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Moral arguments alone not enough to justify spying, says MI6 ethics chief

By Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor
MI6 headquarters in London
MI6 headquarters in London. In common with service tradition, the MI6 ethics counsellor who reviewed the book is not named. Photograph: Dave Gadd/Sportsphoto/Allstar

MI6’s ethics chief has argued that spies cannot justify their existence with moral arguments alone and must accept they exist to “promote the national interest” in a struggle as “potent now as it was during the cold war”.

The frank argument is made in a review of a book, Spying Through a Glass Darkly, a discussion of the ethics of espionage, which argues that the entirely values-based justification for spying advanced by the author is too restrictive.

In the review, the ethics counsellor says that while “one hopes that most people in the UK would agree that we want to live in a world where fundamental rights are respected”, the reality is that intelligence agencies are tasked “to defend the national interest for its own sake”.

In common with service tradition the MI6 officer is not named, but the book review, which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, was tweeted out approvingly by the MI6 chief, Richard Moore, on Thursday.

“Every day the outstanding intelligence professionals of MI6 take the difficult decisions needed to keep our country safe,” Moore said, adding that “ethical principles infuse” its operations, “marking our difference from our adversaries”.

But while candid, the essay does not directly refer to recent controversies, including that MI6 and sister agency MI5 were involved in hundreds of torture cases and scores of rendition cases in the years after 9/11. A judge-led inquiry into the subject was abandoned in 2019.

In the book, the author, Cécile Fabre, writes that “espionage in the service of an unjust foreign policy is generally not justified”, and argues that as a result there remains “a moral asymmetry between intelligence agents on different sides of a conflict”.

To support her argument, Fabre compares two famous spies – Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer who spied for and defected to the UK, and Kim Philby, the famous “Third Man” who worked for MI6 but passed secrets to the Soviet Union.

Fabre writes that Gordievsky “did have pretty good evidence” that Britain “would make morally justified use of the information he was able to provide them” based on “Britain’s relatively democratic traditions, commitment to the rule of law etc.” Philby, however, “had no such evidence” that the Soviet authorities would do the same. If anything, they would act “on the contrary” – which in Fabre’s view marked “a morally crucial difference between their two acts of treason”.

The M16 reviewer, however, argues that although this comparison is favourable to the British perspective, it is simplistic and does not take into account the world of realpolitik that all spies must inhabit in their secret work.

“All foreign policy has to balance values and interests; without the former it is morally derelict, but the idea that one can ignore the latter is an illusion,” the ethics head writes.

Spies must know “which side we are on” and “what we are prepared to fight for”, the ethics chief writes, arguing that the threat from countries such as Russia and China has reached a pitch last seen before the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Those of us working in the intelligence community have to accept that we are engaged in a struggle that is as potent now as it was during the cold war.”

But the reviewer emphasises that does not mean each side is prepared to use the same tactics. There are “significant differences” in the way that British agents operate compared with Russian, Chinese and other adversaries, and it is “not hard to make the case that, while some methods are morally acceptable, others definitely are not”.

The review author is MI6’s in-house ethics counsellor, one of three working for each of Britain’s main spy agencies – the domestic service MI5, the signals agency GCHQ and the foreign intelligence agency MI6.

The job is to act as a point of contact for any officer who has “a concern of an ethical nature”, champion “open internal discussion of matters that are inherently problematic from an ethical perspective” and foster “a culture of challenge, including, if necessary, to the leadership”.

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Dive Deeper:
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How the ‘pro-life’ movement killed Roe v Wade
Powerful legal groups, conservative Christian activists and right-wing figures shaped an anti-abortion agenda in the hands of the US Supreme…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
What the CIA thinks: William Burns on the new world disorder
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Get all your news in one place