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Song of a Traveller: the courtesan's salon - [Book Reviews] "Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying"
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[Book Reviews] "Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying"
I really enjoyed James Olson's highly disturbing "Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying". Written by a former CIA chief of counterintelligence, it presents a series of ethical dilemmas based on realistic scenarios that diplomats, spies, and case officers encounter. After each question, you get the answers of a series of people -- former CIA, academics, military officers, students, clergy, doctors... people from several different walks of life. Olson finishes up each section with a discussion of CIA history or policy, insofar as he is allowed to talk about it, and a nod to recent or current situations where such a dilemma might come up. It's a useful tool for elucidating your own moral stance on difficult issues that many people don't spend a lot of time thinking about. It's also very uncomfortable.

Aside from being profoundly reminded of the arguments we had in grad school, one of the things that I found most interesting was that I was so bad at predicting what kinds of people would take what moral stances. (I wasn't alone... Olson acknowledges in his closing statement that it is inherently a difficult problem, and social role or standing a poor predictor of someone's moral reasoning.) The only regular responder that I was able to consistently call was the rabbi, and him because he spells out Jewish law at the beginning and I could construct a behavioural model from that. There were an unsurprisingly large number of "my country, right or wrong!" straight-up nationalists which I found difficult to deal with... I don't inherently believe that being a US citizen versus not is morally relevant, though I acknowledge the difficulty of constructing legal frameworks of statehood which do not depend upon that. But to my ethical thought, it's being a sentient life that's morally relevant; where you got born doesn't dictate how well or poorly you ought to be treated. There is a substantial minority of sampled Americans (and, I suspect, residents of other places) who disagree with me there.

Perhaps the most frustrating answerer in there for me was a lawyer -- he kept trying to apply American legal constructs such as having a reasonable expectation of privacy to situations which are inherently violating the law, and that drove me nuts. Espionage is illegal in most every country, the CIA does it anyway, we have already gone off the rails of respecting legal frameworks here. While I think it is useful to consider what laws are being cheerfully smashed and what the consequences for that would normally be when planning your operation, trying to use respect for the rule of law as your moral framework for guiding the CIA is roughly like applying the Boy Scout code to a maximum security prison. These people are not going to follow those rules, or they wouldn't be there. You are not in camp. It's just not happening.

My inner sociologist was rather surprised at some of the collective opinions -- many people thought that having an CIA agent running with journalistic cover was acceptable, but having them run with missionary cover was appalling. But running them with other NGO cover was back to tentatively okay again. Like many exercises in sociology, it tells you a lot about the people you're polling. I was rather surprised at the places where I myself was well outside of the norm in what I considered fair play, but in summary I think my ethics are consistent. (And I'd be a terrible director of the CIA. "What? No. No. NO. No. That one is fine. No.") I am far more a humanist than I am a patriot. But every so often, you get one of those scenarios where you're fine with it and everyone else is appalled and considers that action morally unacceptable, and that really makes you think about how we create our social rules. One of the other continually troubling things to me was how many intelligence officers justified doing the most appalling things to other diplomats or agents with "X was in the game, they knew the risks". To me, the decision to become a source or an intelligence officer is not the same as moral consent to torture, drugging, etc. (I mean, you know it might happen, but that doesn't make it okay! Pragmatic risk assessment and moral culpability are different.) I'm definitely sending Dad a copy of this one for the holidays this year; we can argue. [grin]

This entry was originally posted at http://ivy.dreamwidth.org/248799.html and has comment count unavailable comments there. Please feel free to comment on either site; comments rock.

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ravenblack From: ravenblack Date: December 14th, 2012 06:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's funny, I would be the exact opposite on those two - being a pretend journalist is not okay, being a pretend missionary is fine. Being a pretend *medical* missionary is not okay.

My reasoning being that pretend journalists put all journalists in (extra) danger, and make them less likely to have access to truth, which makes the whole world less likely to know what's really happening, which means bad and wrong decisions will be made to the detriment of anyone and everyone.

Pretend missionaries put all missionaries in that location in (extra) danger, which is no detriment to anyone else because what good are they anyway? Sucks for them, but they can always choose to not be there and then all harm is averted (except then the spies don't have any cover!)

Pretend *medical* people put all medical people in that location in (extra) danger, and makes them less likely to have access, which is kind of like putting an embargo on the health of innocent civilians. So not okay. Though I'm a bit conflicted on that one - it seems weird that hospitals are off-limits in war, when pragmatically a war will be over more quickly if people aren't coming back into it again as much or having an expectation of being okay when they get wounded.
dymaxion From: dymaxion Date: December 14th, 2012 07:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, hospitals and large numbers of wounded shorten wars, because they have to be cared for, which takes a lot of resources, but they generally (in most wars) don't return to the fight. This is why the US switched from 7.62 to 5.56 -- 5.56 is much more likely to wound than to kill outright, which burns additional resources in the field.

I'm right with you on those choices, though.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: December 14th, 2012 08:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
This approach assumes that your opponent does care enough to care for them. There is, I believe, a point of sufficient chaos/resource shortage/coldheartedness where that is no longer such a concern. Of course, if you're there, things are already pretty bad anyway.
dymaxion From: dymaxion Date: December 14th, 2012 08:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
Right; this is a doctrine that works for nation-state conflicts and guerrilla warfare, but less for interactions with terrorist groups, where a different calculus applies. In general, though, as long as the group in question is embedded within a larger civilian population (whether they're local or not; this is a social embedding, not a geographic one), those kind of rules will hold.
ravenblack From: ravenblack Date: December 14th, 2012 08:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
There is that - but if that's the case then why do nations argue that hospitals are off limits and the other side destroying your hospitals are committing war crimes, rather than laughing at the other side's poor tactical choices, leaving all their hospitals intact and letting your own guys die? :)
dymaxion From: dymaxion Date: December 14th, 2012 09:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Because that is deeply and materially abhorrent to humans. We do many things like that. We have banned chemical weapons, land mines, cluster bombs, and all sorts of things. War is hell, but it is our desire that it be as limited a hell as possible.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: December 15th, 2012 07:26 am (UTC) (Link)
As far as I can tell, it's because everybody, when organized into large political entities with official representatives, is pretending to be much more compassionate, fair, and decent than they really are. Which is its own kind of horrible. But no one wants to go "yeah, you're right, let's just all be complete jerks and embrace that". That ends poorly both for civilization-Maslow and for individuals. Since most people aren't like that, the dirty-tricks people gravitate towards that role in their social org. They know that the politicians will deny and condemn them if caught, but they'll still do their thing to gain an advantage until that happens. (And after it does, mostly, different people will now do their things while saying how bad those people were.)

That sucks, but it's still better than max bastardry from everyone all the time. Whatever small mercies public opprobrium buys us, it's still better than that even if it is often arrant hypocrisy.

I need a magic pony book to read between this and the couple others on the topic that I'm tackling. Oof. I was about to say "I don't think the average citizen would do this, they're just comfortable not knowing that other people are doing this on their behalf". But "The Lucifer Effect" strongly suggests that I am both wrong and an optimist on that one. Gah.

So, to me the next question becomes how we create better social incentives that discourage hospital-destroying and the like.
novalis From: novalis Date: December 14th, 2012 07:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
(And I'd be a terrible director of the CIA. "What? No. No. NO. No. That one is fine. No.")


I don't understand this. If you think that refusing to do these things would make you a "terrible" director, rather than an excellent director, shouldn't that change what you would do in that situation?

I would be much happier with CIA directors who said "no" more often. So, you've got my vote for the position.
dymaxion From: dymaxion Date: December 14th, 2012 07:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Man, a world where D. CIA was an elected position... that'd be lovely. (well, lovelier, I guess...)
novalis From: novalis Date: December 14th, 2012 08:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Given how terrible elected judges are, I'm not so sure. Still, hard to do worse.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: December 14th, 2012 08:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
Perhaps it's better phrased as "the CIA would have very different guidance if I were in charge of it, and I am not sure that either the transition to my approach or the long term ramifications of it would be survivable". I'd like to think so, of course! But I don't feel any kind of data-based assurance. So I would be a terrible director for the CIA as it stands, and ending a bunch of the programs that I would not find acceptable may quite possibly make things even worse in the short term. I think it would be a moral good, but you have the immediate problems of everyone you've screwed over really hating you, no longer being as willing to be as iron fist as you were, and sunshine making it clear to the world just how unethical you got. You are likely to create a bunch of new terrorists because of extant resentment fanned by the news of what you have done, and "oh, but we're different now, I promise" doesn't buy you much. Rebuilding trust takes time and a track record, and a lot of people will be shooting at you in the meantime. So, morally, I think I'd have the high ground. Pragmatically, I am not sure that I wouldn't end up getting a whole bunch of people killed as a result of my high moral ground, and that's really troubling.

I would play Sim CIA Director and see how I did. I'm far more hesitant, knowing I lack probably most of the relevant information due to classification, in playing Real CIA Director. I would want a *lot* more history on what we've done throughout history and what the results of that were, the full version (insofar as that's even possible), before making decisions that got more people killed. I don't feel qualified because I don't understand it well enough yet. I'm not a utilitarian, but I still take the moral responsibility of other people suffering for my policies very seriously.
novalis From: novalis Date: December 14th, 2012 09:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm far more hesitant, knowing I lack probably most of the relevant information due to classification, in playing Real CIA Director.


Don't worry about that; Tetlock showed that it doesn't help at all in predicting world events.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: December 15th, 2012 07:32 am (UTC) (Link)
I think there's a relevant difference here between "not being deeply steeped in local political culture and punditry and all of its nuances" and "not knowing that in some classified op we have terminally pissed off the Whomevers, we've been barely and desperately fending them off for years, and if we admit to half the shit we did they will blow up Tulsa and have the capabilities to do it". The former, I think, is Tetlock. The latter seems more like running towards a burning building, not knowing that it's full of grain alcohol vats. If you don't know anything about the situation you're in whatsoever, you are more likely to make grave mistakes right off the bat.

Edit: which is not to apologize for the sins of the current order, whatever they are. It's "I want to understand the starting point of the problem we are facing", not "the only people qualified to do it are the people who are doing it".

Edited at 2012-12-15 07:33 am (UTC)
tylik From: tylik Date: December 15th, 2012 01:04 am (UTC) (Link)
I think I've mentioned that as an undergrad I saw my coursework (Chinese L&L, Central Asian L&L, International Poli-Econ) as training for the State Department. I pretty much knew I would be a poor fit dispositionally for the CIA even then, despite being nudged in that direction by some of the folks who took part in the Kazakh summer language intensive. (And then I was in a wretched love triangle, got my heart badly broken, and ended up engaged to a man who did not want to follow me all over the world. *eyeroll* I was twenty-one...)

...it's really weird to look at those sets of might have beens. I got back and forth about whether I have the right sort of social acumen. (Seriously, I do not know. I'm a decent manager. I sometimes appear to be particularly good at social cues, and at other times find myself blinking and wondering what alien race I have wandered in amongst.) But... Okay, aside from all the questions like how long into the Bush administration I could have made it before I had to resign in protest, I think it's something I could have done reasonably well, given decent conditions. And maybe I would have come to love the institution enough that I would have seen value in staying there even in a ruinously awful administration - I at least sort of volunteered for work in Afghanistan, after all, and that was entirely in terms of harm-reduction. Or maybe the environment would have driven me nuts even under the best of circumstances.

But what a strange mirror-mirror world it appears. So much of my practice, and my training, seems to include working towards a great degree of straightforwardness. It's not that I can't lie - I'm probably terribly out of practice now, but at times I've been fairly good at it - but that I'm so little inclined to playing around not only with honesty but with so many of the shadings and delivery of that world. I can't pretend, of course, to say anything for sure, but I suspect that alternate me would be someone very different indeed. (I say this without regret, though it would be interesting to meet her.)

Hell, these days one of my greatest concerns about going to live in China, right up there with being able to breathe (have you ever been to Zhengzhou, by the way?) is whether I can keep my mouth shut about politics. It's not a question of skill - I'm quite capable of doing so. But if only my own fate was on the line, would I bother?

Perhaps shadow me would have grown into a diplomat. But that's a far more straightforward role than intelligence as such. (Technically, I can imagine being a halfway decent analyst as well - it's just not that appealling.) Nationality doesn't mean a lot to me, and what it does is more about responsibility than loyalty. (I am a citizen of the US, and it seems far more often that this would imply protecting the world from my country than the other way around.)
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: December 15th, 2012 07:38 am (UTC) (Link)
[cracks up] Oh, youthful pre-spy drama. Where would we be without you? I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I had been able to go to medical school and had taken the military route to do it. Very, very different! (At least you can quit the CIA mostly whenever. I think. [grin])

Nope, never made it to Zhengzhou. Is that a recommendation or an anti-recommendation?

Diplomacy frustrates me, often, which is odd since I often play mediator or peacekeeper. But knowing that everyone in the room thinks that they are the only reasonable human being there is just... aaagh! Be nicer! Everybody! (*That* works so well.)
tylik From: tylik Date: December 17th, 2012 09:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm looking for the recommendation, or not! It has two institutes of neurobiology, and it's 20 miles from Chen village - so I could go post doc there, the language could turn my brain to guacamole, the air could attempt to kill me, and then Chen Laoshi could be the crap out of me on weekends. If he happened to be in town ;-)

When I tried to volunteer in 2001, I actually called the Army first - I mean, hey, the army was actively recruiting people who had language experience appropriate to Afghanistan, right?. They were all "Um, talk to the Staties." And they would not hire me as a civilian, so that was that. I guess that would make for an interesting shadow me - the one who said "great!" and bailed on MS just a little before I actually did - and the husband and the house, and yee-haw.

I think to enjoy diplomacy at the international level I would have to be more interested in being a power-broker. And that's one of those alter-me questions I just can't answer. I am not entirely not wired that way. I'm not sure how deep or innate the disgust is. Hm. If there is an alter-me with periodic major self loathing and possible alcohol abuse, maybe. (The alcohol abuse should be something I'm genetically predisposed for... but maybe I just got the wrong mix of genes for it, because I mostly find alcohol annoying. But maybe self loathing power broker me would crave stupidity and oblivion? My one experiment with drinking for oblivion was a noted failure.)
quennessa From: quennessa Date: December 14th, 2012 07:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I am getting this as soon as I am able! That is totally my kind of book! I'm right now in The Art of Intelligence, so this will be a lovely follow up.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: December 15th, 2012 05:47 am (UTC) (Link)
Heh, I've read that one! I have a couple of similarly themed books, should you be lacking in other recommendations. Just tell me what you've read already and I'll tell you if I think I know anything else good you might like.
quennessa From: quennessa Date: December 15th, 2012 05:50 am (UTC) (Link)
EXCELLENT. I will do so. :D
19 forks or fork, exec?
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