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Colloquium - 'The Ethics of Intelligence Gathering'

Wednesday, 16 February 2011 - 3:00pm

Are there ethics for spies?  Are there limits to how we may keep ourselves safe?  These were among the questions discussed at a recent private colloquium, hosted by the McDonald Centre, entitled, 'How May We Keep Ourselves Safe? The Ethics of Intelligence Gathering.'

There is widespread public recognition of the importance of intelligence work in keeping us safe. The intelligence services enable the government to promote national security, now defined as the management of risk so as to sustain confidence that normal life can continue. But there is at the same time public concern that the work of the services brings with it ethical hazards and dilemmas, both in the methods used by those services and in the impact of their work on our privacy. The mistreatment of detainees by our US ally, and the standards of interrogation and detainment in many countries who may possess intelligence of value to our national safety at home, have raised difficult questions which threaten to compromise public trust in our intelligence services.

At the same time the moral issues surrounding transparency and openness on the part of government receives little attention in the discussion of Wikileaks or of court actions concerning secret intelligence. The colloquium brought together a stellar body of 35 senior members of the UK and US intelligence services, academic ethicists, and journalists to discuss these issues. The event was co-sponsored by Chatham House, the nation’s premier institute for international affairs, and made possible through the support of Digital Barriers.