495: Spying

A Thousand Things to Talk About
495: Spying

Would you ever spy on a person or group? Why or why not?

Full episode script

There is a scene in the TV show Madam Secretary when the US Secretary of State is discussing with her husband if they should disconnect their child’s text messages from their iPad. While it had not been purposeful, this connection gave an unintentional insight to their child’s dating life.

What I find amusing about this scene is the quite purposeful juxtaposition of a woman who operates multinational spy agencies engaging in moral questioning over this small act of spying.

The very nature of spying is one that is rife with moral complexity, and therefore difficult moral questions. That does not, however, mean that the image we have in our minds of spies created by media is 100% accurate. Quoting from a 2012 BBC News Magazine article:

But those who actually carry out these covert and potentially dangerous operations could not be further removed from their imaginary counterparts, as I found out when I interviewed serving officers from MI5 (the domestic Security Service) and MI6 (the overseas Secret Intelligence Service). “If James Bond actually worked in MI6 today, he’d spend a large amount of time behind a desk doing paperwork and making sure everything was properly cleared and authorised.

Even with that tempering influence, though, there’s still much moral complexity in the reality of spying. The 2007 book Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying includes in its description:

Olson, a veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service, takes readers inside the real world of intelligence to describe the difficult dilemmas that field officers face on an almost daily basis. Readers will be surprised to learn that the CIA provides very little guidance on what is, or is not, permissible.

And in 2006, these moral dilemmas and internal conflicts were highlighted in a memoir, released after 25 years of being sealed away, The memoir detailed the internal narrative of Anthony Blunt, who, for many years, acted as a clandestine spy for Russia while living in the UK.  As was written in the New York Times:

The memoir’s tone of regret for the price Blunt paid personally for betraying his country, coupled with the absence of any apology to those who suffered as a result of his actions, including secret agents working for Britain whose identities he passed to the Russians during World War II, contributed to harsh criticism of the document on Thursday from British historians and commentators.

In interviews before his death at the age of 75, Blunt rejected suggestions that he apologize to those he had betrayed, saying, in effect, that his personal sense of morality placed loyalty to his friends, including fellow spies, ahead of all else, including the love he said he felt in later life for Britain and its way of life.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.