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Book Review: Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying


This is the seventh of a nine part series on the Patterson School Summer Reading List.

1. China’s Trapped Transition, Minxin Pei
2. The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs
3. Illicit, Moises Naim
4. In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce
5. The Utility of Force, Rupert Smith
6. The Box, Marc Levinson
7. Fair Play, James M. Olson

James M. Olson worked for the CIA for most of his adult life, serving as chief of counterintelligence at Langley, and on station in Moscow, Vienna, and Mexico City. He’s written a book called Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying which examines how we think about morality in intelligence work. He divides the work into three sections; a survey of moral thought applied to intelligence, a set of scenarios which we may evaluate for moral content, and a long series of endnotes that detail, in haphazard fashion, much of his own career and the intelligence history of the Cold War.

To help us think about what kinds of acts may be moral, Olson gives a brief survey of what he calls “moral” theories of intelligence action. Included are the Bible, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Kant, something called Realpolitik that is not notably different than Machiavelli, and Utilitarianism. The treatments are extremely shallow and quite weak, but as he’s not a professional political theorist, I’ll cut him just a bit of a break. The Bible discussion is singularly unilluminating, as I’ll discuss below. It’s unclear why Cicero makes the cut, as he was more of a practical politician and lawyer than moral theorist. In any case, the “lessons” of these theorists are not applied in any systematic way in the rest of the book, so I have to wonder why Olson bothered including them at all.

Perhaps most frustrating, Olson’s gives few clues as to his own moral compass. From his biography, he is clearly a devout prostestant Christian with a strong sense of patriotism. That foundation, however, doesn’t lead to specific moral precepts as to intelligence action. I get the sense that, since he understood most of his work as being in opposition to the Soviet Union, he found himself in few moral conundra. However, this opens as many questions as it answers. Aquinas wrote at a time in which the state and the church were virtually indistinguishable; it’s not clear to me how his precepts are relevant to how a modern protestant Christian in the United States should think about unsavory intelligence activity. Olson was fighting for God and country, but what if he’d been fighting against Czarist Russia, with an Orthodox Christian monarch, or Kaiserine Germany, with a Protestant monarch? In other words, what happens when it cannot conclusively be argued that God and country are on the same side? Olson makes no effort to answer these questions, and it’s unclear that he’s even thought very much about them. I suspect that American protestants in general would fall back on the argument that the United States is uniquely favored by God, a problematic position for obvious reasons.

Olson wants to think about morality, but sometime stumbles into ethical and practical considerations. Practical concerns, of course, touch on moral considerations; it’s immoral to engage in costly behavior that’s impractical, for example. Apart from occasional declaring a scenario impractical, however, Olson doesn’t make much of this connection. I would also have liked some systematic consideration of what might be called the professional ethics of spying. Like all professional communities, spys have a series of ethical (not necessarily moral) rules of dealing with their friendly, neutral, and hostile counterparts. These concerns occasional crop up in the scenarios, but they’re not sufficiently detached or detailed apart from their “moral” content, which is often non-existent or indeterminate.

Olson includes fifty specific cases to help us think about morality in intelligence action. Many of these are quite familiar; how far would you go to torture someone for info, would you kill innocents for the greater good, etc. In each case, Olson asks a selection of people whether the proposed action would be “moral” or not. Included are military personnel, former intelligence operatives, a rabbi, and college undergraduates, among others. The responses are interesting enough; one Texas A&M college undergraduate refused to condone a consensual sexual relationship between a case officer and an agent on the grounds that premarital sex was ungodly. In a couple of cases, I went strongly against the grain of opinion; no one, for example, thought that paying an agent in cocaine was morally acceptable, but I had no problem with it. Surprisingly, I also had no difficulty with a proposal to finish a Chinese computer science graduate student’s dissertation for him in return for future considerations. Maybe it just paled in comparison with the torture and murder in the other scenarios. Anyway, this section of the book was entertaining enough, if still not terribly illuminating. Without a strong sense of what Olson meant by moral, the respondents drifted into practical and even aesthetic concerns in making their judgments.

Fair Play is interesting enough for a quick read, but it’s not very insightful, and didn’t reveal much that anyone having a basic familiarity with intelligence operations didn’t already know. I strongly advise skipping the theoretical section and heading straight for the scenarios, which have the advantage of being fun and occasionally appalling. The endnotes, which make up about 35 pages, are very informative and interesting, especially since Olson has left the redactions in.

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