intelligence companies to attempt to subvert our democracies. In this world, having a source in a president’s inner circle or a terror cell, access to a political leader’s personal mobile phone conversations or the ability to place software onto another government’s secure server is becoming increasingly vital. Given how important espionage is and given its inherent risks—both to a government’s reputation and to the lives of those involved—a public examination of the ethics of spying is overdue.
Cécile Fabre’s new book, Spying Through a Glass Darkly, is a welcome contribution to the conversation. It has even prompted an anonymous response from the ethics counsellor of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).
Fabre begins by suggesting some of the reasons why there are comparatively few works on the ethics of espionage. According to Fabre, this is not only because most espionage is hidden from view, but because it has often been considered a dishonourable profession. The philosopher Immanuel Kant described spying as “that infernal art” because it necessarily involves deception. Kant believed that espionage undermined the trust of the belligerent parties in wartime and jeopardised interwar peace.
Spies attained a glamorous reputation as international jetsetters—secretive and emotionally damaged, but still quietly heroic—in the early 1900s, largely thanks to the novels of William Le Queux. In Mademoiselle of Monte Carlo (1921), we are introduced to protagonist Hugh Henfrey in the gaming rooms of the casino at Monte Carlo, where a would-be assassin uses a rifle disguised as a walking stick, before the action shifts to Paris, Italy, Spain and England. In his 1909 Spies of the Kaiser and 1910 The Invasion, Le Queux fuels the spy mania with his tales of German spies and invasion plans. The Daily Mail’s owner Lord Northcliffe serialized Le Queux’s work in his newspaper, convinced that its depiction of the German baddies would satisfy the average Briton’s penchant for a “good hate.” But it was not until 1953, with the publication of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royal, that we were introduced to the most iconic and glamorous of all fictional spies: James Bond. Henfrey, Bond and their descendants, such as novelist Robert Ludlum’s CIA operative Jason Bourne, have more in common with soldiers than with real-life spies and often undertake missions that would in reality be given to a special forces squadron rather than assigned to a single intelligence officer. More realistic spies, like John le Carré’s George Smiley—a cross between a foreign correspondent and a second-hand Bentley salesman, whose methodical investigative work focuses on unravelling deceptions—have never caught the public imagination in quite the same way. We tend to admire those who talk with their fists more than those who deal in deception.
As Fabre details in her book, in ancient China, Sun Tzu claimed that a ruler has a duty to try to avoid conflict whenever possible, since it will result in the deaths of many of his subjects—and usually of his poorest subjects. Given that acquiring advance knowledge of one’s enemy’s intentions through espionage is often the only way to prevent warfare, a sovereign who refuses to use spies is “completely devoid of humanity,” according to Sun Tzu. Seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes also felt that any prudent ruler should employ spies, since “without intelligence agents, sovereigns have no more idea what orders need to be given for the defence of their subjects than spiders can know when to emerge and where to make for without the threads of their webs.” Rulers have a moral duty to try to understand the situations they face, which will enable them to better predict the machinations of potential enemies and the consequences of their own actions.
For Fabre, there are three main approaches to the ethics of espionage.
The first is the “dirty hands approach,” epitomised by James Bond. He sins for our benefit and—as he is a good guy on the side of right—his ends justify his means. This, however, goes against Kant’s categorical imperative, which states that every rational agent is an end in herself and should never be treated merely as a means to an end—however noble. The dirty hands approach places the ethical burden of spying on the agents themselves, even though they run the risk of being misled by confusing orders from superiors, by their own biases or by their incomplete understanding of the bigger picture. Bond acknowledges this in Casino Royal when, in a crisis of conscience, he confesses to French agent René Mathis that often the “villains and heroes get all mixed up.” Mathis encourages Bond to think of evil in personal terms, rather than as something abstract, advising, “Surround yourself with human beings … They are easier to fight for than principles.” So, Bond divides the world up into good people and bad people and anyone whom he decides is bad becomes expendable—just a means to achieving his ends. In Daniel Craig’s last outing as Bond in the 2021 film No Time to Die, this principle is taken to its logical conclusion: ultimately, Bond sacrifices everything to protect his lover and newly discovered daughter. The focus on the impact of 007’s violent actions in the most recent Bond films highlights the moral ambiguity of the “dirty hands” approach.
The second approach is the contractarian approach. Here, espionage is a game whose rules are understood by its players, and which is cordoned off from other human activities. Citizens allow the state to protect them and agree in exchange to, at times, hand over rights, such as the right to privacy, and even look the other way as suspects’ rights are infringed. The game may require secrecy, torture, summary killings and other acts that contravene normal societal morals, but those who play it—both criminals and spies—know the rules and understand what they are getting themselves into. But as the range of targets of espionage expands to include business executives, journalists, IT workers and others without access to sensitive government information and who could have no reasonable expectation of being spied upon, this approach has come to seem increasingly inadequate.
The third approach is the “just war” theory approach. Here espionage is morally justifiable if it meets both of two criteria. First, the espionage activities must serve a just cause. Then they must be conducted ethically. In the case of the Ukraine war, since Russia’s invasion was unjust, their intelligence officers are acting unethically just by participating—no matter how they conduct themselves. However, it is morally permissible for Ukrainian intelligence agents to conduct the same activities, since their cause is just. However, this approach is designed for warfare and for reactive situations, whereas—as both Hobbes and Sun Tzu recognised—espionage is just as much a tool of foreign policy and needs to be justified proactively in peacetime.
Fabre’s own approach is based on two ideas. First, she argues that espionage is “morally justified” and may even be “morally mandatory” in the context of foreign policy, if it is used as a means of thwarting violations of fundamental human rights. For Fabre, the ethics of espionage are grounded in universal human rights—they are not, as Sun Tzu claimed, justified simply by the sovereign’s duty towards his subjects, but by the duties we all have towards all other people.
In defending these claims, Fabre scrutinizes a range of acts including deception, treason, manipulation, blackmail, eavesdropping, hacking and mass surveillance—devoting special attention to the way in which intelligence officers employ secret agents. This is still a vital activity, in a world in which understanding context and intention are key.
At the heart of Fabre’s considerations is the intersection between the morality that governs one-on-one interactions and broader political morality. When can acting unethically as an individual be justified by a higher cause? Can your behaviour as an individual be ethical if the cause you serve is unjust? This discussion is not just of interest to those involved in espionage, but to us all. Le Carré claimed, “I hope to provide a metaphor for the average reader’s daily life. Most of us live in a slightly conspiratorial relationship with our employer and perhaps with our marriage.” In the different roles we play—as spy, employee, spouse or politician—we accept differing amounts of unethical individual behaviour justified by the pursuit of higher goals.
While human interactions remain central to espionage, Fabre rightly recognizes that developments in technology are changing the art of spying—and not just because they increase a government’s ability to conduct mass surveillance. As Fabre points out, we need to consider the ethical consequences of the technologies we deploy and the asymmetry of different states’ ability to do so. For example, is it ethically acceptable to use an algorithm that mimics the online interactions of the target’s closest associates or even to use deepfake technology to take on the appearance of an ex-lover or online fantasy (discovered by scrutinising the target’s browser history for erotic sites)? Is it ethical to try to recruit a spy by employing an algorithm in a virtual reality environment and to use that technology to convince her to put her family at risk by spying on her own community? What level of psychological deception is acceptable? At our most intimate moments, we want to be recognised as real people and we want whoever interacts with us to fully understand what they are asking of us. To do this, they must share our vulnerabilities. Algorithms cannot do this. What are the consequences of leveraging such technologies at scale in a society where many people spend increasing amounts of time online and view their online interactions as just as real as their offline ones?
Espionage will continue to throw up fascinating ethical questions that will impact how we approach broader ethical questions around the use of new and emerging technologies.
It is good to see MI6’s ethics counsellor engaging with this book. But in her review, she claims that most intelligence officers are usually less focused on the question of whether they should spy on someone than on how they should do so. I agree that the question of means is very important, but many intelligence officers I have known have also questioned the causes they served—the reason that they were spying—especially during the global war on terror and our interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen.
The ethics counsellor suggests that Fabre underestimates the role of national interests in espionage. The intelligence services, she argues, must “promote the national interests as well as defend our core values.” In private correspondence with me, Fabre responded that, “this distinguishing of interests from values is problematic. It suggests appeals to interests are not value-laden: of course, they are.” I would add that if espionage activities are not aligned with our core values, they are not in our interest. For Fabre, espionage is justified when it prevents abuses of fundamental human rights—that includes abuses of the rights of our own nation’s citizens, but also violations of the global rights framework of which we are a part and from which we benefit. We should not have to balance our interests against our values. It is the moral duty of our political leaders to understand that our interests are determined by our core values and inseparable from them—or should be.
Fabre maintains that espionage should be governed by moral norms—not the rules of a game, nor merely a code of professional practice. It should operate according to ethical principles that we should uphold regardless of whether specific organizations share them. Fabre’s work has already provoked debate. It provides an objective outsider’s view of the secretive and closed intelligence community and challenges some entrenched assumptions about espionage. It will hopefully provide some helpful guidance for the spies who are currently under tremendous pressure to gain intelligence at any cost.
You must read Robert Ludlum’s novels (including The Bourne Sacrifice) and don’t stop at just watching the films if you’re an espionage aficionado, an Ian Fleming follower, a 007 devotee or just “Bourne” a spy catcher and know who wrote the “Trout Memo”. Of course, by now you should also have read Bill Fairclough’s epic spy novel Beyond Enkription in The Burlington Files series, written for espionage cognoscenti and real spies. Talk about disinformation as effective as any Robert Ludlum could create, its protagonist, Edward Burlington aka Fairclough is just as “fast and furious” as any James Bond or Jason Bourne has been or even the Gray Man was meant to be but with one subtle difference. All his exploits in London, Nassau and Port au Prince are based on hard facts (some of which you can even check) and laced with ingenious spycraft tricks even espionage illuminati haven’t come… Read more »