Intelligence processes were introduced for the State to gain advantage over its adversaries. But states have hidden agendas, and they use intelligence methods against their own people. And when the process is secret, rumours and suspicions flourish.

The breach of trust is a distraction because intelligence agencies have achieved much to protect people. For decision-makers in government, agencies also play an increasing role in explaining context and the consequence of decisions.

The influence of the secret state is one of the top 5 ethical challenges for intelligence agencies.

The state has its own hidden agenda

At best secret intelligence is used to stop terrorists and organised crime, detect cyber attacks and to counter weapons of mass destructions. (The term “just intelligence” is used to justify it, in the same way that states have referred to “just wars”.)

  • At worst, state intelligence is used for suppression, pursuing the interest of a minority, or protecting its own incompetence.

It has improved in the past. The intelligence agencies of some countries publish their focus. (This works best where the work of agencies has limited overlap.) Deviations in practice could be made public. (That happens in the US – it’s a major change compared to the time of the Vietnam War.)

It can improve again. There could be more indications of successes, not just of individual studies but overall. More countries could follow the US example of exposing their own mistakes. And some areas of intelligence could be moved from direct control of the central state, in the same way that police have a level of independence. Ultimately, the more that is accountable to the public, the greater the trust should be.

Rumours of rogue groups and black ops

It’s in dramas, novels and sensationalist “news” articles. There were cases 25 and more years ago, which resulted in new laws. There were also more recent cases in Iraq and elsewhere. And there are authoritarian regimes which openly operate outside the law. So it’s inevitable that there is a popular belief that it still happens and it supports a hidden agenda.

  • Rogue groups under direct control of a politician. (This is a popular theme for drama and stories.) It’s completely illegal in many countries, and the finances and communications would lead a trail back to the minister. Practically, to set up a unit in competition with the legitimate intelligence bodies would create powerful enemies. So it’s improbable, although not impossible.
  • Black ops using proxies. Private security companies are not subject to the same oversight as the intelligence agencies. Some may push beyond the legal limits. To some extent they can be denied by politicians, because the finances can be obscured behind the veneer of another legal government contract.
  • (In some countries, there are also black ops via the military. That comes under military law and its own chain of command – it’s a different area to intelligence agencies, and not covered here.)

It has improved in the past. Independent supervision has been introduced for intelligence agencies. For example, in the UK there is an office headed by ex High Court judges, including researchers who can access almost any intelligence file. (See Judicial oversight – a 2-page story of illegal intercepts.)

It can improve again. Make the decisions of key ministers more visible to the public, to deter “inappropriate actions”. And increase the oversight of intelligence and security contractors.

Abuses of OSINT – it’s legal, but dirty

Anyone with finance and contacts can build a team to perform Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). Governments use OSINT teams to spy on friendly nations, such as to support negotiations. It can be done legally, although if it’s discovered it can damage trust and the publicity reinforces suspicions of hidden agenda.

It has improved in the past. The introduction of GDPR laws across Europe has limited the storage, communications and use of OSINT.

It can improve again. Clamp down on abuses of OSINT; for example, by applying privacy laws to the storage of OSINT results. Declare the existence of any government-funded OSINT units beyond a certain size, and police them.

Hidden agenda in mil ops

State-funded intelligence also includes military intelligence. Military intelligence has ethics that relate to the broader picture of military operations. That includes at home, for peacekeeping activities and in military conflicts (wars). For wars, there is an imperative to reduce the damage to the civilian population by bring the conflict to an end quickly – but at what price

Related reading

Open Source Intelligence Techniques, Resources for Searching and Analyzing Online Information, 7th edition, by Michael Bazzell. IntelTechniques.com, 2019.

“Building Confidence through Oversight and Accountability.” Chapter 4 of Principled Spying, The Ethics of Secret Intelligence, by David Omand and Mark Phythian. Oxford  University Press, 2018.

The Perfect Weapon, by David E. Sanger. Crown, New York, 2018. (It includes multiple accounts of state-level cyber activities with ethical questions.)

Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that Beat the IRA by William Matchett. Self-published, 2016.

Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West, by Catherine Belton. William Collins, 2020.