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Good Crook, Bad Crook

The Ethics of Espionage.

by Barnabas
July 23, 2003

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Good Crook, Bad Crook_Barnabas-The Ethics of Espionage.
Somebody had to lose it.
— The parish minister in Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey, explaining why he lost some embarrassing evidence.

Espionage and war are the work of honorable and brave men and women, but that doesn’t keep them from being stinky enterprises made necessary by even stinkier situations. So if we must engage in them it’s a lot better to succeed than to fail.
— Barnabas, May 29, 2002

WASHINGTONCIA Director George Tenet was expected to testify behind closed doors Wednesday about President Bush's claim in his State of the Union address that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa to restart its nuclear weapons program.
— Associated Press, July 16, 2003

AIDE TIED TO IRAQ CLAIM — Allegedly pushed uranium line in Bush speech
Pioneer Press headline, July 18, 2003
The scene that comes to mind is from The Sting, in which the good crook, played by Paul Newman, outcheats the bad crook, played by Robert Shaw, in a game of poker. After the game, the Shaw character is furious and helpless. He refuses to accuse the Newman character of cheating better than he did, which would have made him not only a loser, but a ridiculous loser.

Spies and crooks are anti-heroes, even when they are our spies and crooks. We suspend our ethical judgment on them because they share our strategic goals.

At least, we hope they do. We can’t be sure when hearings are held behind closed doors and “national security” may be used as an excuse for almost any deception.

So the appearance of the CIA director before a closed hearing has comic overtones. Nobody was supposed to have a clue as to what was said in the hearing, but according to the Friday headline that didn’t last long. It doesn’t matter, because nobody believes that anything of substance was said or, if it sounded substantial, was credible. This is our spymaster talking. Just as we pay our military to outgun the bad guys, so we pay our spies to outcheat them. We’re not paying them to tell the truth.

Someone may protest that the task of the CIA is simply to gather intelligence. Granted. But the intelligence they gather is not usually available in the public library. They are out to gather information that our perceived or possible enemies want kept secret from us. They are not gatherers of intelligence but thieves of intelligence and sometimes inventors of false intelligence to mislead enemy spies. They are out to undermine the “national security” of other nations.

I am not saying that Mr. Tenet lied to a committee of his own government. I wouldn’t know that because I am not a spy. I am suggesting, though, that whenever “national security” is invoked, the word of a spymaster can never be taken at face value.

The ethics of espionage is an oxymoron. Ethics is grounded in right and wrong, in plain speaking that distinguishes between them through the consistent use of agreed-upon definitions. In contrast, espionage is not grounded in anything. It is entirely goal-oriented. The truth is whatever serves the goal. Espionage is the practice of deception honed to perfection. Exposure makes it tacky, commonplace, and ridiculous; that’s why spies cannot afford exposure. So if we are looking to the CIA for an explanation, we will never know why the President said what he said in the State of the Union address. That agency isn’t into explanations.

So what is Mr. Tenet doing? I can only guess. I think he has the assignment that the minister took on in Brat Farrar. Somebody has to lose the evidence. We don’t know whether the entrance of the White House aide into the mix throws a wrench into Tenet’s plan, or is part of it.

If the CIA director isn’t as smart as I am making him out, he ought to be.

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