Is there such a thing as an ethical spy?One seldom thinks of spies as having ethical conflicts, outside of LeCarre novels. And even then, LeCarre seems to be a hopeless idealist.
A group of current and former intelligence officers and academic experts think there is, and they are meeting this weekend to dissect what some others in the field consider a flat-out contradiction in terms.
The organizers say recent controversies over interrogation techniques bordering on torture and the alleged skewing of prewar intelligence on Iraq make their mission urgent. At the conference on Friday and Saturday in a Springfield, Va., hotel, the 200 attendees hope to begin hammering out a code of ethics for spies and to form an international association to study the subject.
Conference materials describe intelligence ethics as "an emerging field" and call the gathering, not sponsored by any government agency, the first of its kind. The topics include "Spiritual Crises Among Intelligence Operatives," "Lessons From Abu Ghraib," "Assassination: The Dream and the Nightmare" and "The Perfidy of Espionage."
Spiritual concerns would seem to be a constant of the human experience.
Not all agree. "It doesn't make much sense to me," said Duane R. Clarridge, who retired in 1988 after 33 years as a C.I.A. operations officer and who will not attend the conference. "Depending on where you're coming from, the whole business of espionage is unethical."And there is always the bottom line:
To Mr. Clarridge, "intelligence ethics" is "an oxymoron," he said. "It's not an issue. It never was and never will be, not if you want a real spy service." Spies operate under false names, lie about their jobs, and bribe or blackmail foreigners to betray their countries, he said.
"If you don't want to do that," he added, "just have a State Department."
Ms. Mahle, the former C.I.A. officer, [and one of the speakers at the conference] says merely taking a tough line is not enough. If intelligence tactics are not supported by a public consensus of Americans, they can backfire, she said.It's all about the effective use of power.
For example, the past capture of terrorists abroad who were then convicted in American courts stirred little controversy. But more recent rendition cases, like the delivery of a suspect to Egypt, where he complained of torture and provided information that turned out to be false, shifted the public focus from the would-be terrorist to the actions of the C.I.A.
"If there's not a consensus, then the public focus will be not on the bad guy you got off the street, but on what the C.I.A. was doing," Ms. Mahle said.