Shades of Intelligence
Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying
reviewed by Tristan Abbey
Before the attacks of September 11, the “ticking time-bomb” scenario—whether or not torture is morally permissible in averting an impending attack—was a purely academic question for most Americans. It is now something many religious Christians seriously debate.
A former operations officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, on the frontlines in the struggle against “expansionist, oppressive, and atheistic Communism,” James Olson admits that he “lied, cheated, manipulated, and deceived every day,” but explains, “I believed then and still do that all these actions were in the service of a noble cause—but no one could have had the kind of career I did without at least some second thoughts.”
Now a professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, he argues that the American people should help determine the “moral limits” for the intelligence community. In Fair Play, he wants to give readers an accurate picture of “the world of intelligence” and raise practical ethical questions, which he hopes “opens some eyes and causes some hard thinking.”
The book can be thought of as being divided into two sections. The first provides background for the analysis of ethical problems in the second.
In the first part, Olson chronicles his life to give the reader perspective on how one becomes an intelligence officer and what it means to be one, reflecting on his assignments and his family history (two of his three children are active in church ministry). He then discusses the history of how Americans have perceived intelligence work, arguing that “in periods of peril . . . we have turned to our intelligence agencies to protect us—and we have not always been fastidious about the techniques they have used.”
He provides a primer on the philosophical justifications for intelligence work. He begins with the story of Rahab, the prostitute who lied to protect Israelite spies and is praised in the Books of Joshua, Hebrews, and James. But other biblical passages, he writes, “seem to contradict indirectly Rahab’s pliable morality and make no clear exceptions for a greater good.”
He reviews Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Kant, the practitioners of realpolitik, and the theoreticians of utilitarianism, surmising how each would view espionage. He argues that Aristotle and Kant would object to intelligence operations in general, while Machiavelli would be “an unbridled champion” of intelligence. Cicero falls in between.
For the Catholic Church’s view, he relies on St. Thomas Aquinas. He argues that “intelligence is an indispensable adjunct of a state’s war-making capability and therefore legitimately comes under the just war theory” Thomas articulated.
However, he also cites Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which he calls “a blanket condemnation” of “the staples of espionage.” Without stating his own position on the matter, he refers to the encyclical’s critics, who “find it to be stark, unyielding, and unrealistic . . . in today’s world, where questions of good and evil are not conveniently black and white.”
No Rules Now
The second section, two-thirds of the text, consists of fifty scenarios, each illustrating a moral question (some more black-and-white than others). He insists that all of them “need to be addressed” because intelligence officers face them.
Each is followed by half a dozen or so commentaries from retired CIA and military officers, religious leaders from institutions like the Vatican and Dallas Theological Seminary, other professionals in a variety of fields, from journalists to professors, and finally Olson’s own opinion. (“If you pick the right theologian or philosopher,” Olson notes, “you can defend almost any position.”)
The book covers the usual subjects: assassination, torture, collateral damage, and truth serum. Other challenges include placing an officer undercover as a journalist (or missionary), lying to and seducing agents in order to gain cooperation, and providing cover to an officer by using forged documents from a university.
In nearly every case, at least one commentator will dissent from the majority for moral reasons. In one scenario, the CIA learns the location of a high-ranking al Qaeda leader responsible for a major terrorist attack on American soil, who cannot be arrested and extradited. Can the CIA assassinate this man?
Olson’s commentators are nearly unanimous. A Protestant pastor urges, “Take him out as you would any enemy soldier.” Five others, including three retired national security professionals from the FBI and CIA, concur.
One university student objects on the basis of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. She explains that “if all states engaged in assassinations, world order would be gravely threatened.” Archbishop J. Michael Miller at the Vatican also disagrees, arguing that “we can never do evil, even for a good purpose,” citing Veritatis Splendor.
A Desperate World
Throughout the CIA’s history, Christians have filled its ranks, from operations officers to analysts to directors of Central Intelligence. Olson concludes with a somber warning about the world in which we live and the challenges it raises: “We don’t have clear rules now, but we desperately need them. And there isn’t much time left.”
Christians must take the lead in clarifying these rules, and this book is a superb introduction to the discussion of if, how, and when the ends can justify the means.
“Shades of Intelligence” first appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.