“Every age has its own kind of war,” Clausewitz prognosticated in the early 19th century.[i] And the corollary is that every age has its own kind of intelligence requirements and seductions. The terrorist and sub-state enemies we face today are hard to find, mutable, and globally spread, with constantly shifting agendas, locations, and alliances. They exploit vulnerabilities and lawless areas wherever they can find them — on the Internet, in war zones, in the chaos that has emerged out of the Arab Spring. The al Qaeda movement, among the most dangerous of these enemies, is deliberately targeting Americans for recruitment. All of these characteristics, together with advances in monitoring technologies, would seem to make signals intelligence a uniquely and irresistibly useful tool.
Equally important, protecting American lives from terrorist attacks usually involves violence. The enemy is playing jujitsu, using the unavoidable collateral damage that accompanies military action as a propaganda tool to recruit others to its side. Even drone strikes — an increasingly discriminating weapon — are a propaganda boon for the enemy. Thus, our “kinetic” responses to terrorism enhance the enemy’s ability to spin its false narrative — that the US aims to harm Muslims and destroy Islam.
The surveillance programs disclosed by Edward Snowden clearly horrify privacy enthusiasts. But to some students of terrorism, they are, at worst, a lesser evil, in that they are less likely to be useful in the enemy’s psychological-warfare campaign than are other counter-terrorism tools. They do not seem to target any particular ethno-religious group, but all groups everywhere, thereby reducing the propaganda benefits to the enemy. The fact that these programs target Americans as well as others makes it even harder for al Qaeda to point to this particular quiver in the wars on terrorism as a way to “prove” that the West aims to destroy Islam (although it is no doubt true that al Qaeda will find a way to use Snowden’s revelations — not only to improve its counter-intelligence, but also in its propaganda war against us.) For all these reasons, among others, some students of terrorism favor intelligence and covert action as more effective responses to terrorism, at least over the long term, than overt war. But that doesn’t mean that the operations disclosed by Snowden are legal or ethical. (I will leave the legal evaluation to my colleagues.)
How do we evaluate the ethics of intelligence? In the paragraphs below I propose a series of questions — developed by theologians, philosophers, or scholars of intelligence to assess earlier military or intelligence dilemmas — which might usefully apply to the current debate initiated by Snowden’s leaks.
The first questions relate to just war. The surveillance programs disclosed by Snowden, at least so far, clearly pass the hurdle of jus in bello, which requires proportionality of means, the avoidance of unnecessary harm, and noncombatant immunity. In this regard, signals intelligence would seem to be a relatively benign component of the war on terrorism.