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Counterintelligence Issues Within the United States Research Paper

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Document Type:Research Paper


Why Ethical Egoism is a Problematic Framework for Intelligence

CI Literature Review


The aim of this examination of the literature is to fill the wide gap that remains in counterintelligence research regarding an appropriate ethical standard that can guide and foster an ethical culture, as called for by Bellaby (2012) and Valentine (2016). The purpose of this review is to identify the lessons that have been learned and presented by researchers on this topic, and to identify an appropriate theoretical framework for assessing the way forward. The research question for this study is: How can the US counterintelligence enterprise support collaboration among the various USIC members and the private sector in an ethical and productive manner? The ultimate purpose of this study is to propose a standardized ethical framework for guiding the counterintelligence program as it works to collaborate with the private sector in the 21st century. Therefore, the themes this review will examine are: 1) the problematic nature of deception in intelligence work; 2) the role of ethics in counterintelligence; 3) a framework for analyzing the past; and 4) the need for clarity and collaboration in counterintelligence efforts among the various agencies, organizations and actors.

The Problematic Nature of Deception

Deception is at the core of counterintelligence: yet, it is a problematic core because of the corruption associated with deception in ethical systems. Mattox (2002), for example, observed that the practice of deception “is subject to limitations imposed by the demands of morality” (4). Mattox (2002) makes the good point that intelligence professionals must “act in good faith even with those who are their adversaries” (4). Yet, this point is not supported by all researchers, including Cohen (2016), who argues that there are no moral limits on military deception. Mattox (2002) makes the better argument for numerous reasons: first, he supports his argument with a moral framework that is justifiable based on long-term results, which Mattox (2002) calls the limitation of long-term negative effects. When deception is used cautiously and morally, the adversary is more willing to accept it as a norm of state conflict; moreover, the adversary, who may become a state ally in the future, will not hold any ill-will on this account (Mattox 2002). But when moral limits are off, as Cohen (2016) suggests should be the case, there is no foundation for future trust. Cohen’s (2016) argument fails because it is based on a zero sum game approach to statecraft: Cohen (2016) does not anticipate the reality of the very real possibility of and need for collaboration and partnership with states that are adversaries today but potential allies in the future. Cohen (2016) implicitly views the entire act of counterintelligence from the standpoint of ethical egoism, which is highly problematic both from a rational and ethical standpoint but also from a political standpoint (Lyons 1976). Part of the reason for Cohen’s (2016) problematic position is cultural: Cohen (2016) comes from a Jewish traditional of revolutionary behavior in which dominance is always the end goal (Jones 2008). Other cultures, both Western and Eastern, have tended to promote a position of statecraft that is in line with the doctrine of mutual beneficence put forward by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations. Both Western and Eastern cultures developed the first and most fundamental ethical framework in virtue ethics, with Aristotle summarizing the framework in ancient Greece and Confucius summarizing the framework in ancient China thousands of years ago (Hursthouse 2016). Cohen’s (2016) position is not rooted in such a tradition but rather in the tradition of elitism that has tended to characterize some nations’ approaches to statecraft in the modern era.

Without imposing moral conditions on counterintelligence, the possibility of developing trusting relationships in the future is lost. Cohen (2016) has no answer to this because his view is colored by a zero sum game mentality, which is that all that matters is winning. Cohen’s (2016) view aligns well with the former motto of the Mossad, “Thou shalt make war by way of deception,” (Ostrovsky and Hoy 1991, 1). The fact that the Mossad abandoned this motto after other states expressed their displeasure with it proves the point that Mattox (2002) makes: states must be conscious of the moral limits of deception. The Mossad stepped back from their overt effrontery in terms of waving their no-limits-to-our-deception in the face of the world; but of course Israeli intelligence never stopped in terms of practice, which is why nations that support a multi-polar world, like Russia, Syria, Iran and China, are often at odds with Israeli aims (Kent 2019). Israel, like the US, is focused primarily on a zero sum game strategy (Kent 2019). Mattox (2002) at least approaches the issue of moral limits to deception from a practical, universal, political and diplomatic position that has utilitarian, deontological and even virtue ethics elements to it. The opposite position of Cohen (2016) can only be accepted from an ethical egoism point of view, and ethical egoism is the most relative and least effective ethical position, as pointed out by Lyons (1976).

Unfortunately, morality within the realm of modern counterintelligence is often the first casualty, as history shows (Valentine 2016). The official beginnings of counterintelligence under the leadership of James Jesus Angleton have illustrated the extent to which the art of deception can create problems within the intelligence community (Morley 2017, 69). Within this community itself there is no standard ethical framework applied, but there should be (Bailey and Galich 2012, 77). To make matters worse, in counterintelligence, there is even less emphasis on ethical cohesion, as Valentine (2016), Unkefer (2013), and Pfaff and Tiel (2004) point out. If there were a more unified, standardized moral framework applied throughout counterintelligence, it is likely that its history in the US would be less fraught with conflicts of interest, human failings, ulterior motives, problematic relationships, and questionable tactics. The reason such a framework has not been applied is that it is viewed as restrictive and inapplicable in the world of counterintelligence. In the American intelligence field, the position like that of Cohen (2016) has prevailed. This position is bad for counterintelligence because of the problems that arise. Valentine (2016) details these problems very well in his work on abuses within the CIA, FBN and FBI. Unkefer’s (2013) memoir of counterintelligence in the FBN supports Valentine’s claims and shows how dangerous and corrupting the lack of moral limits on deception can be. Their work provides ample support for moral limitations to deception. Yet, this support is slow in coming because opponents of such a view argue that the system works as is. Indeed, Unkefer (2013) admits as much, reluctantly—but he does also raise the question of whether the ends justify the means. It is a question that needs to be asked and that goes back to the issue of whether ethical egoism is a sufficient moral framework for counterintelligence. Valentine (2016) makes the best argument for why it is not: the damage to American ideals, America’s reputation, American diplomacy and politics, and American culture is too great.

Counterintelligence has often been linked with the idea of national security, yet as Nolan (1997) shows it is dangerous to think of counterintelligence as a security exercise because it is literally nothing of the sort. Writing from the standpoint of private industry, Nolan (1997) states explicitly that “while security seeks to protect a firm's assets by a combination of policies, procedures and practices, counterintelligence, properly understood, aims to engage and neutralize a competitor's collection efforts through a variety of imaginative, flexible, and active measures” (53). The point of concern, here, is not only the degree to which those “imaginative, flexible, and active measures” lead to the problems both for the agency and for the field it aims to serve (Nolan 1997, 53). There is also the matter of confusing counterintelligence with security, which is precisely what has happened in the past and is currently happening under the Trump Administration…

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…counterintelligence is to put one’s own national reputation at risk: that is one reason the Israeli Mossad changed its motto, which used to state, “By way of deception, thou shalt conduct war” (86). Nations thus openly admit that engaging in deception is a bad look. Both Kent (2019) and Godson and Wirtz (2000) help to make the problem of morality in CI even more complicated by asking if deception should have any part in policy. They represent one side of the ethical spectrum and Cohen (2016) represents the other side. Kent (2019) and Godson and Wirtz (2000) represent the absolutist side of the discussion; Cohen (2016) represents the relativistic side.

The absolutist side of the discussion has a much better argument than the relativistic side. The reason for this is that there is an escalation problem involved, from a practical standpoint. As Bernardi (2013) states, “Usually, information control generates an escalation of counterintelligence measures, because information control on the part of one State invites other governments and agencies to counteract, by means of countermeasures against espionage and deception” (50). When one nation deceives, another will follow. Angleton faced the problem of escalation his entire career (Morley 2013). This is why the absolutist position of Kent (2019) makes sense, practically speaking. It may be better simply to focus on collaboration and clarity than on attempting to deceive. Ironically, it is in this context that the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (2020) has identified a “need to clarify the role of CI in the era of globalization” (1). Yet the culture of deception has spread all over the globe. Developers, technicians, production personnel, IT personnel, business development personnel, human resources personnel, and facility personnel are all potential targets of foreign actors and foreign collectors of intelligence (National Counterintelligence and Security Center n.d.). Private industry is at risk because it possesses intellectual property that foreign actors covet and business activities can be exploited. Cyber operations are also at risk, as is confidential information, which can be mishandled by employees. Counterintelligence operations could be used to deliberately leak false information to known foreign actors, but doing so runs the risk of escalating a larger conflict among nations, as Bernardi (2013) notes. Bernardi (2013), like the others, highlights the problem but does not point to a solution. From an ethical standpoint it is difficult to determine where the line should be in terms of using deception. Thus, one must step back to the standpoint of culture and perhaps even to absolutism in order to establish the conditions necessary for collaboration and clarity, as Kent (2019) proposes.


Since counterintelligence came to maturity in the US in an era of conflict, it is helpful to approach the subject from the standpoint of conflict theory and the theories developed around it, all of which focus on the ways in which power is sought and used by groups in order to obtain or maintain possession of vital resources or maintain a balance of relationships that ensure stability and order in a system. This approach allows the research to explore the ways in which power drove the initiatives of counterintelligence policies during the 50s, 60s and 70s. However, the literature shows that the problem of ethics in counterintelligence has had no easy solution and that the art of deception is such that it fosters a gray zone of disinformation, conflicts of interest and corruption. The outcome of this situation was that counterintelligence suffered from a poor culture and various other issues, resulting ultimately in the dismissal of Angleton and an attempt to restart the program. As the program now tries to address the issues of the 21st century, it appears that guidance could be used to help steer the counterintelligence program away from the same errors and policies that derailed it in the past. The literature suggests that a need exists for this problem to be addressed, and to help respond to that need a theoretical approach to the problem should be defined.


Sample Source(s) Used


2020-2022 National Counterintelligence Strategy of the United States. 2020. Washington, DC: National Counterintelligence and Security Center

Bailey, Christopher and Susan M. Galich. 2012. “Codes of Ethics: The Intelligence Community.” International Journal of Intelligence Ethics 35 (2): 77-99.

Bernardi, Beatrice. 2013. "The Role of Intelligence in the Fight Against International Terrorism: Legal Profiles." Bachelor's thesis, Università Ca'Foscari Venezia.

Carson, Thomas L. 2010. Lying and Deception: Theory and Practice. Oxford University Press.

Cohen, Shlomo. 2016. "Are There Moral Limits to Military Deception?." Philosophia 44 (4): 1305-1318.

Coyne, John, Peter Bell, and Shannon Merrington. 2013. "Exploring ethics in intelligence and the role of leadership." Interntional Journal of Business and Commerce 2 (10): 27-37.

Erskine, Toni. 2004. "'As Rays of Light to the Human Soul'? Moral Agents and Intelligence Gathering." Intelligence & National Security 19 (2): 359-381.

Godson, Roy, and James J. Wirtz. 2000. "Strategic denial and deception." International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 13 (4): 424-437.

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