privacy and security
An ethics code for
U.s. intelligence officers
Debating and arguing the points of a proposed code of behavior to provide
guidance in making choices can produce the most effective ethics training.
DoctoRs, enGineeRs, lAWyeRs, and many other occupa- tions have formal ethics codes that help members of the professions make
difficult choices. What about the U.S.
intelligence community? There is a
formal statement: “Principles of Ethical Conduct,” found in Part 1 of Executive Order 12731 of October 17, 1990.a
These 14 sentences bind all U.S. federal employees, but these sentences
deal primarily with what is usually
defined as fiscal matters—proper handling of government funds, nepotism,
accepting lavish gifts, and other such
ill-advised activities. These sentences
can be found posted in the hallways
of almost all U.S. federal buildings, including those of the U.S. intelligence
As important as these sentences are,
they fail to address what we are calling
“mission ethics” for intelligence officers—what you can or cannot, should
or should not, do in executing your IC
agency’s mission. Why should this be
The IC provides intelligence to U.S.
policymakers and military commanders. The decisions they make based on
such intelligence can have profound
impacts on the U.S., the world, and individual citizens. Intelligence officers
are keenly aware of this and strive to do
their best, often operating in demand-
a See http://www.usoge.gov/laws_regs/exec_or-
ing, complex, and perhaps hazardous
Many intelligence officers have had
personal experiences dealing with
exacting situations that had difficult
ethical ramifications during their careers. Existing fiscal ethics were not
germane, and any mission ethics that
might have existed may differ by organization (even within an agency) and
also may differ as a function of which
particular group convened to make a
decision. There can be significantly different ethical considerations between
tactical and strategic missions.
Most IC employees are dedicated,
honorable, and ethical public servants.
But they function in secrecy and have
power—a combination that is fraught
with temptation. Some may have to
suborn citizens of other nations or the
agents of foreign governments. Some
may perform operations that would
be illegal if done against their citizens.
Others may make decisions that can
have significant unforeseen unintended consequences.
Several of us who have been career
intelligence officers contend that we
could have benefited greatly from a set
of mission ethics studied and deliberated in training classes using case studies, away from our demanding work
environment. Such study and discussion would enable contemplation, reflection, and internalization that could
help an officer in the heat of action
when others might be overwhelmed
with expediency or emotion, or in other
situations when perhaps faced with
unethical opportunists (there are always a few such in any organization).