Spymasters come up short on ethics

To those in charge of the UK security services, ethical leadership clearly seems a dead end.

Judging by their recent performances at the UK Commons Select Committee, we witnessed these leaders of major state institutions as aggressively defensive of dubious practices, regarded by many normal human beings as not merely intrusive and unethical but also probably illegal.

These highly paid leaders however, simply do not seem to get it. Or, in the warning words of former home secretary David Blunkett; “they tend to get carried away”.

For these particular leaders, practices that make life less secure for many of us—by example cracking the encryption of mails on which so many people rely for privacy—are fine. They can conveniently justify such actions by wrapping them in the convenient cloak of “national security”.

This is rather like the Spanish Inquisition once justified almost any human abuse on the grounds of promoting or defending religion.

As Peter Swire, former White House chief privacy councillor and now on President Obama’s review panel of the NSA says, agency claims of “their world going dark” have to be treated with scepticism. 1

Ethical leaders are concerned not just with results. They also care deeply about how those results are achieved.  It’s the “how” that has so disturbed the world at large. Since the Snowden revelations, the resulting rows have not been quietly defused by traditional Spymaster ingenuity and usual mastery of spin.

Instead, the whole issue has gone viral, with consequences yet to be fully understood. Some will perhaps make the work of our spy leaders harder.

Equally though, they raise raised fundamental issues about the moral compass of leaders running these important institutions.

At the Select Committee, for example, the previously out-of-sight Director of GCHQ, the UK surveillance and listening agency, argued his agency was not trying to monitor just about all of us. Even if he attempted to do that he explained, his staff would simply walk out.

It’s hardly reassuring to know we can rely on the staff there to steer the moral compass of their director. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

  1. Spymasters let frustrations show, by N. Hopkins, Guardian, 8 November 2013

Andrew Leigh is author of Ethical Leadership: Creating and Sustaining an Ethical Business Culture, (Kogan Page 2013)

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