Should our spies read Kant?

  • National Newswatch

Note: This op-ed by Dan Stanton, a retired CSIS intelligence officer, is based on his review of a recently published book. JA


“Intelligence work has one moral law - it is justified by results.” John Le Carre's George Smiley.Meticulously constructed and sourced, written in clear philosophical prose, Cecile Fabre's Spying Through a Glass Darkly: The Ethics of Espionage and Counterintelligence (Oxford Books, 2022) is a user's guide for liberal democracies like Canada and their agents of stealth. Canada needs to renew its ineffective and 9/11-centric National Security Policy (2004) in the face of an evolving spectrum of non-traditional threats. The author transforms arcane rules of philosophy into a moral compass to navigate through the wilderness of mirrors of state versus state espionage. Consulting widely within intelligence communities, drawing upon recent history and the canons of ethical and political philosophy, Ms. Fabre challenges the conventional arguments that justify spying. She posits that “deception, treason, manipulation, exploitation, blackmail, and computer hacking as a means to acquire and protect secrets are sometimes justified. The book's essence - and usefulness - are found in her examination of the times when these methods are not justified.The reader must accept two fundamental truths; that a state needs to keep secrets, and in safeguarding that secrecy, the state must obtain the secrets of another party by stealth. The morality of defensive counterintelligence - classification, locked safes, secure communications, vetting of staff - is crystal clear. Where things get murky is in the land of offensive counterintelligence. The lies, deception, manipulation, coercion, and treason - Kant's “inherently despicable” activities - require justification. To determine if another state has already accessed our secrets (penetrated, in spy parlance) justifies the dirty hands of espionage, making treason a moral act.For Cecile Fabre, “espionage in the service of an unjust foreign policy is generally not justified.” She compares two of the most celebrated and damaging traitors: Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who worked in place for Britain's SIS, and Kim Philby, the KGB agent who penetrated SIS. “While Gordievsky did have pretty good evidence that the British authorities would make morally justified use of the information he was able to provide (Britain's relatively democratic traditions, rule of law), Philby had no such evidence (on the contrary) that the Soviet authorities would do the same. Therein lies a morally crucial difference between their two acts of treason.” The only similarity between the two men is their deeply wounded family members and close friends (complicit chums in Philby's case), who were lied to and deceived.Ms. Fabre cites offensive counterintelligence operations of questionable moral necessity; Australia spying on East Timor to get a leg up on negotiations over an oil and gas treaty with their neighbour. The NSA tasking to collect intelligence on UN National Security Council members' reticence in voting to support the US-led invasion of Iraq. (I would add Jonathan Pollard and Israel to the list). So, where do national interests warrant espionage activities that are beyond the limits of a Just War defence argument? Where does lying, deception, manipulation and computer hacking become legitimate and mandatory?“Intelligence activities are morally justified only as a means to thwart violations of fundamental rights and subject to meeting the requirements of necessity, effectiveness, and proportionality.” And espionage - defined by Fabre as “the act of seeking to acquire information about third parties that is thought to be needed to conduct foreign policy, and that there are reasons to believe those parties would rather keep secret” is the only way of acquiring this knowledge. Since no “human rights-violating” state will ever volunteer that secret knowledge, it must be stolen to serve the greater good.What relevance does Spying Through a Glass Darkly have to Canadian national security in the face of our rapidly expanding national interests? Countries like Canada are trying to manage a rapidly evolving non-traditional threat spectrum and the attendant legal and compliance challenges. New national security threats such as pandemics, disinformation, global warming, AI, quantum computing, and economic intelligence herald a paradigmatic shift in intelligence appetites. This requires an ethical framework for Canadian intelligence collectors, analysts, and policymakers in this new, wicked world order. The Kantian imperative of treating people (or political communities) as ends in themselves should be part of those conversations.Dan Stanton served for 32 years as an intelligence officer in CSIS. He is Director, National Security at uOttawa's Professional Development Institute.