Ethical Issues for Security/Intelligence Professionals … and Everyone Else

by rthieme on February 7, 2019

A colleague who worked for an intelligence agency in information security and related areas for decades shares his reflections on ethical challenges and – well, a bunch of things that go bump in the night .… challenges that do not apply only to his work. They cross boundaries into a variety of professions, perhaps all professions. James Baldwin said, after all, “The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.”


We’re no longer the only game in town. We know what Google, Facebook, hackers, the Russian mob, <insert foreign country of your choice> and others can do, and we understand the implications. Some of them scare the hell out of us.

There are things we simply do not understand. There are instances where we see evidence of anomalous things which imply impressive capabilities, yet we have no idea who it is or what they are up to. Unknowns are a scary thing.

We can conceive of “game changing technologies” but we don’t know if we’ll get there first. Worse, we know that there are “unknown unknowns” and the possibility that they might become “known unknowns” to somebody else first is scary.

China recently landed a robot on the backside of the moon. We understand the implications of the moon as the ultimate high ground from a military point of view. Imagine a rail gun on the moon, and what could be done with a basic knowledge of celestial mechanics. Why haven’t we returned?

When I am working on a project … am I the only one who knows about this that thinks it’s a <good, bad, righteous, immoral, evil> idea? If so, am I the sane one or am I the one who’s gone terribly astray? Difficult questions when there are only N people who know, and you can’t get a sanity check from anybody else.

My coworkers, who are in some ways closer to me than friends or family, think this (whatever it is) is <good, bad>. I don’t. What do I do, now that I don’t fit? Who do I talk to about it?

When is it right to stay to try to change things from the inside or go because there’s nothing more one can do?

How sure am I that I’m right, and am I right to be so sure (whether or not I’m right on the underlying issue)?

What if it were my family whose wedding reception was mistaken for an enemy summit and vaporized by a missile? Or what if my family were the next to die, because the bad guys got away with an attack due to my hesitation based on the first question?

If my older or younger self saw me now, would he be proud or ashamed?

If my friends or family knew what I’m doing would they be proud or ashamed? And in either case, would it still be the right (or wrong) thing that I’m doing?

Will I know if/when this job starts to change me in ways that are against my beliefs, or my health? Will I know what to do if/when I do realize it? Will I be able to do what needs to be done?

I’m not comfortable with this job, but would I be more or less comfortable if somebody else were doing it?

What if I don’t really know what’s going on? What if I’m working on the deception, or the cover story, not the real operation? (He learned years later than a sizable project was in fact a cover story or diversion and neither he nor his colleagues knew it until the project was declassified.)

What if some or all of the context, the requirements, and the criteria I’m working against are only part of the real story? And when if ever do I get the “whole story?”

What sorts of “what if” scenarios do I need to warn about? Am I an alarmist or a voice in the wilderness that needs to be heard?

Who do I trust? Who should I trust? Who do I not trust? Who should I not trust? Who CAN I trust? And if I cannot trust anyone at all … how do I live in isolation with rising anxiety, paranoia, fear?

We structure ourselves to mirror the enemy. We train ourselves to think like the enemy, so we can anticipate what they will do. At what point do we know them so well that we become them, and would we notice? “Beware when you stare into the abyss … etc.”

How many secrets are enough? How many secrets really are secret? How many secrets should not be secret? Didn’t Senator Moynihan have something to say about this, and wasn’t he, as usual, ignored? How many secrets are secret to cover up wrong-doing rather than to enable us to do right? Would the world be a better place if I revealed some or all of what I know, either in classified specifics or unclassified generalities?

Who profits from the action I am about to take, and how has that played into the decision? Did I make the decision or was I ordered to do it? Am I a patriot or a “good German?”

The tools, procedures, policies and systems exist to serve the mission. How do we recognize when the mission has become subservient to the tools, procedures, policies and systems?

“It’s a Wonderful Life” – if I were not here, what kind of world would Clarence the angel show me? Would it be better, worse, or does my presence make no difference at all?

If there is a God, and I’m one day called to account for the things that I’ve done, will I be found to have done ‘the right things?”

How many deaths have I prevented or caused? (How many “normal” people ask that question,  or have any reason to do so?)

Is there anybody in the rest of the world who sees me personally as a target, and if so, why? Is it “just business” or “personal”? As my colleague said, “I may be paranoid, but people ARE out to get us.”

What underlying assumptions do I make subconsciously because of what I’ve seen and done that my friends or family don’t share? In what ways have I moved through the looking-glass into a hall of mirrors and not even know it?

Does my work prevent me from being my true, authentic self to my friends and relatives? Would their opinion of me change if they knew the full, real, me, which includes the “work” me? What does it mean for my relationships that I can never be forthright, fully “myself,” with anyone, including my family?

My actions or decisions led (however circuitously) to somebody being killed. What was that person really like? What is/was that person’s family like? What happened between birth and death to put that person on that path – a path they chose and, then, we chose – so that my actions led to that person’s death?

Why am I doing this ? Have I consciously chosen the path I’m on, or is it the result of happenstance and my inability or unwillingness to consciously make a different choice?

Is this all real, or am I individually delusional or part of a larger collective delusion?

What are the basic assumptions, and when is the last time I explicitly questioned them or sought proof that they are true?

Would I be proud to have people know my name in conjunction with what I’m doing or have done (regardless of their opinions)?

What are the odds that a nuke will drop on my workplace today, given that I work in a place that is certainly a “top <5, 10, 50, 100, 1,000>” target?

What will advance my career, and how much of my values am I willing to trade? Yes, this happens in any career, but the potential repercussions are different in our business.

Most of this boils down to the isolation of the individual in a context where (due to compartmentation, clearances, “need to know”, operational tempo, office politics, etc.) it is often difficult to consult with any trusted and impartial mentor or peer to align your compass or get a second opinion, whether for moral issues or operational issues. Thus, the individual is left to struggle with who to believe, what to believe, what one’s bottom line values are (which might turn out to be different than one expected when one faces a real, no kidding, crisis of conscience), and what price one is willing to pay for staying true to whatever one clings to in such times, all in a context where the savvy individual knows that he or she might not know critical pieces of information which would considerably change the picture.

And then he goes even deeper:

I hadn’t thought of it before, but what if the effects of my work over time are related to those resulting from sensory deprivation? Sensory deprivation leaves one’s mind trapped in one’s head with no information about the world outside one’s head. The situations we are talking about give one sensory input, but one’s mind knows that the senses are almost certainly not delivering a complete and accurate picture. Over time, might the path to disorientation and possibly mental illness be the same, only slower, even if one gets to clock out and “go home” (which in some contexts, such as tours in a combat theater, is not possible)? And can a drone operator really go home when he/she leaves the bunker and drives to the kid’s soccer game or a family dinner?

And related to that … all sorts of work is being done on how the brain can physically change under different conditions. If we were to MRI a large set of people when they EODed into the intelligence community, or got read into compartments, or got assigned to a “advanced interrogation team” or whatever, and we followed them long-term, re-MRI-ing them every N years, what might we find compared to a suitably-selected control group? What if it were to be shown that IC members might have as much brain damage as the average NFL player, not due to physical injury, but due to brain plasticity reshaping things in response to (or to cope with) the cognitive environment?

Last but not least, he shares the (unproven) speculations of a co-worker who theorized that “our employer’s workforce probably has a statistically significant bulge in percentages of people from broken or abusive families, children of alcoholics or substance abusers, closeted homosexuals, dyslexics, and other traits. Why? They are just the sort of people we want – they’ve spent their lives keeping secrets.” (In AlAnon, the children of alcoholics learn, “Don’t feel. Don’t trust. Don’t tell.”)

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