An Ethical Code for Intelligence Officers

August’s Communications of the ACM has an interesting article: “An Ethics Code for U.S. Intelligence Officers,” by former NSAers Brian Snow and Clint Brooks. The article is behind a paywall, but here’s the code:

Draft Statement of Ethics for the Intelligence Community

Preamble: Intelligence work may present exceptional or unusual ethical dilemmas beyond those of ordinary life. Ethical thinking and review should be a part of our day to day efforts; it can protect our nation’s and our agency’s integrity, improve the chances of mission success, protect us from the consequences of bad choices, and preserve our alliances. Therefore, we adhere to the following standards of professional ethics and behavior:

  1. First, do no harm to U.S. citizens or their rights under the Constitution.
  2. We uphold the Constitution and the Rule of Law; we are constrained by both the spirit and the letter of the laws of the United States.
  3. We will comply with all international human rights agreements that our nation has ratified.
  4. We will insist on clarification of ambiguities that arise between directives or law and the principles of this code. We will protect those within our institutions who call reasonable attention to wrongdoing.
  5. Expediency is not an excuse for misconduct.
  6. We are accountable for our decisions and actions. We support timely, rigorous processes that fix accountability to the responsible person.
  7. Statements we make to our clients, colleagues, overseers and the U.S. public will be true, and structured not to unnecessarily mislead or conceal.
  8. We will resolve difficult ethical choices in favor of constitutional requirements, the truth, and our fellow citizens.
  9. We will address the potential consequences of our actions in advance, especially the consequences of failure, discovery, and unintended or collateral consequences of success.
  10. We will not impose unnecessary risk on innocents.
  11. Although we may work in secrecy, we will work so that when our efforts become known, our fellow citizens will be proud of us and of our efforts.

It’s supposed to be for U.S. intelligence officers, but with one inconsequential modification it could be made international.

Posted on August 11, 2009 at 12:29 PM108 Comments


Carlo Graziani August 11, 2009 12:59 PM

Color me cynical. The chances of this excellent code of conduct being adopted as general-purpose guidance for employees of any government agency (let alone the security bureaucracies) are zero, to many significant figures.

Just (4) (request clarification of ambiguities), (6) (responsibility/accountability), and (7) (no misleading of public) are enough to give any senior civil servant hives. They go to the core of how one protects turf, avoids blame for failure, and maneuvers for budget.

This fine document is going straight to the graveyard of good ideas, without making any stops to hinder any governance.

Shane August 11, 2009 1:00 PM


Admirable sentiments? Of course. Believable in the least? Hah!

Who enforces this code of conduct? Who audits the enforcer? Nah… I don’t see this as anything more than a gussied-up mission statement that will be pissed upon like so many other important documents declaring the rights of the people and the responsibilities of those that govern them.

Take number 1 for example. That rule has been overlooked so many times in the last decade it’s hard to read it without laughing out loud as the coffee hits my monitor.

Bruce, not the Schneier One August 11, 2009 1:14 PM

No one would be left in the Intelligence Community.

Kind of like those forms they make you fill out in the private sector. Lie about all the unethical stuff you see going on and you get to keep your job. Tell the truth and you’re without a job and blackballed (or sent to work at the new job site in northern Greenland.)

Martin Schröder August 11, 2009 1:15 PM

Indeed, I wonder who the NSA could employ if that code would be made mandatory…

Let’s face it: No US goverment wants an “intelligence” community hindered by this code.

David August 11, 2009 1:24 PM

@Bruce, ntso
I’d grant some benefit of doubt for a majority of the people in this field. It’s not all cloak and dagger, paid assassins and digging through innocent people’s library records and garbage.

Shane August 11, 2009 1:25 PM

If only the ideas in this post and the last post could be brought together to form a super code of ethical conduct that was self-enforcing… now *that would be interesting.

Andrew August 11, 2009 1:27 PM

Number 5 can apply to oh-so-many things! It very neatly summarizes one of the big problems in so many areas of life.

Peter Hillier August 11, 2009 1:30 PM

As a former Int O, I wonder how this would be enforced and audited given the context of national security Int folks work under?

Charlie (Colorado) August 11, 2009 1:38 PM

“but with one inconsequential modification it could be made international.”

The one about the FSB, Mossad, DGSE, MI5/6, and so on, falling down laughing?

Now, you tell me: how will NSA continue collection without violating international agreements? How will any of the intelligence agencies comply with 7? (Hint: if a reporter asks Panetta “are we intercepting cell phone calls from al Qaeda?” and we are, how can he answer truthfully without revealing sources and methods? But how can he comply with 7 and say “we don’t talk about that”?)

Man, give this some thought: you just end up looking foolish here.

Brandon August 11, 2009 1:50 PM

I once met a spook, who explained it was his job to lie, cheat, and steal in the name of national security. If that’s the basics of the job, then while there may be some ethical rules involved, I doubt they can be codified, or even consistent from situation to situation.

This looks to me like a way to — after the fact — cause trouble for spies whose actions you don’t like for political reasons, such as the idea these days to press charges against interrogators from the previous administration for doing what was accepted practice at the time.

Shoot, even Nancy Pelosi accepted the practice of waterboarding — until the rest of the world found out she accepted it, and then it’s deny, deny, deny.

I get the feeling that the real debate is whether we need spies or not, and whether we need to fear other countries, or protect ourselves from them & their spies. Lots of people these days either don’t think we have enemies, or don’t think it’s necessary to stoop so low in order to protect ourselves.

I’ve heard it put this way: the only way civilized people can live in peace, is to have their own group of barbarians (i.e. their military) protect them from other barbarians.

Perhaps that’s oversimplifying, but I doubt it. In reality, it’s easier to simply be blissfully ignorant of where your security comes from, than to wrangle with the heavy decisions of how to create such security.

Richard Fernandez put it this way, making an analogy to food:

The relevant paragraph:

 A friend of mine who grew up on a farm observed that many people 
 don’t really know — or prefer not to know — where their food comes 
 from. Back when people caught and cleaned fish, slaughtered and 
 plucked chickens the provenance of dinner was clear. Today some 
 people object to seeing fish heads, chicken feet, etc because it disturbs 
 them. But give it to them breaded or in fillets, or smothered in sauce, 
 or better yet as nuggets and they’ll happily wolf them down. I 
 responded to that observation by saying that an equal number didn’t 
 know where their safety came from either. Just like food at the 
 supermarket, safety was presumed to be ‘just there’, like it got 
 delivered through the water pipes. So in the same manner that when 
 we find we’re out of food, we call for pizza delivery, the idea of many 
 moderns is that if a man finds himself out of safety we should just 
 make a call to the police and have them take care of it.

Anonymous Coward August 11, 2009 2:05 PM

“Who enforces this code of conduct? Who audits the enforcer?”

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Latin may no longer be common usage, but the Romans weren’t stupid.

Anonymous Coward August 11, 2009 2:06 PM

“Who enforces this code of conduct? Who audits the enforcer?”

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Latin may no longer be common usage, but the Romans weren’t stupid.

Brian August 11, 2009 2:09 PM

It’s not that I feel we don’t have enemies. There will always be enemies of various types.

I fear systemic internal failures more than any enemy. I am terrified when reciting our constitution becomes justification for investigation of terrorism. When Homeland Security begins to act like Soviet era Russian bureaucracies I cringe.

Brandioch Conner August 11, 2009 2:20 PM

I’m going to have to agree with Brian on this one.

In addition, “barbarian” is a meaningless term.

Check Google for the phrase “The Constitution is not a suicide pact”.

anon August 11, 2009 2:24 PM

“The idea of many moderns is that if a man finds himself out of safety we should just make a call to the police and have them take care of it.”

Hit it on the nail, the culture of “don’t bother with the details, let someone else handle it”. Coupled with “if it’s not a problem to me, it’s not a problem to anyone” and we have the source of many societal ills.

Jeremy August 11, 2009 2:25 PM

@ Charlie (Colorado)

#7 doesn’t say that you have to answer every question that anyone puts to you; just that any information you actually dispense should be clear and truthful.

HJohn August 11, 2009 2:37 PM

@Brandioch Conner: “Check Google for the phrase “The Constitution is not a suicide pact”.”

“Strict observance of the written law is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to the written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the ends to the means.”
–President Thomas Jefferson, 1803

I enjoy making analogies (as most of you who have frequently been annoyed by me know). I think of #6, misconduct and expediency, and how things that are misconduct in some circumstances may be necessary in others–it is wrong to speed and risk the lives of others because I’m anxious to get to the mall, but it is prudent to speed to rush my father to the hospital after a heart attack when seconds are precious. I also think of #7, truth and honesty, and think of the “unnecessarily mislead” statement–there are times when the public needs to know, and there are times when their knowledge undermines something critical–you can’t tell them you’re intercepting calls from Osama himself without telling him.

We need codes of conduct since many people, of both good and bad intent, will often do poor things in pursuit of their goals. The paradox is finding fair and reasonable interpretations of what is correct in certain situations. To further complicate this, hindsight bias will eventually judge present decisions based on future information not known at the time of judgment. (For example, 9/11 was a movie plot beyond most of our imaginations, but none the less after the fact, the “connect the dots” crowd thought it should have been predicted.)

Not that I was missed grin, but this is my first post since June. I’ve been home taking care of my identical twin daughters. Looks like I’ve missed out on some interesting comments. 🙂

Brian Snow (co-author) August 11, 2009 2:50 PM

Many reading Bruce’s blog can probably download the full four-page article for free, if you are a member of any of a number of technical societies.

The code portion posted by Bruce is less than half of one page in the article. The rest is an explanation of how and why it came to be.

HJohn August 11, 2009 2:59 PM


Next time you start a sentence with “in all fairness,” it may be wise not to go on to be unfair by calling people idiotic and arrogant after you say it’s sad that the man in charge wasn’t castrated over it.

Fact is, yes, there were things pointing to 9/11. But, as Bill Clinton correctly pointed out, memos warning of terror polots and possible hijackings were not exactly uncommon. Back on point, my point was not about debating what should have/could have been done back then, something people will never agree on. My point was and is that people will judge you in hindsight based on information you could not have known or predicted (and, as you just did, will chalk it up to idiocy and/or arrogance, and try to have your head for it, or other parts you alluded to).

neuralcowboy August 11, 2009 3:01 PM

I understand the source of the cynical comments. I really do. But then, all ethical codes are points of attraction like a Lorenz attractor which can never be reached, however close we come. The Ten Commandments, for example. All of these responses could have been directed at Moses as he stood with tablets in hand, trying to say yes yes, but they are worth articulating and aiming for and moving toward, even if we hapless creatures will never arrive.

The intention is to create a benchmark, perhaps, the discussion and adoption of which itself creates better possibilities. In the field, in the trenches, intelligence operatives do come up against the gap between mission imperative, flexing in the gray areas, and their own consciences. Raising these issues “inside” where the rubber hits the road is a worthwhile exercise, not some fool in a fool’s paradise daydreaming about unicorns and flying pigs. It’s an effort to say, in different words, that souls are worth saving.

A Telco Security Dweeb August 11, 2009 3:05 PM

I just about died laughing when I read this so-called code of conduct. I could write PAGES about the hypocrisy and disingenuousness of this self-congratulatory document, but for the sake of brevity, let me make just two notes :

(1.) Note the cute little “… that our country has ratified…” caveat to the clause about “respecting human rights agreements”.

Since the United States has deliberately chosen to snub and ignore the International War Crimes Court (out of the very well-founded belief that, among other things, the U.S. might be liable for war crimes committed during the invasion and occupation of Iraq), as well as numerous other treaties (the one against land mines, for example), this innocuous looking caveat basically means that American spies don’t have to obey ANY meaningful international human rights treaties.

Kind of like those car warranties that get advertised on TV, right? You know, the ones that cover everything except anything that’s actually going to happen to your car.

(2.) Each clause should be suffixed by words to the effect of, “… except if ordered to lie, falsify evidence, commit perjury, kidnap, murder, torture and wantonly violate both the U.S. Constitution and various American international laws and treaties, by a future President”.

We have 8 years of Bush Administration lawbreaking and wildly excessive assertion of Presidential powers, behind us. There is no reason to believe that the CIA, FBI, DoD, NSA, DIA, Secret Service, etc., etc., will behave any differently, if ordered to do so, “for reasons of ‘national security'”.

Don’t take my word for it. Go down to Blockbuster and rent “Rendition”.

HJohn August 11, 2009 3:06 PM

This probably illustrates why a good and honest person working for intelligence may be scared of such a code. Not that they aren’t ethical, but that political enemies (of theirs or one of their bosses) will use it as a nuse to hang them with. You have to tell a reporter that you don’t know where bin Laden is, when in fact you are tracking him with his phone (you just don’t want him to know that so he can’t allude capture), viola, you have just violated the code of ethics. Pretty useful for political enemies.

That said, I am for a code of ethics, I am not saying I am not. I am just saying where, just as good people can do bad things when not governed by a code of ethics, there may also be people who misuse the code for political or personal reasons. (Sort of a like a police officer that gives warnings to the cute blonde 30 over the speed limit but nails his ex’s boyfriend for going 5 over.)

Jawallaby August 11, 2009 3:11 PM

I hope it’s not too far off topic but I wanted to respond the post from ‘brandon’. This idea that we shouldn’t prosecute people who tortured is bothersome at best. Nazi’s have been prosecuted for war crimes despite being ‘under orders’ and acting within the acceptable moral framework of their peers. This idea that members of an intelligence service or military aren’t responsible in any way for their actions once orders are given is dangerous and wrong.
I realize that the military culture requires strict adherence to the orders one is given. At some point though, people are responsible for their actions, whether ordered actions or not. I’m not advocating a witch hunt of any kind. But I do think it’s important that every level of the decision to torture and the process of torture be rooted out of our system and expunged. The people who actually committed the torture are guilty of a crime against humanity; whether or not they followed orders. That is why it is called a crime against humanity. There is a difference. I also understand that I wasn’t there and I don’t know the circumstances etc etc… The point here is that, where I can’t necessarily say that they should all be punished, I can say that these people should all be removed from positions in which they might possibly have influence or power of any kind. They have exhibited a degree of inhuman behavior which should not be rewarded or excused.

However, none of them should be touched if the ones at the top aren’t punished first. The punishments should be on a decreasing scale of severity according to the chain of command. Ultimately every single human is responsible for his or her own actions.

— re: Ethics rules — would be nice…

Shane August 11, 2009 3:26 PM


And back onto my point, vis-a-vis your statement: “people will judge you in hindsight based on information you could not have known or predicted”, seems to me that Mr. Mueller had plenty of information available to him (one might even say thrust upon him with urgency), enough to be judged by history to have been, at the very least, incompetent, and in my opinion well more than enough to be subsequently punished for ignoring it, wolf criers or not.

If the public isn’t privy to this information, we cannot but hope that the people who are make the right decisions on how to use it. If they cannot, they should be replaced.

I’ll wrap up the 9/11 tangent on my end, since it’s not very relevant to the post, but I felt like splitting hairs regarding your statement, because it’s quite a subjective one, as is mine, and shouldn’t be stated as truth. Hindsight bias is one thing, using 9/11 as an example is a recipe for debate, especially when you liken people not sharing your view as ‘connect-the-dots folks’. I, for one, am glad that someone actually tried as they might to ‘connect-the-dots’ beforehand, instead of raping the world with, yes, idiotic legislation and idiotic wars after the fact, so forgive me if I think the man responsible for suppressing the investigation should have his balls removed, figuratively or literally.

Brian Snow (co-author) August 11, 2009 3:27 PM

The comment by “neuralcowboy” above accurately captures the mind-set of those who worked over 4 years to craft this code.

My thanks to him, whoever he is!

HJohn August 11, 2009 3:29 PM


That is off topic, yet I must wonder, do we not see there is a gulf of difference between murdering people in ovens because of their race, and dunking them in water because they know something and won’t tell us? That is not to say i condone the latter, but come on, there is no comparison with the Nazis.

But we agree, ethics rules would be nice. Fair application would be nicer.

Sam Penrose August 11, 2009 3:33 PM

Insofar as the word “ratified” in #3 refers to treaties ratified by the Senate, it is redundant with #2: ratified treaties are part of the law. This point is not quibble: much has been made by the right that e.g. the President can disregard the Geneva Convention b/c it is “foreign.” Once the GC was ratified he became responsible to uphold it as the law of the land: full stop.

Brandioch Conner August 11, 2009 3:39 PM

“Not that they aren’t ethical, but that political enemies (of theirs or one of their bosses) will use it as a nuse to hang them with. You have to tell a reporter that you don’t know where bin Laden is, when in fact you are tracking him with his phone (you just don’t want him to know that so he can’t allude capture), viola, you have just violated the code of ethics. Pretty useful for political enemies.”


That’s only for administrations who prefer to control the media by rolling releases and leaks.

There should NEVER be public releases about existing operations. NEVER. There, problem solved.

Shane August 11, 2009 3:39 PM

@Brian Snow

I’d just like to add that, on behalf of myself and possibly some of the other kibitzers, I don’t mean to piss on your intentions, as they are quite honorable. I think a lot of us around here just have a bad case of cynicism with regards to the government, and/or their willingness to follow any of their own rules 🙂

Michael Cloppert August 11, 2009 3:51 PM

One of the biggest problems facing intelligence officers is that they are forced to either moonlight as legal scholars, or they must rely on the advice of lawyers, whose ethical standards themselves have been dubious of late. The only way that this sort of ethical standard works is if everyone in the information gathering and dissemination chain adheres to it.

Weakest link and all that…

Savik August 11, 2009 4:14 PM

This would not hinder the intelligence agencies. It would render them completely ineffective.

Our enemies most likely proposed this thing and leftist naive liberals embraced it as “enlightened”.

timmy303 August 11, 2009 4:27 PM

Hahahahaha — as our intel services get smacked down by the foreign intel bodies that see no moral or ethical boundaries.

Spying is accomplished by intrusion and deceit. Is is invasion of national privacy and the spreading of someone else’s secrets to those that shouldn’t have them. It is by its definition immoral. We only succeed as a nation when we realize that there are sometimes no “right” answers, but only “less wrong” ones.

David August 11, 2009 4:34 PM

I’m offering a really sweet deal on aluminum foil mind control deflection beanies to anyone who believes that the agencies absolutely, always, must operate outside of the law in order to remain effective.

Isn’t it at least obvious that operating outside of the law creates exposures and compromises secrecy, and that an agency’s ability to continue gathering intelligence unnoticed is compromised whenever laws are challenged or broken?

Jason August 11, 2009 4:49 PM

So, let me understand this. The naysayers are actually under the impression that our “spies” should operate outside of any moral or ethical framework, ignoring the law as they see fit?

That is patently ridiculous. Spies are just people with a job. They aren’t magic.

People need rules and guidelines. All rules have exceptions (or they should) that are granted on a case by case basis.

I’m sure (for those of you who are gainfully employed by someone other than yourself) you have rules you have to follow at work. Perhaps they are called Policies or Standard Operating Procedures or an Employee Handbook. These are guidelines you should follow. Does this mean you should get fired if you don’t wear a tie but your dress code says you must wear a tie? No. There are exceptions.

Breaking the rules warrants an investigation and, depending on the infraction and the intent, repercussions.

A “Code of Ethics” for our Intelligence Operatives would be no different.

But, they still need a bar, a line to gravitate toward.

You’d give them carte blanche and chuckle under your breath when they accidentally murder innocent civilians saying, “I told you so.” You’d shake your head at how nothing was done to stop them from getting to that point.

Maybe this would be a good first step.

27B/6 August 11, 2009 5:05 PM

I thought having “moral flexibility” was a prerequisite for working in the intelligence community. All this talk about ethics will only lead to moral schizophrenia and self loathing, which could impair mission objectives.

Peter E Retep August 11, 2009 5:14 PM

Curiously, MI-6 went public [on BBC] today with centenary recollections,
and a flat denial against blackmailing or extorting informants,
which also matched the pre-McNamara reasoning of the Company,
as well as our military Intel.

Taking on coerscive power does not convert your target,
and likely corrupts the coerscing agent,
making the agent vulnerable to blurirng lines of conduct,
and to other and self externalization of consequences and corruption,
which is itself a severe security risk,
making the coerscing agent blackmailable and turnable.

That is not what you want from people whose casual words
can determine your life and death.
Yet the perrenial agrument continues
whether secret service is “doing honorable things in secret”
or “doing dishonorable things for honorable reasons”.
I endorse the former,
and those who think the latter have missed the point of the exercise.

Peter E Retep August 11, 2009 5:18 PM

Yet the perrenial argument continues
whether secret service is “doing honorable things in secret”
or “doing dishonorable things for honorable reasons”.

I endorse the former,
and those who think the latter have missed the point of the exercise.

As do I. Thank you.

Trichinosis USA August 11, 2009 5:20 PM

Yet another fine-sounding document for politicos to read aloud in stentorian tones in public and thoroughly ignore in private. The NSA packet vaccuum appliances don’t budge an inch out of their racks, the cameras stay live, tape keeps a-rollin’ all night long, and the real lawbreakers keep lying, stealing and murdering.

“How quaint”, to quote a phrase.

Deep August 11, 2009 5:30 PM

I run an Intelligence function. I will be taking the key elements of this and inserting it into our code of conduct.

So there is hope.

Brian Snow (co-author) August 11, 2009 5:37 PM

For those who wish to read the full article and choose not to download from the CACM webpage given in the first line of Bruce’s post, send an email to

stating you want a copy for non-profit educational use (educating yourself counts) and a full copy will be sent to you.

moo August 11, 2009 7:51 PM

Reminds me of the 70’s spy flick with Robert Redford:

Higgins: “It’s simple economics. Today it’s oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. Maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?”
Joe Turner: “Ask them?”
Higgins: “Not now – then! Ask ’em when they’re running out. Ask ’em when there’s no heat in their homes and they’re cold. Ask ’em when their engines stop. Ask ’em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won’t want us to ask ’em. They’ll just want us to get it for ’em!”

Expediency will always win the day. In the interests of national security, intelligence agencies will always have to step on a few toes. Citizens are perfectly fine with this as long as they don’t have to know about it.

Brandioch Conner August 11, 2009 8:13 PM

“Reminds me of the 70’s spy flick with Robert Redford:”

You’re thinking of “Three Days of the Condor”.

The point being that what you describe is hypocrisy (or would it be merely double standards).

Wouldn’t national security be better served by changing the habits of the populace so that when the current resources are running out we will have moved to different resources?

To quote the movie Dune:
“He who can destroy a thing, controls a thing.”

And destruction is far easier than production. Don’t bet “national security” on your ability to take resources from other countries.

rabbilaberer August 11, 2009 9:38 PM

Don’t harm US citizens? Wow. And what about your foreign legal residents? Are they free game? Don’t the constitutional rights apply to foreigners in the US?
Do you want US citizens to be excluded from the law and the constitutional rights, e.g. in Germany? Or do you think this kind of policy should not be reciprocal?
Americans seem to be fucked out of their minds with nationalism since the rednecks voted for their idiot king 8 years ago.

Neighborcat August 11, 2009 9:58 PM

I appreciate the sentiment of this code, but it is at best pointless, and at worst dangerous because it encourages misplacement of responsibility.

Those in our government who act in ways that erode the very freedoms they claim to protect sincerely believe they are already doing “The Right Thing” in the interest of their country. Save a truly monomaniacal few, their convictions of righteousness are as well-meaning and heartfelt as any you or I hold.

In short, our intelligence community is doing the job “We the People” hired them to do. You can’t fault a horse for where you wind up if you let go of the reins.

Having reached the point where we feel the need to be protected from our own government, it may already be too late for this empire. If there is a code of responsible conduct, the buck stops where it always has; with those our government supposedly works for, and the code is much simpler.

  1. Know your history.
  2. Pay attention.
  3. Vote.


Russell Coker August 11, 2009 10:55 PM

Philip Zimbardo (who is well known for the Stanford Prison experiment) gave an interesting TED talk about the psychology of evil. He makes a good case the idea that while “just following orders” is not an excuse, being in a bad environment is a mitigating factor in a charge of human rights abuses.

It seems to me that if a code of ethics (such as this one) was applied from the top down in a serious way then it would avoid the creation of such bad environments.

Now no-one has ever suggested that security agencies report on the status of their work in progress. I think that having the same level of review as police forces is appropriate. The police generally will not tell reporters the details of their ongoing investigations, but they will on occasions publish misleading information to further their case.

I think that the spirit of section 7 would be fulfilled by leaking “we know where Osama is hiding” and then publishing “how we punked Osama by forcing him to hide where we could get him”.

Thomas August 12, 2009 1:19 AM

Only one rule is necessary:

“Don’t be evil.”

… unless your shareholders demand it.

Lars August 12, 2009 2:01 AM

While soldiers mostly go to war in a temporal and spatial bounded scenario, secret services work outside of this box, meaning not only at war times but always. The nature of this work is to be constantly at a warlike state, because the job is to gather information not only from those official foes, but especially from those deemed benign. Because the job is not only to gather information on military targets, but to know about a target-ish situation before it evolves. If you like the secret service guys are constantly at war.

In a war you regularly are in a situation where you have to disregard rules of normal human behaviour to safe yourself and reach your goal. You have to take any advantage you can, because if you do not, your opponent probably will. If the code of conduct states that you will not attack at nights, then you better prepare for night strikes, because – in the end – history is written by winners. You cannot survive to be a winner if you are not prepared for nightly strikes of the enemy or if you are not taking the advantage of striking at night when you are loosing at daylight. (And one of the parties will, at some point, be loosing during the normal daylight battles.)

There is a war going on and no second place to win.

Having stated this, a code of conduct is useful enough, because it probably prevents all-out-fighting to be the normal state. Actually someone stepping over the line might do something to save the day, but it is good that he does so for a price, he officially becomes a bad guy. Let there be no pride in breaking the rules, necessity, but no pride. Expell those overstepping the rules, punish them, to ensure that no one disregards the code without a very good reason (a reason grave enough for him to disregard even his personal future for the greater good of his country/the world).

That way we might actually have some justification to believe that the organisation as a whole does the right thing in terms of the given rules.

Russell Coker August 12, 2009 3:30 AM

Lars: One thing you need to keep in mind is that torture and other human rights abuses just don’t work.

When people are tortured they say whatever it takes to make the pain stop – truth becomes irrelevant. All the experts in interrogation report that harsh interrogations just don’t work. Get to know the person you are interrogating, have a conversation with them, be nice, and then they let things slip.

As a data-point, last year I watched a current affairs TV show about torture. They interviewed a man who was tortured severely when he was 9yo (his parents didn’t recognise him afterwards). The torturers got no useful information from him because even under torture he was not going to implicate his family.

When torture has been proven to not work on 9yo children you really can’t expect it to work on adults.

Advocates of torture who have watched 24 too much often say “what if a nuclear weapon is about to go off?”. The answer to that is that the suspect will give false information. In most episodes of 24 Jack Baur’s victims could have given a wrong address and it would have all been over by the time Jack realised this and tortured them again.

Finally when you torture people you create more enemies. It just increases the scope of the problem.

Erik August 12, 2009 4:30 AM

What’s wrong with this code of conduct? The purpose is not to guide inteligence officers but to use it as a public seal against criticism:

Since things are secret, there is no way public will know about violation of these fine rules. Any criticism? “we have clear ethical standards” they reply. And it’s great since although they speak nicely about accountability, how much is that worth if there are no clear consequences of violation? In secrecy they destroy the evidence, and call it damage control – oh so they broke that rule also.

Then some new boss comes arround and the old misbehaviour is revealed, but the extent cannot be fully determined and responsability correctly placed. The new boss will faithfully declare that the ethical standard will be reinstated… but not for long. History repeats.

Meanwhile the old boss(es) plays the blame game pointing at dead presidents and older (and preferably dead) bosses etc. untill any investigation leads to a dead end.

Achteck August 12, 2009 5:39 AM

This Ethical Code for Intelligence is an excellent attempt to establish a code of conduct for the IC. It appears to have ignored where we stand relative to the Global Community. Regardless of Religious and Metaphysical codes, it falls woefully short of the standards set by our Founding Fathers and, based on my limited knowledge, falls short of the standards of morality set by our adversaries.

This proposed set of ethical standards for the Intelligence Community omits the critical “Trust in God” that in the eyes of our adversaries makes us Culturally Inferior and therefore Barbarians.

At least you have managed to grow out of the primitive “Lawyer code of conduct” mentality.

Thank you.

BF Skinner August 12, 2009 6:41 AM

@Peter Hillier “I wonder how this would be enforced”

Codes of conduct are enforced by the community no? A memoire I read about the GRU had, during indoctrination, them led into a room with a table and a furnace.
“this is where your career ends” was what they were told. This is where our mistakes get resolved was the implication.

Do you want hierarchy or peer to peer? Either can be abused.

Beauracracies can believe that the appointee and the guy downtown are transitory and pay them only lipservice. Executives can believe Congress has no business in their business. And Congress, despite their legal oversite authority, can be corralled.

Comes down to people making choices I think. Teach them how to make choices, how to think. Indoctrinate them in the mission of the organization (this is a tough one with so much outsourcing of federal services like torture – thanks for serving CACI) Establish codes of conduct based on the organizations mission. When someone steps out of line, make a stain on the ground out of them (how big a stain depends on how far out of line they were) then march the deck apes around to see what happened to their shipmate.

To my mind there’s 3 groups of people.

Group A is small. These are the people who sit down and think about what they are doing. They tussel with rights and wrongs and arrive at their ethical behavior model. In our world these are the people who adopt security because it’s right, not because they are told to. The SA’s and DBA’s who developed secure systems before there were security requirements. These people and their systems are easiest to certify. If you showed them the code they’d not see what the fuss is, to their minds it’s self evident.

Group B are the people who do what they are told. They just want a job. They don’t think about it, haven’t internalized it, just less trouble all in all. These are the people we can say “just do it” too. These are the people the checklists and awareness training are for. These are the people who may conform to the code once it’s explained to them (but you’ve got to show them the stick as well)

Group C are the refusniks. Self-involved, haven’t thought, don’t consider anything but their own interests, unreasonablly convinced of their own superiority, have no mission, no determined responsibility or duty to others but what they choose to give. “You ain’t the boss of me” kind. (remind you of any tech you know?)

Group C is where human accidental and maliciousness occurs. These are the insider threats (group A can be an insider threat too but usually when the Organization itself does a 180 on it’s mission). These people will cover up for their friends. The kind of people who install any sort of software on their desktop, download Gigs of porn on the office computer, violate copywrite on machines that aren’t theirs, spend all day IM’ing instead of working, open the same email and infect themselves with the same virus 5 times. You know – idjits.

Group C needs both the code, to be shown the stick and to know the stick is used. They have to know that they are the ones that the GRU room is for.

BF Skinner August 12, 2009 6:45 AM

@Thomas “unless your shareholders demand it.”

Or your customer’s politely ask for it.

Marsha Woodbury August 12, 2009 7:30 AM

Re: 1. First, do no harm to U.S. citizens or their rights under the Constitution.

I have several times suggested to the authors that the first line makes the code “dead in the water” (my sons are New Zealand cititizens) but the authors said no one in the intelligence community would buy the code without that restriction. So it’s important to know the community we are dealing with. My sons are not people with rights?

eve wears a badge August 12, 2009 8:14 AM

“That is off topic, yet I must wonder, do we not see there is a gulf of difference between murdering people in ovens because of their race, and dunking them in water because they know something and won’t tell us?”

Sad fact: the Nazi’s weren’t charged with murdering people in the ovens because murdering your own civilians is perfectly legal, rather they were charged for starting unnecessary wars and then it was argued that in the commission on these illegal wars “crimes against humanity” were also committed. That is, the holocaust, (according to the Nuremberg trials) was only illegal because they were done while committing an illegal act (a war of aggression).

“The Tribunal therefore cannot make a general declaration that the acts before 1939 were crimes against humanity within the meaning of the Charter, but from the beginning of the war in 1939 war crimes were committed on a vast scale, which were also crimes against humanity; and insofar as the inhumane acts charged in the Indictment, and committed after the beginning of the war, did not constitute war crimes, they were all committed in execution of, or in connection with, the aggressive war, and therefore constituted crimes against humanity.”

So from a purely legal perspective I do see a pretty clear comparison between the war in Iraq and the Nazi’s war of aggression in europe.

From a absolute moral perspective the US government has murdered only a small fraction (20-100k) of the people killed in the holocaust (12m) in the last 10 years. That being said, I would like to see the us intelligence officers that lied to the public to be held accountable for the results (20-100k deaths, a crippled economy) of their misdeeds (putting the advancement of their career above the public and country).

mcb August 12, 2009 9:07 AM

Signals intelligence and covert operations have their own ethical conundra to resolve, but could someone explain how the human intelligence side of the spy trade might apply an ethical standard to the practice of inducing others to commit treason against their own country?

David August 12, 2009 9:57 AM

We might look at the laws of war for guidance here, as in both war and espionage we expect our compatriots to do things that are normally immoral for our benefit.

The laws of war are intended to make war only as brutal and destructive as it has to be. It would be pointless to try to ban anything that is particularly militarily effective, since people will use it anyway. (For example, unrestricted commerce raiding by submarines was made illegal by treaty before WWI, practiced by the Central Powers in WWI, reaffirmed to be illegal in the 1920s, and practiced by most belligerents, including the USA and British Empire, in WWII.)

For example, I expect our spies to lie, cheat, and steal. I expect them to bribe and blackmail other people into betraying their countries. This is effective action, and cannot effectively be banned. I don’t expect them to torture for information. This is ineffective and morally repugnant. (“It’s worse than a crime. It’s a blunder.”)

In order to have any effect, a code of ethics must acknowledge these things. It has to be realistic. An agent who routinely has to violate one point or another is going to lose respect for the whole thing.

ni August 12, 2009 11:44 AM


Espionage is not against international law. When we spy, we only break the laws of the country we are spying on.

Spies, at least the good ones, have to be ethical.

Much of the skepticism toward the intelligence business that I see in other comments here is the result of misinformation; either you don’t understand how it works, or you are the unwitting victims of foreign info ops (ie the traitor Phil Agee and his KGB masters).

Nostromo August 12, 2009 11:44 AM

It’s unethical to harm US citizens, but OK to harm other people? Sorry, but the people who wrote this document don’t understand the meaning of the word “ethics”.

rabbilaberer August 12, 2009 12:12 PM

The FISA act absolutely forbids to spy on “US persons”. This are citizens and legal residents by the definition of the law.
If the idiot king has changed this on behalf on his redneck voters, just undo.

David August 12, 2009 12:30 PM

I tend to disagree. A great deal of our actionable intelligence comes from such exciting covert operations as: reading newspapers.

bob August 12, 2009 12:40 PM

Intelligence Officers? I wish congress, the supreme court and the President could be made to swear to it!

Moderator August 12, 2009 2:17 PM

“If the idiot king has changed this on behalf on his redneck voters…”

Please make your points without this kind of language.

Stephanie August 12, 2009 3:46 PM

I liked the article, thanks.

I wonder if the DOJ will apply such ethics to the FBI funded contractor observers out watching US citizens on US soil? Patriot Act Abuses anyone?

HJohn August 12, 2009 3:51 PM


Your opinion is not being censored, they just don’t want to be smart mouthed on their blog.

I bet if you revised your statement as follows, it would not be purged:
“The FISA act (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) absolutely forbids to spy on “US persons”. This are citizens and legal residents by the definition of the law.
The president should undo the changes made by his predecessor because they are unconstitutional.”

rabbilaberer August 12, 2009 3:53 PM

See previous post. IMO the Patriot act is a miscarriage, resulting from mass hysteria. A dozen madman terrorists have undone 30 years of civil rights development.

rabbilaberer August 12, 2009 4:04 PM

I have to admit that I am senselessly biased, having now heard for 8 years that foreigners have no rights in this country. I am a foreigner in the US myself.
With the stance against foreigners and immigrants the US is not doing the country a favor. In my home country I was always strictly pro-US, but in view of the perceived US-xenophobia and the blunt nationalism I am slowly developing doubts. I know, I know, then I should go home.

Moderator August 12, 2009 4:05 PM

Rabbilaberer, your original message is still here; you do not need to rephrase it. What you need to do, if you want to continue commenting here, is keep your comments civil and limit yourself to arguing rather than bashing.

rabbilaberer August 12, 2009 5:48 PM

I hope the last post was now clear enough. Methods like waterboarding and mass surveillance on the own citizens and even more on foreigners have been the hall mark of the East-German (GDR) horror regime and their Stasi. I certainly don’t like to see my host country turning itself into the like of such a police state under the impression of a terror attack. In my opinion we would have nothing to defend any more if we allow this to happen. After all the moral supremacy of the US over such GDR-like horror regimes was founded in the civil right granted by the constitution, so I cannot see how we can sacrifice this core value for short lived practical considerations and tactical opportunities.

Peter E Retep August 12, 2009 6:42 PM

Tactical opportuniies are ineither ends themselves, nor justify means;
practical considerations may be idle thoughts free of context,
and so free of any meaning of their own.

War permits the relaxation of certain meanings for survival or defense of innocent others;
society justifies this generalized response in particular situations,
but not blanketly.

When moral constructs are no longer taught,
children are not taught to see what laws are being kept and broken,
and begin to think “everything is relative” so “everything is O.K.”
This is almost always the voice of ignorance,
but sometimes it is the voice of the enemy of meaning, itself.

Ruth Nelson August 13, 2009 12:45 AM

As one involved in developing this code, I’d like to comment on the “US Citizen” issue. The code says that non-harming of US Citizens is “first” because it it written for the US intelligence community. This is a statement of priority, not exclusivity. In no way does the code imply that non-US-citizens may be ignored or harmed with impunity.

rabbilaberer August 13, 2009 2:14 AM

Even FISA talks about “US-Persons”, including residents and restricts the intelligence on them, however less after changes in the past years.
As a foreigner I may say that the lack of judicial control results in the typical “GDR-Feeling”, registered trade mark.

rabbilaberer August 13, 2009 2:59 AM

Also the steady emphasis on US-citizens in these discussions – exclusive or prioritized- together with the public discussion of immigration issues has led to a situation where foreigners are scrutinized and suspected as “illegals” by patriotic citizens. This gives the typical “Neo-Nazi” -feeling ™ of the German backwoods. This has changed in the past 8 years.

Henk August 13, 2009 3:43 AM

I find it sad to see these rules only ‘protect’ US citizens.

Why not add something along the line of “Treat every person that wants to do our country harm in the same manner”, “Protect the innocent”, stuff like that. The way they phrased it now means immigrants (who have not yet gotten the US nationality) are basically second rated citizens.
Who cares where they are from?

Sadly narrow minded guidelines.

Non US citizen August 13, 2009 4:05 AM

It says: “First, do no harm to U.S. citizens or their rights under the Constitution.”

Does this mean that it is OK to harm other (non US) citizens?

Having in mind US politics, it seems that it goes to be ethical to harm and not respect rights of citizens of other countries.

Nostromo August 13, 2009 4:59 AM

@Ruth Nelson
“In no way does the code imply that non-US-citizens may be ignored or harmed”

In strict logic, and using the specialized meaning of the word “imply” that is used in formal logic, that is true.

In the ordinary meaning of the English language, it is false. Saying “do no harm to US citizens”, and saying nothing about non-US citizens, clearly implies (in the ordinary sense of the word) that it is OK to do harm to non-US citizens.

Clive Robinson August 13, 2009 7:17 AM

@ mcb,

“… but could someone explain how the human intelligence side of the spy trade might apply an ethical standard to the practice of inducing others to commit treason against their own country?

Try flipping the question on it’s head and saying,

“What are unethical ways of turning others to commit treason?”

To which Kidnap of relatives, blackmail, extorsion and a few other things spring to mind.

Ethical behaviour with regards to “humint” was one of the underlying reasons the US amongst others ternd to Sigint and Elint and depreciated Humint.

The problem with this depreciation is it can take fourty years or more to build up a forign intel network with a modicum of ethics.

This is exacerbated by the problem that high tech has no ability to “feel” what is happening on the ground just observe from afar and then dimly at best.

It is because of the Snafu’s caused by a lack of Humint on the ground that the US UK and a few others have got themselves into this mess.

Where to try to get some sort of “ground state” they are having to resourt to distinctly unethical behaviour even within the morals of the trade…

Brian Snow (co-author) August 13, 2009 9:02 AM

As one of the principal players in working on the code, the sentence

“First, do no harm to U.S. citizens or their rights under the Constitution.”

used the term “no harm to U.S. citizens” in the early years to focus attention on innocent humans, to keep our juices up while we worked. We fully realized that any final version would REQUIRE the term “U.S. persons”, which covers immigrants, corporations, and other legal entities. We never intended or entertained any thoughts permitting going after resident aliens, immigrants, or others protected by the more sterile but appropriate term “U.S. persons”.

It is just a draft, intended to cause debate and reflection within the Intelligence community. If adopted, the actual words will no doubt be edited and changed as the institutions incorporate them.

I’ll be happy as long as the final adopted words lead employees to act on the real need for greater attention to lawfulness, transparency, accountability, truthfulness, addressing possible consequences, and protection of innocents.

rabbilaberer August 13, 2009 9:23 AM

We never intended or entertained any thoughts permitting going after resident aliens, immigrants, or others protected by the more sterile but appropriate term “U.S. persons”. – But this has already been the result of the changes in public opinion, incited by the discussions of these topics. You not only kept your juices up, but also the juices of countless hicktown cowboys during the past 8 years.
The US became a nasty place for immigrants and permanent residents, mainly due to public discussion and press propaganda.

mcb August 13, 2009 11:10 AM

@ Brian Snow (co-author)

IIRC some British politician once said “Gentlemen do not read other people’s mail.” For better and worse we’ve all certainly gotten past that gentile hangup. I applaud your effort to map the terrain of ethics in the intel biz, if only to demonstrate the conflict between the expedient and the immoral.

Has your working group dealt with the concept that there are practices that may be immoral at the level of the individual that might be ethical on a utilitarian level?

Convincing someone to become a traitor, to betray king and country, violate his or her sacred oath, to commit treason, would seem always to be wrong at the level of the handler and the asset unless a greater good – no nukes, shorter wars, fewer noncombatant deaths, one bullet in a scientist’s head instead of having to “glass” downtown Tehran, etc. – is accomplished. Your thoughts?

xxx August 13, 2009 11:15 AM

@ mcb

It was not a British politician, it was US Secretary of State Stimson words when he shut down the “Black Chamber”, United States’ first peacetime cryptanalytic organization, 1929.

rabbilaberer August 13, 2009 11:32 AM

…immoral at the level of the individual that might be ethical on a utilitarian level?

…a greater good – no nukes, shorter wars, fewer noncombatant deaths, one bullet in a scientist’s head instead of having to “glass” downtown Tehran, etc. – is accomplished.

For good reasons the constitution protects the individual civil rights, not some abstract utilitarian “common good”, which at the time may have been defined by the British King, or the anglican church or some military commander, out of the range of public control, essentially turning the people into cattle of their herder.
The definition of such “common good” is completely opaque and can – as you have done- corroborated with arbitrary constructed movie plot scenarios or strategic or tactical goals at any time.
The definition of such common good is not only opaque, but also extraordinarily pliable, to the utilitarian purpose.
Like in the “Animals farm” and in real world dictatorships the government and even the executive becomes the farmer and herder of the people and has them fattened, castrated or sacrificed for some objectives outside the insight and influence of the people or the cattle.
Historically the constitution ended this constellation, and we don’t want history to go in reverse. You will have to leave the decision to judges in public courts, because after so many centuries of being cattle, we don’t trust your higher insight a bit. This is the spirit of the constitution.
A court has just found that National Security Letters protected indefinitely by gag orders from secret courts or from the executive are unconstitutional.

rabbilaberer August 13, 2009 11:58 AM

Please remember that for 40 years the communist horror regime of the GDR (East Germany) and their Stasi have relied on the utilitarian common good of the people for the rationalization of their deeds.
They did all the best for the people:
No crime, no vice, no unrest, no incendiary speech, no dissent, no unemployment, individual rights curtaileded for the common good.
The party knows best. It must have been a true paradise! The people were so deformed, that even today many of them want their good old leader back.
You want that in the US? Kim Il Yong knows best, what is good for you, the beloved father of the people. Long live our beloved father, long live our beloved father… (raising little flags)

Moderator August 13, 2009 12:30 PM

“You not only kept your juices up, but also the juices of countless hicktown cowboys…”

I just warned you about this. Cheap smears do not make your argument more persuasive. Posting repeatedly to pile on more and more incendiary rhetoric does not make it more persuasive, either. You’ve made some good points, but if you can’t calm down enough to participate constructively I am going to kick you out of the thread.

David August 13, 2009 12:35 PM

@David: Of course we should be gathering intelligence by open means, but particularly in some countries that doesn’t get very far, and “some countries” includes a lot I’d like the CIA to have good intel on. I think a completely above-board CIA would be insufficient; I just think there are limits, defined by effectiveness and other moral considerations, as to how far they should go.

Noble_Serf August 13, 2009 12:40 PM

Getting the general public interested in moving toward a new culture within the defense or intelligence community is impossible. As others have pointed out, there’s little interest in the details until some sunlight hits something ugly. Based on my personal opinion that people really don’t want to know, the code is at best self-service marketing at this point.

rabbilaberer August 13, 2009 1:18 PM

Censor: will you put back my reply about nuclear weapons in the Iran and stop censoring?

Moderator August 13, 2009 1:42 PM

Yes, yes, I am exactly like the Stasi. So stipulated. But you’ve disrupted the thread enough. If you walk away now I will not ban you from the whole blog.

Shane August 13, 2009 1:43 PM


“The wisest man says the least.” – From a Fortune Cookie (thought it might be relevant)

Also, Re: “The US became a nasty place for immigrants and permanent residents, mainly due to public discussion and press propaganda”

I don’t know if you’ve heard, being a self-proclaimed foreigner, but it hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park lately for the citizens of the U.S. either. Hence the entire reason discussions like this exist.

It might be nice if you cooled off the rhetoric a bit, and realized that we’re a big country with a lot of differing viewpoints, some good, some not so good. It kind of belittles your arguments to shove us all into the ‘fascist hick-cowboy nazi-stalin-gdr regime’ category, and certainly isn’t going to change the minds of all of the ‘idiots’ you are ranting about.

rabbilaberer August 13, 2009 2:11 PM

@Shane – Point taken. But at least you cannot get deported from your birth country. And I don’t shove you all into the above category, I just say that events have given rise to a wave of xenophobia and isolationism, resulting among other unpleasant effects in the increasing public voice for anti-immigrant movements, militias etc.
This just brings up unpleasant memories from the history of my home country.

Moderator August 13, 2009 2:22 PM

Rabbilaberer, I’m glad that you are able to see Shane’s points, but “walk away” means stop posting to the thread now.

SRR August 14, 2009 10:29 AM

Wow! It’s a little disconcerting to see spelled out my complete lack of even unenforceable protections, since I am a legal immigrant living in the US. Fortunately, if anyone abided by the guidelines above, my husband (a US soldier and citizen) and children would be covered.

Steven J. Greenwald August 14, 2009 11:59 AM

Due diligence: I worked on this code as one of the 1/3 “other.”

Re: the first line that has pushed so many buttons as I knew (and warned) it would: I argued to include all people, as I view rights as inherent and not something that governments grant.

Go and try and sell abstract philosophical ideas like that one (inherent rights vs. granted rights) while you want to get a decent mission code of ethics in a very interesting community which few of us know much about. Then you might understand some of the constraints of the developers here.

Ruth Nelson points out a simple first-order logic corollary regarding something written in the plainest English we could find ((1) does not give carte blanche to the IC to do harm to non U.S. citizens) and gets a lecture about how when we phrase things like in (1) using plain English it must mean the opposite. Sorry, but I think that nonsense. If you don’t like it, then suggest an alternate phrasing that has a chance of getting adopted.

How about just reading the code on face value folks? Nothing sinister went on here, and we did the work in the open.

Believe it or not, the IC has a huge amount of people working in it who do not fit the Hollywood description of spies. They sit behind computer screens, doing boring analysis, software development, and other things, and wind up fromt time-to-time in conflicting or gray ethical areas. Almost all of them cherish the U.S. Constitution too. Plus want to get their pensions.

Don’t we want to give those folks some guidance? At least a set of goals they can look at? Something at which they can aim? Maybe hang on the cube wall and look at every day?

Those of you have have knee-jerk reactions to any such effort: maybe you should open your minds to the possibility that many in the IC would welcome such a code as it would constrain their behavior in some predictable ways that, among other things, would help them attempt to do the right thing, as well as keep their job, and offer a grievance method, or at least the chance for ethical guidance from authorities when push comes to shove?

You find that so hard to believe?

And to those of you who think an ethical code can get summed up in “Don’t be evil”: well, evil comes in all guises, including semantically null catch phrases that make people who don’t or can’t beg questions feel good. Does anyone ever think people wake up and say to themselves, “Ah! Today I will go and do evil!”?

John Gilmore August 14, 2009 8:27 PM

I’m glad that people who were on the inside during some of the really bad stuff think that making a code of ethics can help. SOMETHING needs to help. NSA is tapping all of us today, literally; they’re tapping web accesses to Bruce’s blog, and everything else they can get the carriers to hand over. (That disdain for the rights of foreigners ended up spilling over into a disdain for the rights of everybody. But shh, it’s a state secret.)

Ethics code co-author Clint Brooks was also co-author of the Clipper Chip plan to give NSA the crypto keys to the entire US and world civilian infrastructure. At least he didn’t lie and tell us that DES was secure; that was FBI Director and federal judge Louis Freeh’s job. When the leaders are corrupt, when the judges break the law, when “accountability” is null, those who know HAVE to go to the people, revealing the sooper secret criminal acts. Where is THAT in the code of ethics? I guess Thomas Tamm must not have participated in making this code.

The code also seems to have forgotten, “We who act in secret will seek the best results for the whole society, rather than for ourselves personally, for our department, for our agency, for our ‘community’ of secret agencies, for our branch of government, for our government, or for our country.” I was shocked to discover during the crypto/Clipper/export issues that there was absolutely nobody in the government below the level of the Vice President whose job was to make the best thing happen for everybody (even if you limit that to “everybody in the USA” rather than “everybody in the world”). Instead, NSA was pushing for the best thing for NSA even if it screwed the rest of us; FBI similarly. (This is also how we got RFID passports — the State Dept. found it convenient, and why should THEY care about the effects that occur when you aren’t in an immigration line?)

Clint, would you have done anything different during the Clipper Chip era if you had been following this code? Many dozens of citizens had to spend close to 10 years as volunteers, undoing the policy choices you were making in secret. Or is the code a wasted exercise?

Citizen of World August 15, 2009 4:27 PM

@Brian Snow (co-author)

“As one of the principal players in working on the code, the sentence

“First, do no harm to U.S. citizens or their rights under the Constitution.”

used the term “no harm to U.S. citizens” in the early years to focus attention on innocent humans, to keep our juices up while we worked. We fully realized that any final version would REQUIRE the term “U.S. persons”, which covers immigrants, corporations, and other legal entities. We never intended or entertained any thoughts permitting going after resident aliens, immigrants, or others protected by the more sterile but appropriate term “U.S. persons”.

It is just a draft, intended to cause debate and reflection within the Intelligence community. If adopted, the actual words will no doubt be edited and changed as the institutions incorporate them.

I’ll be happy as long as the final adopted words lead employees to act on the real need for greater attention to lawfulness, transparency, accountability, truthfulness, addressing possible consequences, and protection of innocents. ”

I suggest term “human being” or “person” instead “US citizen” without specifying any country or citizenship as US want to be real leader of the free world.

Marsha Woodbury August 17, 2009 7:48 PM

Hello again. Thanks to the authors for replying to my query about the first point of the code. What I was trying to say, is that the reader stops after the first line. It would be better to put into words what you really mean.

Once the readers realize that the oath is to cause no harm to a US citizen (and that is the exact wording), then someone in transit, or here for 3 months, or a Frenchman walking down the streets of Paris and unlucky enough to run into one of our agents is at risk. That line shuts the door on the reader’s mind. That’s why I used the term “dead in the water”. A New Zealander would just laugh. Look at our rendition policy.

Is that clear? It’s really hard to get this point across, I guess. Thanks for your time.


Jonathan D. Abolins August 21, 2009 11:03 AM

For those interested in intelligence & ethics, take a look at the International Intelligence Ethics Association (IIEA) site at

One of the sections I found particularly helpful was their linked list of online articles & papers on intel & ethics:

By the way, info & a link to a draft of the Ethics Code for US Intelligence Officers is on the IIEA site at

Craig Campbell August 26, 2009 4:02 PM

I had raised the question of persons earlier in the discussion before this was published, so I concur with the language change.
I have also noted that a lot of people are concerned with who would enforce these ideals. I think it should be noted that these are ideals for individuals to strive for in guiding their consciences and not laws that someone should enforce. The Hippocratic Oath includes a phrase like “first do no harm.” That is the intention of a doctor, but we know that medical authorities kill about 100,000 people a year in America. They didn’t do so intentionally, but there are consequences when one undertakes action. They strive to do better.
There are laws that guide behavior that are enforceable, but they are minimal standards while this endeavor, as I understand it, is intended to strive to move beyond and be aspirational.

QuantumSam August 27, 2009 1:12 PM

You people are way too cynical and do not understand the lengths that the vasy majority of the IC members goes through to adhere to US laws and regs governing surveillance. Given all that is going on, even a 99.9% adherence means that that 0.1% is a significant number.

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