• Luis Rueda

Morality and Intelligence...And Beyond

I was watching a portion of a podcast on TikTok, hence the watching rather than listening, where the concept of enhanced interrogation, or torture, depending upon your view, was discussed. It was the usual discussion about the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques. Many of you have probably heard or watched these discussions, so I won't belabor the issue. But for those of you who haven't, the discussion revolves around whether enhanced interrogation is torture or not, whether it is effective or not, and whether the US should engage in such activities or not. The retired CIA officer being interviewed, who is someone I know, commented that he wasn't concerned with the morality of the issue of enhanced interrogation, just whether it was effective or not. Pretty much the ends justify the means and it got me thinking.

Morality is a complicated topic. Innumerable books and papers have been written about it, smarter people than I have discussed it, argued it, ad nauseam. It is a lynchpin of society, without which we could not function. All religions preach a moral code. So why not the intelligence profession? From my limited viewpoint, I see morality in the intelligence field as divided into three: personal morality; institutional morality; national morality.

Personal Morality

When I was teaching and managing the Directorate of Operations Tradecraft Course, we would address the students on their first day about what to expect during training and what it would be like to be an operations officer. The head of all operational training gave a talk that addressed not only the importance of intelligence collection but also the moral justification for it. It seems ridiculous to discuss morality in a profession that deals with deception and betrayal.

We recruit a wide variety of people. Many come with strong personal values, to be able to tell wrong from right. Some come to us with strong religious values, yet here we are explaining how they will lie, cheat and steal. The head of training would use the Just War Theory to explain why it was acceptable to put aside qualms about lying, deceiving, etc. in order to defend the nation. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Just War Theory, it is a doctrine developed by Saint Augustine to ensure that war is morally justified through a series of criteria.) In every class, I would be required to deal with one or two students who faced personal issues over what we were asking them to do, to go against their personal morality. But this was a good thing. Yes, we could hire amoral people, but we would never be able to trust them. And given the responsibilities we place on our officers, trust is essential.

It is those responsibilities that require a moral underpinning to what we do as an organization. It is the need for trust that makes the organization moral— the trust of the CIA for its officers, the trust of agents for the CIA and its officers, and the trust of the US Government and the American people for the CIA. Our officers operate as singletons in the field. Yes, they are part of a larger station and can draw on resources and the support of other officers. But when they leave the station and go to an agent meeting to obtain important intelligence, there is no one there to supervise their meeting. We trust our officers to know their craft, to do surveillance detection (SDR) prior to a meeting, to properly debrief the source, to collect and accurately report the intelligence that will go to policymakers. A case officer could pretend they did an SDR or easily exaggerate the information, they can put words in the source's mouth to make their information look better than it is, receive accolades, and aid them in obtaining their next promotion. No one would be the wiser, at least for a time. But normally CIA officers don't do that. They have a moral underpinning.

Institutional Morality

We also exercise a strong moral code with our sources, our agents. We normally keep our word, our commitment to them. If we promise to resettle a source if they are compromised we will resettle the source. If we promise to pay a source and hold that money for them we will. I have seen the CIA hold money for a particular source for years, even after the source was arrested and executed. That money eventually found its way to that source's family. We keep our word.

We give our officers control over relatively large amounts of money and equipment. With the skills they are taught and develop over time they could embezzle the money. Morals are what keep them from stealing because they come with strong morals and then the CIA reinforces them. Yes, we polygraph them at intervals, but not enough to deter them between polygraphs. Besides, would you rather work with people who did not commit crimes because they were coerced by various security systems or because they understood it was wrong? I am not saying some people in the CIA don’t fail the moral test and violate the trust the CIA places in them, but that is the exception to the rule.

Immorality is corrupting. If you violate a small rule, or a minor regulation, you have taken a step toward violating a more important rule. You begin to tell yourself that it is alright and that you didn't get caught. Over time the more important rules, regulations, and laws seem to be impediments to accomplishing the mission. It becomes acceptable for the officer to violate these rules as well. This is why we tell our officers not to use inside the station and Headquarters the very same case officer skills they use on the outside. You do not use deception, manipulation, or lies among your colleagues.

While this seems rational it can be hard at times. We operate within societies that are corrupt, where lining one's pocket with money illicitly obtained is a way of life. We operate in societies where lying on a regular basis is a matter of survival. Work long enough in these areas and it can rub off on you. We deal with both good people and bad people. We socialize with them, work with them, and eventually recruit them. The danger is in having the corrupting influences start to influence you.

National Morality

We justify what we do because we are defending the United States. Anything is fair game in defense of the nation. But we follow criteria, like the Just War Theory, such as not violating US laws, though we can and do violate the laws of foreign countries. We do not conduct influence operations on the American people and do not exercise any law enforcement powers. That is all well and good. We tell ourselves that we are doing good, defending America, in order to justify our actions. We view the things that we do, which would be viewed as immoral by the general population, as the lesser of many evils when compared to potential danger to America. It is the George Orwell quote:

People sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

Our national security policy can be immoral at times, calling out one regime for being brutal, repressive, and undemocratic while we are allied with brutal, repressive, and undemocratic regimes. We hint that a government can torture and kill your people as long as your policy goals align with ours. People will take exception to these statements, making all sorts of arguments as to why we either are moral or the ends justifies the means. That is good. I want a discussion, I want contrary opinions. We can only reach a conclusion when all viewpoints are considered.

Throughout the Cold War, throughout our struggle against the Soviet Union, we cast ourselves as the good guys and the Russians as the bad guys. It provided the world with a clear choice, good vs. evil. That worked because people could see life in America and compare it with life in the USSR, and agree that the former was better than the latter. There was a moral component to that struggle. Yes, we failed time and time again in supporting democracy anywhere except in Europe. We committed atrocities, but we were also committed to higher ideals. And the world, in general, and against reason, accepted that and accepted the morality of our position.

The world is different now. It is no longer bipolar or unipolar. There is no longer a clear-cut alternative facing nations today. It might be from our point of view, but not necessarily that of the rest of the world. We are engaged in fierce competition with China, Russia, Iran, and others. What can we offer? Material things? Can we offer freedom, or as Superman used to say "truth, justice, and the American way?"

This is off track and better discussed in a separate post. But in the end, I come back to the response from the retired case officer on the blog, "I don't care about the morality, just whether it is effective or not." I find myself agreeing with him. I don't like it. I prefer to see myself as a moral man, not an "ends justify the means" type of person. I believe as a nation we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard, that we do indeed need to be the good guys. We need to offer the world something better, a better life than they currently have and better than what Russia and China offer. It should not just be materially better but socially, personally better. Yet...

I will leave you with these questions. Is the CIA moral because it is required to function, even though we might do immoral things? Can the CIA be both moral and immoral at the same time? Is the defense of the United States the ultimate morality that it makes whatever we do a moral act? How far does morality extend?

108 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


I normally try to avoid much of the political warfare going on in the US nowadays in this blog, but the recent FBI seizure of classified material held by Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago is extremely hard t